Sculpting Rome’s Waters: Rome’s Waters Before Bernini

Kerry Longbottom

Prior to the sack of Rome in 537 CE, when the Goths destroyed nearly all of the ancient aqueducts, Rome had received water from eleven different aqueducts.[1]  These aqueducts operated according the principle of gravity flow (fig. 2), which means that the source had to be higher in elevation than its destination, and once in the city water pressure was created by a combination of gravity and constricting pipes.[2]  After 537, Romans relied on the Tiber for almost all of their water, as the only surviving aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo, supplied only a very small and unreliable amount of water that was insufficient for the city’s needs.[3]  During this time the working class had to move closer to the Tiber, while the wealthy retreated to the hills of Rome to avoid the Tiber’s disastrous floods. Some of the residents of the hills had access to private springs, but most had to rely on water sellers who brought the Tiber’s water to them, and as a result this profession grew to be the eleventh-largest in the city.[4]

Fig. 2. How Aqueducts Work. (source — How Stuff Works)

The Tiber was not an ideal source of water, however.  The river was the official dumping site for the waste from butchers and city trash collectors, was frequently filled with dirt from construction sites, and was also a popular means of disposing of the bodies of murder victims.[5]  Additionally, during the summer the Tiber carried the threat of disease, particularly malaria.[6]  This heavy pollution became a dire problem as Rome’s population rose to nearly a hundred thousand people in the year 1600.[7]

Pope Pius V (1566-1572) recognized this problem, and took it upon himself to create a healthier environment for the residents of Rome, believing that “a cleaner city and healthier bodies would lead to increasingly wholesome souls.”[8]  Pius V’s plan to provide Rome with an alternative and cleaner water supply while cleaning up the Tiber became known as the renovatio Romae, and started with the restoration of the Acqua Virgo, now called the Acqua Vergine, in 1570.[9]  Before the restoration was completed, Pius V had already expressed the desire to expand the aqueduct to the west, and hired Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602) to design this new distribution plan and the public fountains that would accompany it.[10]


[1] Katherine Wentworth Rinne, The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 17.

[2] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 56.

[3] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 17.

[4] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 28.

[5] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 24.

[6] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 33.

[7] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 24.

[8] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 38.

[9] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 38.

[10] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 55.