Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 20, 2016

Acqua della Vita a Roma

Let’s go to Rome.

Forum Romanum Brad Nixon (640x418)

Let’s see the Sistine Chapel, the Forum, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. Let’s eat pasta in the evening on moonlit terraces and eat pizza as we stroll through the bustling marketplace of the Campo dei Fiori. And whenever we’re not eating pasta or pizza let’s have triple scoops of gelato.

Say, I’m thirsty.

Fortunately, we’re in Rome, and while we admire their other masterworks, we can take advantage of the fact that the ancient Romans dealt with this issue in their typical can-do manner.

They were already constructing buildings, fortifications, roads, bridges, stadiums and everything else one needs to run an empire. When they realized that the miserable trickle of water they were getting out of the Tiber River during the dry season wasn’t adequate for a city that by conservative estimates was home to a third of a million people, they formed a posse, which means — duh — “can do.”

That ancient gang of engineers came up with a brilliantly simple solution, although ambitious in scale: they invented plumbing. They planned and built a vast system of aqueducts that carried fresh water into the city from the surrounding hills, then piped it where they needed it to go in lead pipes. The Latin word for “lead” is plumbum. Plumbing.

The water system is a well-known aspect of the Romans’ extremely successful administration. They provided enough water and designed the system so ingeniously that there wasn’t merely enough for all the drinking, cooking and daily use by the huge population, but the system even supported a large number of decorative fountains. Thanks to them, Rome is still a city of fountains, as any tourist can tell you who’s ever tossed that coin over her shoulder into the Trevi fountain or strolled, enchanted, among the three famous fountains in the Piazza Navona.

Piazza Navona Fountain Brad Nixon 037 (480x640)

Two thousand years later, the system is still working, and you, oh fellow tourists, can take advantage of it on your trip to Rome. It’s a little survival tip to rely on. You have to do one thing: keep your eyes open. The Romans know where little fountains, spigots and water sources are, scattered across the ancient center of the city, and they use them every day.

Take the Campo dei Fiori, the site of one of Rome’s most popular open air markets. When you get thirsty while you’re shopping, there’s a small fountain of fresh water near the southeastern end of the open space, right where the ancient Romans put it. How to find it? Look for the vegetable vendors gathered around it, washing off their produce.

Campo dei Fiori fountain Brad Nixon (640x438)

Wait a moment for an opening, step in, fill your water bottle, and, ecco! A fresh supply of water. (Use it to wash down the astoundingly good and simple pizza you’ll get from Il Forno in the southwest corner of the piazza.)

Or perhaps you’re in the Piazza Venezia, where you’ve stopped to gawk at the ludicrous monstrosity of the Victor Emmanuel II monument (locals refer to it as “the typewriter”).

Rome Emmanuele fountain Brad Nixon 025 (640x537)

Before you wander farther south and take Michelangelo’s steps up to the Capitoline for the view over the Forum, look toward the southwest corner of the Piazza, across from the Typewriter. You’ll see truck drivers, taxi drivers and ordinary citizens whip their vehicles to the side of the street, and, water bottles in hand, dash to a small decorative fountain in a space south of the Palazzo Venezia to fill them up.

Rome fountain Brad Nixon 024 (523x640)

Or, maybe you’ve climbed up the Janiculum Hill to escape the summer heat of Trastevere in the cool green spaces of the Parco Gianocolense. That old stonework fountain isn’t there just for visual effect; it’s potable water, and you’ll see the locals stopping to get a drink.

Rome Gianiculo fountain Brad Nixon 012 (640x470)

There are endless marvels waiting for you in Rome, but amongst the incredible architecture and stunning artworks are these rarely-noticed fountains that’ve been delivering fresh water for two millennia.

Imagine what it would have been like to have been a tribal chieftain from Gaul or Hibernia, brought to witness the grandeur of Rome in order to impress on you the futility of further resistance and the advisability of coming to terms with the legions camped on your borders. You see stupendous monuments, towering obelisks brought from Egypt, bizarre creatures on display in the massive Colosseum. Impressive, all right.

But: fresh water running out of pipes in every corner of the metropolis, via some sort of magic?

Piazza Navona fountain Brad Nixon 036 (640x480)

“Dang,” you’ll say (translating here from ancient Pictish), “These guys are good.  Where do I sign?”

A refreshing splash of la dolce vita. Ah, bella Roma!

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017



  1. Charming, enchanting read. If I ever make it to Rome, I’ll be on the lookout


  2. The most delicious city water in the world!


  3. Cool take on a city for the ages. Great photos, too! Grazie.


  4. Amazing blog post, Brad, amazing city, and amazing country. Yes, this is Italy, my favorite country.

    Roman aqueducts are not just constructions, they are piece of art.


    • Thank you, Victor. The best architecture is, indeed, art. Something functional can be beautiful.


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