The Trevi, as fountain and metaphor

The Trevi Fountain, by John A. Pinto. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. 320 pp. $30. AN entire book on a fountain?

But then, this is no ordinary fountain. It is the Trevi Fountain in Rome, that dramatic monument of what Rudolph Wittkower called ``Late Baroque Classicism.''

John Pinto's scrupulous analysis of this ``remarkable fusion of architecture, sculpture and water'' certainly goes much further than mere appreciation of it as a highly entertaining tourist attraction. He studies it with enormous seriousness, considering it one of those ``rare monuments'' that produce ``a resonance transcending the culture and age that conceived them.''

What we see today was built during three decades, 1732 to 1762, and stands as the masterpiece of its architect, Nicola Salvi. ``More than is the case with most architects,'' writes Professor Pinto, ``Salvi's reputation is tied to a single work....''

Not until halfway through his book, however, does the author look -- in enthusiastic detail -- at Salvi's fountain itself. This is because, preceding its realization, there was a ``millennial process that began in the Augustan Age when Marcus Agrippa brought to Rome the water that still feeds the Trevi'' (though today it is circulated by a pump instead of fed continuously to the fountain by gravity). The Trevi's significance to Rome was as the place where the pure waters of the Aqua Virgo of antiquity (later renamed the Acqua Vergine), after passage via a long aqueduct, arrived triumphantly at its terminus in the city.

In painstaking detail, Pinto traces almost three centuries of projects for this ``civic monument'' that ``was shaped and periodically redefined to meet the changing needs and aspirations of the surrounding city''; and he does so with admirable lucidity.

The Trevi was perhaps never so important to Rome as it was during the Renaissance: Up to 1587, the Acqua Vergine was the only aqueduct supplying the city, and water from the Trevi was sold and carried everywhere. But above all, the Trevi was a symbol.

``Throughout history,'' the author observes, ``and especially in Rome, water has repeatedly been used to express the munificence and power of rulers, both secular and spiritual.''

This is what Salvi must have recognized. The blend, in his magnificent triumphal-arch design, of antique grandeur, Vitruvian ``clarity and legibility,'' and Michelangelesque power and expressiveness seems perfectly in line with such ambitions.

But at the same time, his own rich imagination -- particularly apparent in the ``scogli,'' or rock work, over which the water flows and spouts, with its fascinating details of rock formation and plant life (there is even a snail carved on a marsh marigold) -- gives his fountain accessibility, delight, and naturalness that a solely grandiose concept would have lacked.

It was long thought that Salvi's design was a posthumous realization of a design by the great baroque architect of 17th-century Rome, Giovanni Bernini. This belief, Pinto points out, was laid to rest only in the 1950s. On the other hand, Salvi certainly was influenced by Bernini. And Bernini's own important intervention in the Trevi's history and placement is not overlooked in this study.

Of the many unexecuted designs for the Trevi, that of Pietro da Cortona is particularly imposing and, Pinto believes, may ``have affected [Salvi's] design.''

If Cortona's project had been carried out, though, the Trevi would actually have been moved to a different piazza. One of the author's strong opinions is that the square in which it is situated suits the fountain perfectly (or, conversely, that Salvi made the best possible use of this setting): It projects vigorously into the piazza, taking it over almost entirely. Furthermore, none of the streets leading to it permit more than an expectation-building glimpse of the fountain. This is completely in line, Pinto argues, with Salvi's vision of architecture as theater -- with the exuberant, baroque side of his style.

The author brings out the restrained, classical side, however, when discussing the disagreement between Salvi and one of the nine sculptors who worked on his fountain. The evidence Pinto has gathered -- and this includes a number of unpublished drawings (the book, incidentally, is so fully illustrated that virtually every point the author makes is supported pictorially) -- suggests to him that the sculptor, Maini, wanted to make the central group of Oceanus and his tritons and horses too expressive and too asymmetrical in composition. Salvi's aim was for the balance and symmetry of the architecture to predominate. Eventually, a compromise was suggested by a third party. Pinto's clever investigation of the argument provides the reader with a revealing glimpse into the finesse of Salvi's design.

The last chapter tries to place the Trevi in the history of art. It's a tribute to Salvi and to his modern champion that one never feels that Pinto's heavy concentration on this single work (though I would like to have been shown a little more of Salvi's other work) is actually exaggerated.

Among the more intriguing debts to Salvi's fontana, in terms of its later influence, is the 1899 Chestnut Hill pumping station in Boston. Pinto also cites the allusive Post-Modernist fountain of Charles Moore in New Orleans, known as the Piazza d'Italia. This stagy affair ``suggests the enduring value of the Trevi as an artistic metaphor,'' according to Pinto. Indeed, Moore himself has referred to Salvi's own written memorandum on the symbolic meaning of the Trevi (printed in full in the excellent earlier chapter on the fountain's iconography), so perhaps this final link of the great terminus of the Aqua Virgo with the very recent past is not, after all, too far fetched. --30--{et

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.