Rome’s Beloved Barcaccia, the Old Boat

One of Rome’s greatest artists, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was quite familiar with our little neighborhood, as I mentioned in our very first blog post, A Few Stories from Via della Mercede. Indeed, he was working in our neighborhood as a young man, when in 1627 he and his father Pietro Bernini, built one of Rome’s most beloved fountains, the Barcaccia, which translates into something like “the old boat.” Lore has it that the Barcaccia was inspired by an old boat that had washed up into Piazza di Spagna during one of Rome’s numerous floods in 1598 — before the retaining walls were built along the Tiber. As beautiful as it is, keep in mind this fountain was built to give Romans their drinking water, so it has an important job to do.

La Barcaccia
La Barcaccia

La Barcaccia, a stylized, fanciful Baroque interpretation of an old fishing boat now almost 400 years old, sits at the base of the Spanish Steps. Pope Urban VIII, from the powerful Barberini family, commissioned the fountain. His family’s coat of arms, with a papal tiara, decorates the ends of the boat, so everyone would know who built it when getting their water.

Barberini coat of arms, with the Papal Tiara and Keys of St. Peter
Barberini coat of arms, with the Papal Tiara and Keys of St. Peter

Fed by one of Rome’s great aqueducts, it sits a bit below street level to increase the water pressure (to better pump the water through the fountain). Its situation also adds to the artistic beauty as the “boat” looks as if it is sinking. Two sun faces spit water into an internal basin, which in turn flows into a larger basin — the interior of the boat, which obviously has a serious leak!

La Barcaccia, a sun face spits water into an internal basin
La Barcaccia, a sun face spits water into an internal basin

One of the loveliest things about this fountain is that it draws you in to interact with it. You have to step onto one of the two little walkways at either end to get a drink of water from one of the four spouts. Make sure to have a cool drink here — this is delicious, pure aqueduct water!

Step onto the walkways to get a cool drink of water
Step onto the walkways to get a cool drink of water

La Barcaccia had been under restoration for most of last year. When it was unveiled, it was sparking white, the whitest I recall ever seeing it.  Gone were the grime and the orange-red mineral deposits that had built up over time.  It was gorgeous, and people were happy to have their beloved fountain back. Old and young, resident and tourist alike, people would step out and get a drink while passing through the piazza. And, even if they didn’t need a drink, the sight and sound of the fountain, happily gurgling away, would make them smile.

A few weeks ago, something horrible happened, which you may have read about.  Dutch soccer hooligans trashed Piazza di Spagna, battered the fountain with beer bottles and cans. It was horrific and utterly reprehensible.  We went to the piazza minutes after the the hooligans and police had finished clashing. We were stunned. The piazza was blanketed in trash. The police were removing some offenders (who reportedly promptly received a serious jail sentence or an enormous fine). AMA, Rome’s hard working agency responsible for street cleaning, recycling, and trash pickup, was already there in full force. Within 45 minutes or so, AMA had the piazza completely cleaned up — we’ve always noticed the remarkable job they do keeping our neighborhood clean.

There was a temporary fence set up around the fountain. A large crowd had also gathered around it to see for themselves what had happened, whispering, and clearly upset. I mentioned to my wife that something was wrong with the fountain, it didn’t look right.

That evening, notes appeared around the fountain. People described how much they loved it, and what it meant to them — well, at almost 400 years old, people with grandkids today have memories of visiting the fountain with their grandparents. They left flowers, too.  But mostly, people just came to demonstrate their love for La Barcaccia.

Early the next morning, the fountain was already drained and surrounded by a white-suited team assessing damage and making repairs. We watched them carefully, slowly, methodically examine it. And, it was clear what was wrong: besides numerous smaller scrapes and pits, the rim of the inner raised basin was seriously damaged. That’s what I had noticed when I said the fountain didn’t look right the day before.

The chipped rim of the raised, internal basin
The chipped rim of the raised, internal basin

A restoration crew worked throughout the day on the fountain, and people kept coming. They were upset and some openly crying. I even saw a member of the restoration crew fight back tears.

One of the flowers left at the fountain
One of the flowers left at the fountain

The following morning, the fence was gone and the fountain was again flowing. The rim of the raised basin was still visibly chipped, but the fountain was doing its job and gurgling away. I’m hoping the remaining damage can eventually be repaired. But either way, this old fountain will keep flowing.

Advertisements