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May 22 Papal Rome and the Trevi Fountain

Today the famous Trevi Fountain was finished by Pannini, and was officially opened and inaugurated on this day by Pope Clement XIII. We look at how the City of Rome's fortunes were often linked to the rise and fall of the Papal prestige through history, and how this 'watering hole' for many locals go caught up in provincial rivalries


For many years the city of Rome’s fortunes and international prestige were linked to the Papacy. Since Rome was never an important industrial or commercial city, its citizens, from the small shopkeepers and innkeepers to the great banking families, had depended economically on the presence of the papal Curia and the large numbers of pilgrims, prelates, and litigants it brought to Rome.

In the 1280s and ’90s, Rome was torn by the bitter rivalries between the Colonna, Orsini, and Annibaldi families, and when Clement V moved the papal residence to Avignon in France in 1309, the city was left to its factional strife and economic decline. The popes in Avignon, especially Benedict XII were able to maintain a tenuous rule over the city, however they were dark times, the Black Death reduced Rome’s population to less than 20,000, and the city staggered through the last half of the 14th century. Hope increased with the return of the papacy from Avignon in 1377 but there was no immediate improvement. It was described as a city filled with huts, thieves, and vermin, and wolves could be seen at night in the neighbourhood of St. Peter’s.

However, under Pope Martin V (a member of the Colonna family) Rome emerged as a Renaissance city and began a period of papal rule that lasted until 1870. Although Martin was neither a builder nor a patron of the arts, he laid the foundations of government and the apostolic vice chamberlain, as governor of Rome, controlled offices, finances, and the statutes of the city. The surrounding Papal States in central Italy increasingly came under the firm control of papal officials. During the 15th-century pontificates the squalid narrow streets of medieval Rome were widened and paved, and new Renaissance buildings replaced crumbling structures. The popes attracted scholars and artists from across Italy such as Michelangelo and Raphael (see pod of Mar 6) . Rome flourished economically under the Renaissance popes. Banking by the popes (with the help of the Medici family of Florence) stimulated a flow of capital into the city (see pod of Jan 16). Rome once again had become a great consumer of imported luxuries, yet it still had little large-scale industry or commerce.

The sack of Rome in 1527 by Charles V ended the city’s pre-eminence as a Renaissance centre and in eight days, hundreds of churches, palaces, and houses were pillaged and destroyed. But, Rome recovered; with a vast program of city planning by Sixtus V and his architect Domenico, who laid out new roads, the basis for the modern street plan of Rome. He also built the Vatican Library; saw to the completion of St. Peter’s dome; rebuilt the papal palaces of the Vatican, the Quirinal, and the Lateran, refurbishing the squares in front of them and built a new square at Santa Maria Maggiore. He re-erected several ancient Egyptian obelisks found among the ruins and restored a great number of fountains, dearly beloved of the Romans. Fortunately, his project to convert the Colosseum into a wool factory came to nothing.

By 1600 Rome was again a prosperous cosmopolitan city with a population of more than 100,000 and Rome’s noble families built fine palaces and patronized the arts while manoeuvring to win high positions in the church hierarchy. The highest prize of all, the papal crown, brought wealth and status to the wearer’s family. But as corruption and bribery within these circles became a way of life, the influence of the papacy and of Rome declined throughout Europe and even throughout the Papal States. The Trevi Fountain is one of the oldest water sources in Rome dating back to the construction of the Aqua Virgo Aqueduct in 19 B.C. The fountain was built at the end point of the aqueduct, at the junction of three roads. These three streets (tre vie) give the Trevi Fountain its name, the Three Street Fountain. In 1629, Pope Urban VIII, finding the earlier fountain insufficiently dramatic, asked Bernini to sketch possible renovations, but the project was abandoned when the pope died. Competitions had become popular during the Baroque era to design buildings, fountains, as well as the Spanish Steps. In 1730, Pope Clement XII organized a contest in which Nicola Salvi initially lost to an Alessandro Galilei. However there was an the outcry due to him being from Florence and Salvi was awarded the commission anyway. Salvi died with his work half finished, Giuseppe Pannini was hired to replace him with four different sculptors to complete the fountain's decorations


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