A while ago, before the COVID 19 pandemic, I started researching the custom of throwing coins in fountains. Back then, it was a common practice. Coins covered the bottom of water features in shopping centers, restaurants, even office buildings. It was so popular that business owners sometimes put up signs asking people not to throw coins in the water, often because there were fish in the basin or the coins clogged the drain. But people did it anyway. Why?
If you look up the origin of the practice, you’ll find many references to the 1954 movie Three Coins in a Fountain, in which three American secretaries on holiday in Rome throw their coins into the famous Trevi Fountain, hoping for love and marriage. The same fountain appears in La Dolce Vita (1960) and Roman Holiday (1953).
According to the travel brochures, if you stand with your back to the Trevi fountain and toss three coins in, you’ll be guaranteed a return trip to Rome, as well as love and marriage. The practice became so popular that the fountain used to take in about 3,000 euros ($3284) each day!
With the current ban on crowds, however, the Trevi Fountain looks very different. One haunting image shows a lone couple kissing in front of the fountain while wearing their protective masks.
I hope it will return to its former popularity when the pandemic is over. In the meantime, you can watch it in its eerie solitude on the Trevi Fountain webcam listed in the Sources.
While the custom of tossing coins or other treasure into a fountain or pool did not originate with the Trevi Fountain as some sources claim, it’s a good place to start our investigation.
The fountain was built on the spot where three roads meet and the Via Virgo, one of the ancient Roman aqueducts that brought potable water into the city, ended, presumably in a public pool. The aqueduct was constructed in 19 BC by Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. Legend has it that Roman soldiers were sent out to find a fresh water source, since water from local pools and the Tiber River was often polluted. With the help of a local woman, they found a suitable spring 23 miles (21 km) from the city. The aqueduct, one of eleven that supplied the city, was a wonder of engineering, taking advantage of a gradual slope to carry the water to its destination. While aqueducts had been built by Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians long before the rise of the Roman Empire, the Romans elevated the concept to an art form. Many sections of Roman aqueduct are still standing. A few still carry water, over 2000 years later.
But the glory days of Ancient Rome did not last as long as the aqueducts. Although Emperor Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians in 313 AD and made Rome the center of the new Catholic Church, by 500 AD the city had gone into serious decline.
However, during the Renaissance (1300 – 1600 AD), all things classical, especially ancient Greek or Roman, were popular again. Having a huge inventory of classical art and sculpture, the Catholic Church in Rome sought to increase its prestige by repurposing pieces from the old Roman Empire and creating new ones that imitated the old style.
Pope Urban VIII wanted a showier fountain at Trevi, so in 1629 he commissioned the famous sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini to design a large, dramatic fountain featuring Greco-Roman mythological figures. Unfortunately, the Pope died soon after and the project was abandoned until Pope Clement XII awarded the task to Nicola Salvi, who ended up incorporating some of Bernini’s ideas, particularly the tritons. After Salvi died, Giuseppe Pannini and four sculptors finished the ambitious project.
Although it was commissioned by the Catholic Church, it draws its strength from pre-Christian mythological and allegorical figures. Only the placement of Pope Clement’s coat of arms at the very top of the fountain and his name above the center figure claims the entire piece for the Catholic Church, as if symbolically absorbing the power and prestige of the ancient gods.
At the center of the fountain stands Oceanus, the ancient Greek Titan, originally described as a powerful god of the great earth-encircling river of fresh water, source of all lakes, rivers, and springs. Later, he was portrayed as a sea-god or the sea itself. He’s usually pictured with bull or crab-claw horns on his head, a human torso, and a fish or eel tail. His wife, Tethys, the Nurse and Healer, is usually shown with a snake in her hand, the symbol of wisdom and healing. Interestingly, the female figure in the niche to the right of Oceanus , identified as Health, holds a cup from which a snake drinks.
In front and below Oceanus are two tritons, a carry-over from Bernini’s designs. It’s a little confusing, in that tritons were the sons of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, not Oceanus, who was a much earlier deity. The tritons were mermen, with human torsos and fish tails. They might travel in a chariot drawn by seahorses, carry a trident, like their father Poseidon (also the Little Mermaid’s father), or blow on conch shells, creating the sound of the sea. In the Trevi sculptures, they lead two hippocamps, sea horses, one wild and one tame, reflecting the moods of the sea. These are presented as horses with fish tails and wings.
What are we meant to see in this mix of mythological figures? Ancient spirits embodying power, beauty, and abundance. Water as the gift from the ancient gods, now under the auspices of the new order. The coins in the fountain, then, would make sense as an offering to the gods, perhaps the old gods as well as the new ones. Homage to the spirit of water itself.
And yet, the fountain, at the height of its popularity as a tourist attraction, seemed less than that. It was something tourists had to visit in Rome because it’s big and beautiful – and famous. They threw their coins, made their wishes, and moved on to the next stop.
The Lions Fountain and Flaminio Obelisk
Power symbols the Romans took from earlier eras also included ancient Egyptian sculptures, especially lions, sphinxes, and obelisks.
In Ancient Egypt, lions were considered guardians of the rising sun and symbols of the pharaoh’s power and prestige. Hybrid figures of humans and lions became markers of supernatural beings. Sekmet, daughter of Ra and goddess of both destruction and healing, was pictured with a woman’s body and a lion’s head. Tefnut, goddess of dew and rain, also had a woman’s body and lion’s head.
The sphinx, which went through several design changes over the centuries, could combine the body of a lion, the head of a human, and sometimes the wings of a bird.
By 30 BC, the Roman army had taken total control of Egypt, and Roman emperors, impressed by the splendor of the ancient Egyptian cities, often thought of themselves as modern pharaohs. A stone carving in an Egyptian temple depicts the Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54 AD, as the Son of Ra, the Egyptian sun god.
Emperor Diocletian was so enamored of Egyptian sphinxes that he collected eight of them. Rome has the greatest collection of Egyptian obelisks outside of Egypt, including eight monumental spires covered with hieroglyphs. The tallest, the Lateran Obelisk, is 104’ (32 meters) tall and weighs 340 tons. Imagine trying to transport that from Egypt to Rome in 30 BC!
The obelisk at the center of the Lions Fountain in the Plazza del Popolo in Rome once belonged to Ramses II, the most powerful pharaoh of Egypt’s New Kingdom. It’s more than 3000 years old. Octavian Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire (27 BC) ordered it removed and taken to Circus Maximus, the largest stadium in Ancient Rome and venue for chariot racing and religious festivals. There, this wonder of ancient Egypt helped reinforce the prestige of the Roman Empire.
Yet, over time, the Egyptian artifacts displayed in Rome lost their appeal. By the Middle Ages, many were considered too pagan to be displayed, especially the obelisks. The Lateran obelisk was thought to bring bad luck, so it was toppled and buried. The Flaminio obelisk was broken and lost, only re-discovered in 1589.
On the orders of Pope Sixtus V, it was patched together and erected as the centerpiece of a fountain on Popolo Square, the start of the Via Flaminia, an important road traveled by merchants and pilgrims entering Rome. Four Egyptian lions surrounded the obelisk. While Guiseppe Valadier, the designer of the piazza, originally planned a place of trees and gardens as well as the obelisk, the site remained treeless. For a while, it was used as a place of public executions, then later a parking area. It is currently a public space, closed to cars, but it seems oddly empty.
In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI had the original lion statues moved to the Vatican and copies installed in their place. The four copies were fitted with pipes so they could spout water (and occasionally wine) into stone bowls.
While some people toss coins into the bowls, the fountain is far less popular than Trevi. Few visitors seem awed by the antiquity of the obelisk and the lions. There’s little of the grandeur of the old empires left in the stolen, patched obelisk and refitted lions.
Interestingly, though, thanks to the Roman fascination with Egyptian lions, lions have become connected with fountains in our mind. Today it doesn’t seem unusual at all to find lions spouting into basins. In fact, you can probably find an inexpensive lionhead fountain at your local home improvement store.
Perhaps the real appeal of these Roman fountains, which we didn’t notice before, wasn’t “borrowed” antiquities. It was simply providing a beautiful, perhaps exotic public space where people could meet and mingle, maybe make a wish or fall in love, listen to music, or argue, or dance. It made a great backdrop to the ordinary dramas of life. In today’s world, that seems like a gift.
Wishing Wells, Sacred Springs, and Offerings
While some sources claim that all fountains in which visitors toss coins were inspired by the Trevi legend, the act of throwing offerings into the water is actually far older and more universal. In fact, all over the world, people have given valuables to bodies of water.
For the Mesoamericans, it meant throwing their most precious possessions, including jewelry, ceramics, and even sacrificed humans into rivers or cenotes (sink holes holding water) as offerings to the rain god. Water was necessary for life. When prolonged droughts hit, the people increased their offerings to the rain gods. It was a deadly serious business.
If you visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal wet cave in Belize, (See earlier post Trying to Buy Time) you’ll see hundreds of ceramic offerings and the skeletons of fourteen people the Maya sacrificed to Chaac, the rain god, during a period of prolonged drought. A cache of similar and contemporary offerings to Chaac was discovered in the Chichen Itza complex, in Mexico.
Many rivers, lakes, and springs were known for their magical properties. Villagers threw their treasures into a sacred lake near Toulouse to stop a plague. Victorious Germanic soldiers dropped their enemies’ swords and armor into special pools to give thanks for their win.
In Nordic myths, Mimir’s Well was considered the Source of Wisdom. In order to ask for this knowledge, the pilgrim would have to sacrifice something of great importance. For Odin, it was his right eye.
Certain springs and wells developed a reputation for health benefits, drawing people from a wide area to drink the water and leave offerings. This trend continues today with religious sites like the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
Mami Wata (Mother Water) is an African water spirit with a woman’s torso and the tail of a fish or serpent. She often has a serpent wrapped around her. In many ways, she is a female version of Oceanus. In parts of West, Central, and South Africa, her followers engage in intense dancing that leads to a trance state. They also leave gifts, including jewelry, incense, alcohol, and food, in the hopes that these gifts will ensure healing, fertility, and protection from harm, especially in the water.
These are only a few examples. There are many more.
Not many people today believe in water spirits and their powers. If they matter at all, it’s often as curiosities from an earlier age. Throwing a coin in a fountain or a pool today is payment for a wish we want granted, not recognition of the power and importance of water and the spirits that control it. And the wishing well is often merely a constantly circulating fountain in a shopping center. Still, it’s an interesting echo.
Sources and Interesting Reading:
“Abundantia, Roman Goddess of Abundance,” www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/abundantia.php
Aqueduct photo, History.com, Illis photo, Stockphoto.com
“Capitoline Egyptian Lion Fountains,” A Tourist in Rome, https://www.jeffbondono.com/TouristinRome/CapitolineEgyptianLionFountains.html
“Children’s skulls encircled Bronze Age villages to ward off flooding,” Science Tech blog, https://sciencetech-blog.blogspot.com/2014/07/childrens-skulls-encircled-bronze-age.html
“Hippocamps (Hippokampoi) – Fish-tailed Horses of Greek Mythology,” https://www.theoi.com/Ther/Hippokampoi.html
“History of Rome,” Rome Info, https://www.rome.info/ancient/history/
Katz, Brigit, “Rome’s Mayor Says Coins Tossed Into Trevi Fountain Will Still Go to Poor,” Smithsonian Magazine, 15 January 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/coins-tossed-romes-trevi-fountain-still-go-to-poor-180971262/
Krause, Rhonda, “Trevi Fountain – Everything you’ve wanted to know,” Travel? Yes Please! https://www.travelyesplease.com/travel-blog-trevi-fountain/
“Lady of the Lake,” Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/literature-and-arts/literature-english/english-literature-1499/lady-lake
Lion fountain Rome copyright 1996 firstname.lastname@example.org
Lion sculpture fountain in Italy, photo, https://it.igotoworld.com/en/poi_object/316599_lions-fountain-piazza-del-popolo.htm
“Lions Fountain and Flaminio Obelisk in Piazza de Popolo, Rome” https://it.igotoworld.com/en/pol_object/316599_lions-fountain-piazza-del-popolo.htm
Leafloor, Liz. “Ring of Skulls: Ancient and Modern Sacrifices to the Water Gods,” Ancient Origins, 17 July 2014, https://www.ancient-origins.net/neews-general/ring-skulls-ancient-and-modern-sacrifices-water-gods-001861
“List of Water Deities,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_water_deities
“Mami Wata,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mami_Wata
Obelisk Flaminio by User Maus-Trauden on de.wikipedia – Originally from de.wikipedia; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=180960
“Oceanus (Okeanos) Greek Titan God of the Ocean, Stream and Fresh Water,” https://www.theoi.com/Tital/TitanOkeanos.html
Panorama of Trevi Fountain photo By Livioandronico2013 – CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45365468
Photo of coins in Trevi Fountain by Getty Images/ Stefano Montesi-Corbis/Contributor, as shown in the Smithsonian article by Brigit Katz
Photo of Trevi Fountain during lockdown by Baris Seckins, from “Italy Locked Down – in Pictures,” Business News, CNBC https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/12/italy-locked-down-in-picutres.html
Photo of couple kissing while masked, by Yara Nardi for Reuters, from “Coronavirus: Number of Covid-19 cases in Italy soars to over 21,000” Indepent.ie, 14 March 2020, https://www.independent.ie/world-new-/coronavirus/coronavirus-number-of-covid-19-cases-in-italy-soars-to-over-21000-39045071.html
“Roman Aqueduct,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_aqueduct
Saint Kenye’s Holy Well, photo by Graham Clutton, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9218691
“Tefnut,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/Tefnut
Three Coins in a Fountain, 1954 movie distributed by 20th Century Fox
“Trevi Fountain (Fontana de Trevi): A View on Cities: Sites and Attractions of the World’s Greatest Cities” https://www.aviewoncities.com/rome/trevi/htm
“Trevi Fountain: Why and how you toss your coin,” 2020, Grand European Travel, Lake Oswego, Oregon
“Trevi Fountain,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trevi_Fountain
Trevi Fountain webcam, https://www.skylinewebcams.com/en/webcam/italia/lazio/roma/fontana-di-trevi.html
“Triton (mythology)” Wikipedia, https://wn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triton-(mythology)
Upton, Emily, “Why We Throw Coins,” Today I Found Out: Feed Your Brain, 10 March 2014, www.todayifoundout.com/index/p[hp/2014/03/throw-coins-fountains/
“The Water Goddess,” Goddess-Guide.com, https://www.goddess-guide.com/water-goddess.html
“Where do the Coins in the Trevi Fountain Go?” Fodors, https://www.fodors.com/world/europe/Italy/rome/experiences/news/travel-secrets-unveiled-where-does-the-money-tossed-in-the-trevi-fountain-go
“Wishing Well,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wishing_Well
“Why do we throw coins into Fountains?” Golden Eagle Coins, 14 November 2014, blog.goldeneaglecoin.com/throw-coins-fountains/
Wogan, Peter, “Why Do We Throw Coins in Fountains?” Mind and Body, Greater Good, Berkeley.edu https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_throw_coins_in_fountains