Restoring the Ancient Water Supply System in Renaissance Rome: The Popes, the civic administration, and the Acqua Vergine

Restoring the Ancient Water Supply System in Renaissance Rome: The Popes, the civic administration, and the Acqua Vergine

By David Karmon

The Waters of Rome, No.3 (2005)

Introduction: When the humanist Pier Paolo Vergerio recorded his first impressions of Rome in 1398, he described the legendary hills overlooking the Tiber as deserted, while the modern population clustered along the riverbank, erecting flimsy houses among the massive ancient remains. Vergerio, familiar with the prosperous, orderly, mercantile towns of Padua and Florence, must have viewed the ramshackle sprawl of late-medieval Rome with fascination, and he made a pointed contrast between the imposing character of the archeological ruins and the insignificance of the modern constructions grafted onto them. He also observed the fundamental division between the abitato, the low-lying, densely-inhabited part of the city immediately adjacent to the Tiber, and the disabitato, the uninhabited, elevated regions beyond. This division would persist into the sixteenth century and was largely fixed by the range of the water-sellers, or acquarenari, who delivered water in barrels collected from the Tiber. Because the higher land within the Aurelian Walls was beyond reach of the acquarenari and therefore without a steady water supply, it tended to be thinly populated. Vergerio’s observations, perhaps unintentionally, revealed the fundamental role played by water in shaping the post-classical city.

The only ancient aqueduct that continued to function in Renaissance Rome was the Acqua Vergine. It supplied water to the Trevi fountain at the foot of the Quirinal hill, and in turn the surrounding district remained populous, despite its relative distance from the Tiber. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Acqua Vergine became the object of new restoration efforts. The maintenance of the conduit was traditionally the prerogative of the civic administration on the Capitoline hill, but increasingly such work was also driven by the Popes, who used these public works to gain political advantages and reinforce their growing temporal authority. This article will investigate how the Renaissance repairs and maintenance of the Acqua Vergine were negotiated by these two poles of political power. Restoring the aqueducts allowed the city to flourish and expand, and perhaps more any other intervention epitomized the Renaissance revival of ancient Rome.

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