Underground Rome: The Fountain of Via Annibaldi

The smallest underground Rome site is the fountain under Via degli Annibaldi, in the shadow of the Colosseum. When the custodian unlocks the site’s tiny metal door, humid air and a space-saving spiral staircase will welcome us. In fact, it will take us six meters (approximately 18 feet) down, where the remains of a mid-1st century B.C. nymphaeum (monumental fountain) are waiting for us. And there we’ll discuss garden art, fountains, and elite Roman tastes.

But first, an etymology! The Latin nymphaeum comes from nympha (nymph, a goddess of a body of water). And a nymphaeum is where a water goddess lives. But it figuratively means “water feature.”

underground rome fountain of via annibaldi descent on staircase

More History about Via degli Annibaldi and its Fountain

underground rome fountain of via annibaldi detail of fountain's artwork in shells and pumice

In the case of the Nymphaeum under the Via Annibaldi, the wealthy home-owner was one of ancient Rome’s jet-set–judging from the money that was invested in the fountain! Around 50 B.C., he (or she) sat down with an architect, an interior decorator, and a fleet of landscapers to create a well-manicured garden, complete with the water-feature that still survives.

Its decorations are superb and can be appreciated in the close-up, which shows only a small portion of the fountain. You’ll notice different types of shells. For example, hundreds of murex shells create architectural elements (like columns and a cornice), while large mussels reflect the light thanks to their mother-of-pearl interior. But pebbles give many large round medallions their form, and stones like volcanic tufa and pumice fragments were also applied to the wall to give the fountain a faux-natural/grotto effect.

A large percentage of surviving architecture in and around Rome is from the Empire. It demonstrates that garden art and nymphaeum continued evolving. Tastes became increasingly more expensive, with an emphasis on marble decorations. Given its age, the Nymphaeum of Via Annibaldi is unique. And it helps us document and understand an earlier, more rustic phase of aristocratic gardens.

From the Great Fire of Rome of 64 A.D. to Today (i.e. Why the Fountain is now Underground)

Then the Great Fire of 64 A.D. destroyed this and other parts of Rome. When it played out, the garden, its nymphaeum, and the property in general was in shambles. And it was also partially buried by burnt-out wreckage. It apparently changed hands and was back-filled to create new foundations on which to build.  And what was built over the now-buried water feature? Part of Emperor Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea! At that point, the nymphaeum was time-capsule. And construction workers, who dug to build Via degli Annibaldi at the end of the 1800s, rediscovered it!

Information Regarding Underground Rome and the Fountain of Via degli Annibaldi

This visit requires a special permission with a timed entrance.  Visits are limited to an hour, which is sufficient given the site’s size.  Besides the 4 euro / per person ticket, there is a euro 25 surcharge to reserve a private entrance. For more information, please see the costs section of this webpage.

Because it is so close by, the Nympheum of Via Annibaldi pairs up well with the Colosseum. It also shares themes with the Underground Rome site San Clemente. Finally, gardening can come up in our discussion of the Palatine Hill. So if you enjoy gardening, that may be the best pairing for you!

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