By Katherine Rinne
Built by Agrippa in 19BC, the ancient Aqua Virgo’s restoration in 1570 under Pope Pius V heralded Rome’s rebirth as “caput mundi,” the center of the world. For the first time in nearly six hundred years, an enormous quantity of fresh water flowed into Rome for public and private uses. Earlier restoration efforts were largely ineffectual because the various popes and their engineers couldn’t confirm that the Salone Springs, only sixteen kilometers away, were the source. Without that knowledge, failure was ensured.
It was Vatican Librarian Agostino Steuco (1497-1548) who set in motion the successful restoration.[i] He had read De Aqueductibus, a recently rediscovered inventory from 97/98AD of Rome’s aqueducts by Sextus Julius Frontinus, Rome’s Water Commissioner under Nerva. Using this text, Steuco set out in 1545 to read and interpret the landscape through first hand observation. His goal was to confirm Frontinus’s claim that the Salone Springs supplied the Virgo.
Perhaps not as dashing as the legendary Indiana Jones, Steuco must still have cut an interesting figure as he scoured the Roman Campagna tracing the hidden underground aqueduct. He did this by finding and following the original construction airshafts that occurred all along the route. Based on his research, he proposed to Paul III in 1547 that the aqueduct could (and should) be restored in order to facilitate the physical rebirth of Rome, its immediate territory, and the Tiber River. Unfortunately Steuco died in 1548 while participating in the Council of Trent (1545-63), and his proposal wasn’t realized during Paul’s pontificate. But as he predicted, once the Virgo was restored in 1570 and fresh water flowed, Rome’s physical rebirth began.
Katherine Rinne is adjunct professor of architecture at California College of the Arts. Her book The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City (Yale University Press: 2011) won the 2011 John Brinkerhoff Jackson Award for Landscape History from the Foundation for Landscape Studies.
[i] Consult Ronald Delph’s work for detailed information about Steuco’s career and writings.