In one word:
Most fountains in Rome are priceless works of Renaissance art. Jumping into them is like jumping onto a sculpture in a museum. Do not even think about it.
In many countries, ornamental fountains are seen as a part of community furniture. Strolling right into the fountain in Washington Square Park, NYC, is completely acceptable; to dangle one’s feet into the fountains in Trafalgar Square in London is fine too; kids running through the water jets on the Peak in Hong Kong are positively encouraged; and while jumping into the Caritas Well fountain in Copenhagen may be a little frowned on, it isn’t strictly forbidden nor punishable by law.
This is absolutely not the case, anywhere in Italy outside of a water park.
No matter what Anita Ekberg may have led you to believe in the 1960 movie La Dolce Vita, splashing, dipping one’s feet in, or even swimming in any fountain in Rome (no matter how modern or seemingly purpose-built to do so) is totally forbidden by law, as fountains in Italy are rightly regarded as priceless works of art, and some are very delicate indeed.
In past years, frolicking tourists have broken parts of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers while football hooligans have damaged the Barcaccia at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. Understandably, Rome’s authorities want to put a stop to anything like this even before it begins. Thus if you feel the need to take a dip, you will likely be arrested and fined.
Beyond the legal aspect, it’s also a moral outrage to get into a fountain: to do so is a huge insult to the locals, and is seen by many as an act of cultural vandalism.
Every year there are incidents of tourists stripping off and showering or bathing in fountains in Rome, and there is an outcry as tourists are branded “barbarians” in the press and on social media, arrested, and fined around €450 – or even in some cases expelled from Rome. Many feel that the punishment meted out is not enough. For deliberate acts of vandalism, we heartily agree. Criminal prosecution and deportation should be on the cards.
It doesn’t matter how hot the weather is, or how hot you are – don’t do it.
So strong is the moral opprobrium towards splashing in fountains that even ones that appear to have been specifically designed to be paddled in, such as the large open fountain at sidewalk level near the Ara Pacis, are also forbidden to be entered.
So our advice is, if you’re really suffering the sultry blast of a Rome summer, get on the trenino to Ostia Lido for a mere €1.50 each way to have a dip in the sea, or if you have kids get them tickets to Hydromania, Rome’s water park out by Fiumicino Airport.
Can I drink from the fountains in Rome?
As a rule, also no. But there are in fact exceptions.
Pretty much every ornamental fountain in Rome is a no-go area for drinking. As well as the legal and moral issues around doing this, most of the ornamental fountains in Rome recycle their water, and it is therefore undrinkable, and full of pigeon poop and all sorts of other nasty stuff.
However there are a few times when drinking from a fountain in Rome is acceptable:
- The thousands of fontanelle, or nasoni, of Rome that are specifically designed to dispense drinking water. More here…
- One end of the Barcaccia fountain at the bottom of the Spanish Steps has historically dispensed water fresh direct from an aqueduct since it was built 400 years ago, and the practice is still permitted today. There’s even a specially-designed step above the moat that you are allowed to stand on while you fill up your water bottle from the water pouring from the boat statue. You should not try to drink directly from the fountain itself.
- You can also fill up or drink from other designated decorative drinking water fountains, which are few and far between, such as the 1927 Fontana dei Libri (Fountain of the Books) between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.
Regardless of what you do back home, whether you’re a kid or not, nor how inviting or refreshing the water looks: where it comes to fountains, when in Rome do as the Romans don’t.