Twenty-five metres below the surface of the city of Rome, The Aqua Virgo has flowed almost continuously since 19BC.
We take a walk in the Emperor Augustus's miracle of hydraulic engineering.
Filming the Aqua Virgo
Cold, wet, in the pitch black, twenty-five metres under the city of Rome, we pushed forwards against the water of Marcus Vespanius Agrippa’s Aqueduct, which has flowed continuously since 19BC, and I prayed that our new high-definition camera wasn’t going to drop into the water and flow all the way back to the Trevi fountain.
Our first filming adventure inside an aqueduct was a one-off. We had spent six months negotiating for access to the Aqua Virgo and we knew we weren’t going to have a second chance. Wearing chest-high fishermen’s waders, which often barely covered us from the water, six of us set off from the “Pincio Snail” near the Spanish Steps, and began to push our way upstream.
Often a Roman Aqueduct is portrayed as being carried on elevated arches across the countryside, but in fact, this is only sometimes the case. The Aqua Virgo has survived almost intact for so many centuries precisely because it travels underground for almost it’s entire route, from Salone on the ancient via Collatina in the east of the city, originally to Agrippa’s baths, of which the Pantheon formed part, and now to it’s display fountain, the Trevi, built in 1732-1762 By Nicolo Salvi.
We took took some very powerful lights to the Aqua Virgo, and we were able to light the underground chambers in a way which we believe has never been done before. But it was not without difficulty. We took two battery packs with mains inverters because the lights work on 240V, but only one of us was able to carry a battery pack, and within that pack, one of our batteries had become detached.
100 metres or so along the aqueduct, the mains inverter started to beep, indicating that we were running out of power, so for 40 minutes or so, we had to turn the lights off and push upstream with only the power of tiny safety lights we were wearing on our heads.
The Old Spiral Staircase
The old Spriral Staircase curls down for twenty-five metres into the eery space beneath the city of Rome, where archaeology and ancient tunnels have laid undisturbed since a forgotten time.
Peering down from the top as we prepared to film the aqueduct, we saw the shimmer of the purest water rippling yellow-gold lights right in the centre of the stairway where the ancient Aqueduct passes beneath.
But the entrance to the Pincio “Snail” as the Italians call a spiral stairway lies only sixty metres from a well known landmark where millions of tourists pass each year. At the top of Rome’s well loved Spanish Steps, adorned with young couples taking photos and giving roses, there is an impressive villa called Villa Medici. And to the side of the principal entrance to Villa Medici is a small door with an engraved stone: “Alla Chiociola del Pincio” – to the Pincio Snail.
The Aqua Virgo always passed across the Pincian Hill at the back of what are now the Spanish steps, and recently, since it was re-built and restored in the sixteenth century, a distribution tank was built there, which supplies, under pressure, many of the best known ornamental fountains in renaissance Rome, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Barcaccia in the adjacent Piazza di Spagna and his Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona.
Many of the wealthiest visitors to Rome take time to go shopping in via dei Condotti, right opposite the Spanish Steps. Here they find Gucci, Yves San Laurent, and many fine boutiques, but few of them know that via dei Condotti means the street of the conduits, and beneath their feet, lie pipes laid by the great renaissance architect Giaccomo della Porta in the 1500s to bring the water from the ancient Aqueduct to great renaissance fountains.
Half way down the Chiocciola there is a strange, unexplained chamber – and here we took the opportunity to put on our waders. Then as our speleologist, Marco Placidi gave the go-ahead, we lined up at the bottom of the stairway, and jumped the one metre and a half drop into the specus of the aqueduct and into the cold, fresh water.
To Vimeo: The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi performed by John Harrison licenced with Creative Commons licence 1.0 ShareAlike. We are a production company.