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Tracing the Lengthy, Winding Path of an Historical Roman Aqueduct

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The stone arches looped solemnly over their shadows, some teetering above the grass, some sinking into it. It was a stunning January morning, and I used to be standing within the Park of the Aqueducts, about 20 minutes by metro from central Rome. Right here, the ruined arcades of six of the 11 aqueducts that when equipped the Everlasting Metropolis with an astonishing quantity of water — by some counts double the per capita water allotment of a typical Twenty first-century American metropolis — have been preserved.

My goal was to hint the course of certainly one of them: the Aqua Marcia, constructed between 144 and 140 B.C. by Julius Caesar’s ancestor Quintus Marcius Rex.

Hailed by Pliny the Elder as “probably the most well-known of all waters on this planet for coldness and wholesomeness,” the Marcia was additionally the longest of the capital’s historical aqueducts, working some 56.8 miles from supply to metropolis. Solely about 6.2 miles stood above floor.

I had all the time assumed that Rome’s aqueducts had been a type of aerial plumbing, their water channeled atop arches. However the Marcia, like all classical aqueducts, ran largely underground. The water moved by the power of gravity, and arches and bridges, which had been costly and weak to assault, had been solely used to span ravines, valleys and different dips within the terrain that may have interrupted the stream.

The arcade of the Marcia is now dry, however the identical water nonetheless feeds mountain springs east of the capital. And although it now travels via a contemporary community of tunnels and tubes, the water remains to be referred to by its historical identify and remains to be thought-about Rome’s finest ingesting water.

One of many collection of arches that rose earlier than me as soon as carried this present to Rome. However which one?

The roughly 600-acre Park of the Aqueducts has few indicators, maps or instructions. Romans come right here to jog and stroll their canines. The few vacationers wander via a bucolic panorama — inexperienced, tranquil, its imposing ruins seemingly untouched by modernity — that has appeared in such iconic Italian movies as “La Dolce Vita” and “La Grande Bellezza.”

Michele Alfonsi, a lawyer who heads up Pons Iani, a volunteer group dedicated to aqueducts, provided to information me. “See that?” he requested, pointing to a stone passageway atop large arches. “That’s the specus of the Aqua Marcia.”

Specus is the Latin time period for a roofed channel constructed at a slight downward slope in order that water would run via it with out gushing or puddling. This one was practically excessive sufficient to face up inside.

We clambered up the keystone of the arch, now only a few toes above floor degree. When it was accomplished through the heyday of the Republic, the Marcia was the primary aqueduct to convey water to the Capitoline, Rome’s most sacred hill. A small fountain there was chiseled with the phrases “Acqua Marcia,” however like trendy Rome’s faucets, it now spouts a mix of water from 5 totally different founts.

To pattern pure Marcia water, I’d must journey to the supply.

Sextus Julius Frontinus, the first-century commissioner of the aqueducts, wrote that the fount of the Marcia is close to the thirty sixth milestone of the traditional Roman highway Through Valeria (roughly 35 miles east of Rome). However I had been warned that the unique trenches had been obliterated in 1870 when the Marcia’s long-defunct classical aqueduct was reincarnated because the Acqua Pia Antica Marcia.

“You’ll get shut,” mentioned Peter J. Aicher, writer of “Information to the Aqueducts of Historical Rome,” “by trying to find Centro Casetta Rossa Idrico on Google Maps.”

I discovered the “casetta,” a small pink stucco home utilized by the fashionable aqueduct’s upkeep personnel, on the fringe of a inexperienced subject. Apart from the inscription “Acqua Pia Antica Marcia 1870” carved over the entrance door, and the shed-like constructions constructed above springs alongside the highway, there was no indication that Rome’s finest ingesting water originated right here.

I took within the rounded hills, hazy blue within the distance, and the Italian cypresses striping their shadows throughout a little-traveled, two-lane freeway. “The place’s the water?” I requested a upkeep man. He pointed down: The underground springs that Quintus Marcius Rex first channeled over 2,000 years in the past nonetheless bubble beneath this bucolic spot. The one approach to plumb Marcia’s depths was to go spelunking.

Which is how, just a few days later, I discovered myself clinging to an uncovered tree root on the aspect of a ravine dropping to the Aniene River east of Rome. “Put your proper foot there,” Alfonso Diaz Boj coaxed. “Two extra steps and we’ll be on the Marcia’s specus.”

Mr. Diaz Boj, a information with Sotterranei di Roma, which provides excursions of Rome’s underground treasures, was main a jaunt into the traditional, now-dry aqueduct channels buried close to the city of Vicovaro, about eight miles west of the Marcia’s supply. Twelve of us met on the Convent of San Cosimato, whose property comprises the ruins, to go well with up in laborious hats and headlamps.

As soon as we had negotiated the hand- and toeholds and had been hunched into the shoulder-high specus, Mr. Diaz Boj pointed to a lozenge of sunshine slanting down from a shaft: “Groups of staff excavated these shafts each 15 meters. Once they reached the correct depth, two groups dug towards one another laterally till they joined up.”

We handed bats clinging to the partitions, and quills attested to the presence of porcupines. Over the centuries, the Marcia’s water had deposited multicolored bubbles and stripes of calcium on the concrete that Romans used to seal the specus. Mr. Diaz Boj pointed to graffiti scratched into the concrete — mysterious crosses, doodles and the probably faked signature of Thomas Ashby, the British archaeologist and writer of the 1935 “Aqueducts of Historical Rome.”

After a lunch of lasagna, saltimbocca alla Romana and roast potatoes on the convent, I had a drink from a spigot within the backyard. Solely later did I study that Vicovaro is contained in the zone that receives the Marcia’s water unadulterated. It was scrumptious and refreshing, although I can’t say I detected a lot distinction from the combined water of central Rome.

The Marcia surfaces on arches and bridges a number of instances between Vicovaro and the Park of the Aqueducts, most spectacularly at Ponte Lupo, about 10 miles south of Tivoli. This colossal bridge spanning a deep gorge has been within the fingers of the Barberini household since 1633, when Pope City VIII acquired the encircling property. Guided excursions (reserve by e-mail, pontelupo@gmail.com) are provided often and through the festivals held right here in the summertime. Luckily for me, a pal in Rome had organized a personal go to.

Ponte Lupo’s current proprietor, the actor and activist Prince Urbano Barberini, was ready for us on the unpaved entry highway. A trim, good-looking man in his early 60s, the prince recounted the location’s current vicissitudes as he led us down a sloping meadow. When he regained title to the property after an extended authorized battle, the sphere and stream across the bridge had been buried in garbage and frequented by intercourse staff.

I had seen pictures of Ponte Lupo, however nothing ready me for its measurement and complexity. The unique tuff arches carried the Marcia throughout a steep ravine. Subsequent retaining partitions and buttresses have reworked the bridge right into a palimpsest of constructing types.

“It’s a troublesome scramble,” the prince mentioned, gazing as much as the precipitous, densely vegetated summit above a dry creek. “Would you wish to strive?”

I eyed the rugged, tangled sides of the ravine. “Perhaps not.”

“Good,” the prince replied, smiling. And we strolled again to the freeway.

The Marcia entered Rome on arches at Porta Maggiore, chosen because the entry level for eight historical aqueducts due to its excessive elevation on Esquiline Hill. At first look this busy crossroads close to the Termini rail station struck me as tough and forlorn, however I gave it a more in-depth look. Aqueduct arches converge or radiate from each course. The Marcia’s specus is slotted above a chunky pier constructed of a volcanic stone known as tuff that abuts the gate.

Should you tune out the visitors, there isn’t a higher place to savor what one historian calls the Roman “knack for sensible engineering on a monumental scale.”

It takes about half an hour on foot to hint the Marcia’s path via historical Rome. From Porta Maggiore, the aqueduct tracked the Aurelian Wall so far as the elegant Augustan arch known as Porta Tiburtina. From there, it veered off to observe in the present day’s Through Marsala earlier than emptying right into a distribution basin now buried beneath the practice station.

After the Marcia was reborn because the Marcia Pia in 1870, the Fountain of the Naiads was conjured as much as showcase its purity within the Piazza della Repubblica, a 10-minute stroll from Termini station.

A few of Baroque Rome’s most cherished monuments are show fountains, or mostre, celebrating the newly restored aqueducts that when once more introduced spring water to Rome. The Trevi Fountain is the mostra of the Acqua Vergine, the one aqueduct that has run repeatedly since antiquity.

However the Fountain of the Naiads is totally different. In contrast to the gravity-fed aqueducts of pre-modern instances, the Marcia flowed underneath stress created by mechanical pumps, which allowed the fountain’s jets to shoot practically seven toes excessive.

Katherine Rinne, the writer of the forthcoming “Strolling Rome’s Waters,” calls this “the Hugh Hefner fountain” due to its cavorting bare nymphs. It rises in the midst of a busy main intersection. “If you’re courageous sufficient to face six lanes of horrendous visitors,” Ms. Rinne mentioned, “you’ll be able to dangle your toes in it on a sizzling day.”

Simply don’t drink it. At present, the naiads frolic in water that’s periodically drained for cleansing and upkeep.

If you’re impressed to sip from the supply, do because the Romans do and cup a hand underneath one of many nasoni (massive noses) that spout from goose-necked spigots throughout city. Two thousand years after Pliny lauded the Marcia as a present from the gods, Rome’s aqueducts are nonetheless lavishing chilly, clear spring water on the Everlasting Metropolis.

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