Place-Maintenance at the Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain in Rome. Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma.
Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma explore the dynamics of place-maintenance through a multifaceted case study of Rome’s Trevi Fountain, employing innovative methods of urban data walking and participatory observation.
[Ed. Note: This article is part of a dossier on Creative Urban Methods.]

A popular tourist destination, the Trevi Fountain in Rome is not just a physical space but also a place for social media engagement, a referential place in popular culture and film history, and a stage for global news events, ranging from incidents of hooliganism to climate protests. The fountain exemplifies the complex connections of urban places to media (representations). Jansson notes this complexity where, on the one hand, we witness the “concept city” shaped by city branding, urban planning, and popular narratives. On the other hand, there’s the “thick city,” an immersive realm formed by everyday encounters.1André Jansson, “The City In-Between: Communication Geographies, Tourism and the Urban Unconscious,” in Re-Investigating Authenticity, ed. Britta Timm Knudsen and Anne Marit Waade (Bristol, Buffalo & Toronto: Channel View Publications, 2010), 38–51. Media studies research typically tends to focus on either one of these dimensions: texts or practices.2Erica Stein and Germaine R. Halegoua, “Introduction: How to do Things with Media and the City,” in The Routledge Companion to Media and the City, ed. Erica Stein, Germaine R. Halegoua, and Brendan Kredell (London: Routledge, 2022), 1–11.

This paper seeks to further develop placemaintenance as a concept to understand how the status of places and place-making are both challenged and safeguarded. Informed by our case study of the Trevi Fountain, we combine urban (data) walking with participatory observation, distant observation, and discourse analysis of a variety of on- and offline sources such as travel guides, social media posts, and online reviews. Using this methodology, we offer a more comprehensive and nuanced lens into urban place-making and the entanglements between ideal/concept, discourse/practice, and strategy/tactics. As such, we seek to bridge the identified gap in media studies, enabling a more integrative understanding of the idealized representations and lived realities of urban spaces.

Place-making & place-maintenance

Place-making, “the set of social, political and material processes by which people iteratively create and recreate the experienced geographies in which they live,” is a continuous process, in that places are always “under construction”.3Joseph Pierce, Deborah G. Martin and James T. Murphy, “Relational Place-making: The Networked Politics of Place,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36, no. 1 (2011): 54–70. However, besides place-making, media cities also involve place-maintenance.4Zlatan Krajina, “From Non-Place to Place: A Phenomenological Geography of Everyday Living in Media Cities,” in Conditions of Mediation: Phenomenological Perspectives on Media, ed. Scott Rodgers and Tim Markham (London: Peter Lang, 2017), 161–172. That is to say, dominant perceptions of what places are constantly need to be sustained and repaired. The significance of considering repair and maintenance in social theory has been emphasized by Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift.5Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift, “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance,” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 3 (2007): 9. As they write, “dominant concerns tend to be with the spectacular collapse of whole cities, societies or civilizations, rather than the mundane interruptions and repairs that constitute the quotidian existence of urban dwellers”. They highlight that repair is not only about restoration; it can also lead to improvement or innovation, signifying the city’s constant self-reinvention.6Graham and Thrift, “Out of Order,” 6.

While place-maintenance has been discussed in academic publications from either the perspective of the users of these places or the place custodians, we are interested in the dynamics that unfold between the city and its users.7Krajina, “From Non-Place to Place.”; Paul Memmot and Stephen Lang, “Place Theory and Place Maintenance in Indigenous Australia,” Urban Policy and Research 20, no. 1 (2002): 39–56. In line with Massey’s critique of De Certeau, we argue that the dichotomy between strategies and tactics does “both overestimate the coherence of “the powerful” and the seamlessness with which “order” is reproduced” and reduce “the potential “power” of the weak.”8Doreen Massey, For Space (London: SAGE Publications, 2005), 45. This requires us to look at how the strategies on the level of the concept city and tactics on the level of the thick city interact. As André Jansson writes, these two “must not be regarded as separate entities, but rather as two aspects of the continuous urban circulation of forms, meanings and materialities.”9Jansson, “The City In-Between,” 47. Importantly, following Michaela Benson and Emma Jackson, we contend that “repeated discursive practices enact and reinforce particular understandings of place; it is therefore through the practice of everyday life that space is remade and place re-inscribed on the individual.”10Michaela Benson and Emma Jackson, “Place-making and Place Maintenance: Performativity, Place and Belonging among the Middle Classes,” Sociology 47, no. 4 (2012): 793–809, 797–798. Put simply, we are interested in observing objects and practices in the thick city at and around the Trevi Fountain to reflect on how these interact with the idealized representations and narratives that constitute the concept city.

Walking the thick city and deconstructing the concept city

The popularity of the Trevi Fountain and Rome’s status as a popular tourist destination makes it an ideal case to investigate place-making and place-maintenance. We selected this particular site because of its central location and accessibility. To capture the interaction between the concept and the thick city, we started our research by leveraging the three related affordances of walking: “being predicated on the human body (embodied), being-in-motion as a form of being-there anchored in a particular place and time (situated) and walking as a counterspace that empowers the subject (generative).”11Karin van Es and Michiel de Lange, “Data with its Boots on the Ground: Datawalking as Research Method,” European Journal of Communication 35, no. 3 (2020): 278–289. This involved walking on, around and through the Trevi Fountain site.

Figures like the flâneur and groups such as the Situationists have played a significant role in the long tradition of urban walking in human geography and urban studies, among other disciplines. They employ different political, critical, and aesthetic strategies, and different types of epistemology and ethnography.12Keith Bassett, “Walking as an Aesthetic Practice and a Critical Tool: Some Psychogeographic Experiments,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 28, no. 3 (2004): 397–410. While these walking practices are very distinct, they share the goal of making the taken-for-granted visible for scrutiny and reflection.13van Es and de Lange, “Data with its Boots on the Ground,” 280. Inspired by the techniques of data walks, we are attentive to the objects and practices of the custodians of the Trevi Fountain and its users.14Ibid. The particular analytical prism through which our observations and experiences were made is place-maintenance.

However, data walks are not a standalone method and are usually augmented by others.15Ibid. In our case, to understand the symbolic layer of the Trevi Fountain as a famous landmark of Rome as a concept city, we analyzed popular narratives in travel guides, movies, tourist websites, visual social media, and online reviews. Additionally, we employed participant observation, joined a guided tour of the area, and watched the online livestream of the site. These sources were not predetermined but incorporated along the way as new queries arose. Ultimately, we were interested in the repetition across these sources regarding several questions: What kinds of ideas and meanings have been attached to the monument? Which discourses are prevalent, and how are these practiced at the site?

Collectively, these different methods helped us observe and experience the dynamics between the custodians of the Trevi Fountain and the practices of tourists and locals. The study required multiple prolonged visits to the monument at different moments of the day, taking photographs, making notes about practices and situations, but also simply experiencing (hear, touch, see, smell, and taste) the site and its visitors. We did repeated rounds of data collection on April 14–16, 2023, visiting the site multiple times during the day. The methodology required adaptability to situations; for example, we made a sudden decision to track two police officers studying their interaction with the crowd. Additionally, we had to find alternative methods to obtain information, like locating and accessing the live stream on days of continuous downpours.

The interactions between concept and thick city
Place-making Practices

The Trevi Fountain is a place most tourists will know about and have listed as a “must-see” of what to visit in Rome. Its prominence is constructed through travel guides, city marketing, and tourist tours, but also through popular culture, such as movies and posts on social media. Together, this makes the Trevi Fountain one of the landmarks of the concept city: a place that tourists massively visit and local inhabitants avoid unless there is a specific need. The fountain can be viewed from the street level, where one can walk around the fountain and have a view of the basin from above. Additionally, one can descend the steps to the basin level for a close experience of the fountain. While the physical space affords certain behavior, the place is constituted by popular myths spread through media which invite certain practices of place-making and place-maintenance. These are reproduced and reinforced by tourists and locals in the thick city.

Sign of directions. Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma.
Coin tossing

One of the most popular place-making practices is perhaps that of coin tossing; folk wisdom tells that it would ensure your return to Rome. As most travel guides point out, there is a customary approach: “throw with your right hand, over your left shoulder with your back facing the fountain.”16Lonely Planet, Pocket Rome, 95. Throughout our guided tour, reference to this custom was the only deviation from historical facts. Before mentioning it, our guide stated: “As you all already know…” She did not explain its proper etiquette but sparked curiosity about where the tossed coins actually go: “No one really knows”. Many travel guides note that €3,000 a day is thrown into the fountain and that the collected money goes to charity. Some suggest that the coin toss was popularized by the movie Three Coins in the Fountain (1954).

The popular myth is emphasized throughout city marketing as “something everyone should do in Rome”. Coin tossing is, for example, mentioned under the livestream of the Trevi Fountain: “Our Rome Live camera captures tourists following this tradition”. Particularly on Instagram, we frequently came across references to The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003), where the main character throws a coin into the Trevi Fountain (with her back facing the water, but not following the etiquette further).

Tossing coins is the most defining practice that connects the concept city with the thick city. Tourists re-enact coin tossing, struggling to find a place in the crowd where they can, individually or with a loved one, throw their coins. In an attempt to capture the perfect photo, they often throw it multiple times. Many of these photos are posted to social media, feeding back from the lived reality into the image of the concept city. Through both their practices and contributing to the ongoing story of Rome, they engage in place-making.

Interestingly, there is also another tradition that is less mentioned in city marketing. On the right side of the fountain is a small tap, known as the lovers’ fountain. Popular myth suggests that couples can seal their love by drinking water from the same glass. Few couples did this during our observation, suggesting a weak connection between the concept city and the thick city.

Crowding and taking pictures

Taking pictures, often to post on social media, is another dominant place-making practice at the fountain. Online guides for taking the best Instagram pictures suggest visiting at sunset when it is not crowded, a tip echoed in travel guides. Many Google reviews comment on how crowded the site is, making it difficult to get an unobstructed view for a photo (see image 2).

Online review. Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma.

Indeed, we witnessed people struggle to capture a good moment to snap a photo. As an Instagram post provided, it was best to wait for openings, ask people to move over, or, if that all doesn’t work, use an app to remove people. We found that tourists engage in ongoing negotiation with each other; for instance, requesting others to shift to the side or trading photo-taking opportunities. Before posing, they frequently take off their jackets or change clothes before posing (see image 3). On Instagram, #TreviFountain is often the subject of humorous videos that contrast idealized images with actual circumstances.

Posing. Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma.

Reviews often provide tips on making the ideal photo. Tourists are advised to throw a coin over their shoulder and eat ice cream but are also warned about active pickpockets and moments at which the fountain is under construction, and there is no water. As one review put it, “The Roma city will turn off the water to clean coin out of this fountain three times a week, so sometimes you need to wait for an hour or so to get the water flow out of statures again!” There are also comments about the police presence and their policing activities.

Beneath all these stories shared on diverse platforms is the idea of a unique monument with a rich and long history that needs to be both celebrated and preserved. Popular terms used include “iconic,” “most striking landmarks,” “baroque extravaganza,” “masterpiece,” “magical,” “magnificent,” and “complexity.”

Place-maintenance practices
Signs, rules, and urban design

The physical space helps, as a stable decor, to maintain the Trevi Fountain and affords behavior that is in line with the concept city’s placemaking. This inscribed behavior is both implicit, through the design of public space, and explicit, through signs (and some are mentioned in travel guides). The area around the fountain—as signaled by signs—is a pedestrian-only area. Cars and rows of e-scooters are parked where the pedestrian zone begins (image 4). Entering the square on which the Trevi Fountain is situated from either of the four directions, the public encounters signs with (from top to bottom): a photo of the fountain, a map with walking directions (image 1), a list of prohibited behaviors organized according to their respective fines (image 5), three sentences of history (by who it was: designed, commissioned and directed its completion and carved) and finally some logos and website link/phone number. We noticed very few people actually looking at these signs, let alone taking the time to read them.

Parked scooters at the entrance of the pedestrian area (Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma).

The sign states that a minimum fine of €240 will be imposed for pouring liquids and throwing objects into the fountain, with a notable exception for “the tradition of the coin tossing.” Moreover, people are prohibited from damaging the monument or taking coins from the basin. Around the fountain area floor, plaques equally communicate the illegality of coin collection and explain that the money is intended for charity. Furthermore, the sign states that actions not compatible with “the preservation of the monument” should be avoided. This means not drinking or eating near the fountain, sitting, or climbing on it, and not bathing in or drawing water from it.

Fines. Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma.
Policing as place-maintenance

Instructions are enforced in different manners and to differing degrees. The area is populated by surveillance cameras as well as police officers. The daily time-lapse of the live cam makes clear that there is at least one police car present at the site day and night. The officers have strategic locations from which they surveille (image 6). During the day, we found at least three at any time. These were either walking the crowds or positioned at the supposed exit of the monument. We found that the on-site directions for managing the crowd flow were ineffective. While sensible in theory, it proved unrealistic because of the amount of people moving in multiple directions (often competing for a good view).

For the police officers, the crowd was hard to manage, especially at peak hours. Aside from conditioning the tourists, the shrill sound of a whistle could be heard repeatedly throughout our visit — usually to hail violators bringing in ice cream or other food or climbing and sitting on prohibited parts of the monument. The tourists are also continuously in negotiating with the established policing practices, which entail breaching regulations. We, for example, witnessed tourists directing lasers at the statues. In recent years, significant events have taken place, including individuals scaling its structure, or activists pouring dye or charcoal into it, resulting in widespread media coverage. The selection of this location for activist actions reinforces the symbolic importance of the site.

Police Surveillance. Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma.

Numerous sources mention people swimming in the fountain, recreating the infamous scene from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) with movie stars Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni. While this scene is mentioned as a famous tribute to the fountain, it is also used to reflect on the high fines for “crimes” like paddling or bathing in the fountain and eating or drinking on its steps. Although the rotating police officers applied different levels of strictness and we did not witness any fines being issued, online reviews, such as those on Tripadvisor, reveal that fines are imposed. For example, a British tourist wrote about his son who sat on the side of the Trevi Fountain for his photo and was issued a fine.

Police Surveillance. Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma.
Maintaining the fountain

During routine maintenance of the fountain, but also at other moments, including certain soccer matches, yellow ribbons are used to close off the bottom platform of the site. To manage crowds and bad behavior of the large swarm of tourists visiting the Eternal City, the mayor of Rome has proposed increased police presence and a barrier around the landmark, stating: “It is a solution that would not obscure the view of the Trevi Fountain and would allow the traditional tossing of coins, a ritual for anyone visiting our city.”17Rachel Chang, “Why Rome is building a barrier in front of one of its most iconic sights,” Lonely Planet (2020), https://www.lonelyplanet.com/news/rome-trevi-fountain-barrier-plans. Here the continued facilitation of coin tossing is highly meaningful.

During one of our visits, the municipality was vacuuming coins from the fountain, something that takes time and is also visible on the timelapse of the live cam (see image 8). Collecting the money is accompanied by extra security, the closing of the bottom plateau, and turning off the water. Online reviews suggest this happens every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning and takes an hour or two. They voice regular complaints about the fountain being drained and cleaned. The city maintenance prevents tourists from enacting the experience of the concept city. While this is “routine,” the natural elements also contribute to the deterioration of the monument, necessitating renovations. In fact, many guides and even a plaque at the site mention the (€2 million) restoration paid for by luxury fashion house Fendi. In addition to maintaining the monument itself, the surrounding area requires regular upkeep, such as garbage collection and ground sweeping.

Police Surveillance. Image Courtesy of Karin van Es and Marcel Broersma.
Evaluating the methodology

For studying the interaction between the concept city and the thick city, it was necessary to unpack prevalent societal narratives. To do so, we argue, that our methodology proved useful because it involves a constant going back and forth between observable practices in the “thick city” and texts that make and maintain the “concept city”. Guidebooks offer a palimpsest of such practices and collective stories about a certain place, whereas Instagram posts and Google reviews reinforce these narratives. Through walking, facilitating the situated and embodied experience at the Trevi Fountain, certain facets of place-maintenance became palpable. Walking to the monument through the various entrance roads, paying careful attention to the signs, numerous surveillance cameras, and the urban design revealed to us how the thick city and its landmarks are managed. Our movement through the crowds, following tourists and police officers, heightened our awareness of what it is like to visit the fountain. This included the high-pitched sound of the police whistle frequently interrupting the chatter and buzz of the crowd. It was so common that many ignored it at first until the police upped the tempo. It is also how we captured the instructions and exchanges amongst tourists to make the perfect picture and capture the coin toss on a photo. The embodied experience of crowdedness, moreover, revealed the absurdity of the outlined crowd flow.

Engaging in on-site observations and participating in activities like taking a tour, snapping photos, and eating ice cream, made the performative character of certain rituals apparent. These included the throwing of coins into the fountain without thought after a photo had been taken, versus the waiting and almost practicing the throw before snapping the picture. It also included the touching of the monument — brisk waddles with the hand in the water or climbing onto parts of the structure. Revisiting the fountain multiple times enriched our data. For example, we witnessed inconsistencies in policing, revealing different perceptions of violations and tolerances.

Being a duo proved advantageous. We would separate and reconvene, sharing insights and interesting events. We adapted to the circumstances, refocusing attention on what was happening and exploring different ways of experiencing and observing, including following people around and replicating their actions. As European media scholars visiting Rome with a group of students to investigate the city’s mediation via walks, our outsider perspective provided distance from the site’s daily practices and customs. This unfamiliarity made them more apparent and thus easier to critically reflect on, albeit through a Western perspective (also given the sources used) and from a privileged standpoint. However, it also carried the risk of not only overlooking but also misinterpreting local practices. We did not interview people, but future research could benefit from incorporating their reflections.

Conclusions

In this paper, we showed how place-making practices go together with processes of place-maintenance that aim to align expectations of the concept city with the lived realities of the thick city. While Zlatan Krajina argues that maintenance mostly takes place in the habitual, routinized day-to-day interaction with places, we found that place-maintenance can also be an active and enforced process. This highlights how place-maintenance is a continuous effort to sustain and maintain the status quo of the concept city. The power dynamics that unfold and are negotiated among stakeholders – who constantly adapt tactics and strategies – are compelling. While the custodians, that is, the city officials, make efforts to preserve the historical site, they cannot but revise and address the pressures from tourists and locals who make claim to the multifarious meanings of the fountain.

Interestingly, we have found that the notion of maintenance does not just apply to the material layer of the thick city, but also to the symbolic layer of the concept city. The two are intrinsically linked and continuously influence each other in processes of change and stabilization, of place-making and place-maintenance. In line with other work, we have extended maintenance to incorporate the symbolic domain of the city and its mutual effect on practices that unfolded at the site. The manifold of people in and around the space urges for constant repair and maintenance. Bringing the concept city and the thick city together through our walking methodology has proven highly productive, revealing how place-maintenance is a continuous effort to sustain and maintain the status quo of the city.18The work by Karin van Es was partially supported by a Spinoza grant of the Dutch Research Council (NWO), awarded in 2021 to José van Dijck, Professor of Media and Digital Society at Utrecht University.

Notes

Notes
1 André Jansson, “The City In-Between: Communication Geographies, Tourism and the Urban Unconscious,” in Re-Investigating Authenticity, ed. Britta Timm Knudsen and Anne Marit Waade (Bristol, Buffalo & Toronto: Channel View Publications, 2010), 38–51.
2 Erica Stein and Germaine R. Halegoua, “Introduction: How to do Things with Media and the City,” in The Routledge Companion to Media and the City, ed. Erica Stein, Germaine R. Halegoua, and Brendan Kredell (London: Routledge, 2022), 1–11.
3 Joseph Pierce, Deborah G. Martin and James T. Murphy, “Relational Place-making: The Networked Politics of Place,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36, no. 1 (2011): 54–70.
4 Zlatan Krajina, “From Non-Place to Place: A Phenomenological Geography of Everyday Living in Media Cities,” in Conditions of Mediation: Phenomenological Perspectives on Media, ed. Scott Rodgers and Tim Markham (London: Peter Lang, 2017), 161–172.
5 Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift, “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance,” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 3 (2007): 9.
6 Graham and Thrift, “Out of Order,” 6.
7 Krajina, “From Non-Place to Place.”; Paul Memmot and Stephen Lang, “Place Theory and Place Maintenance in Indigenous Australia,” Urban Policy and Research 20, no. 1 (2002): 39–56.
8 Doreen Massey, For Space (London: SAGE Publications, 2005), 45.
9 Jansson, “The City In-Between,” 47.
10 Michaela Benson and Emma Jackson, “Place-making and Place Maintenance: Performativity, Place and Belonging among the Middle Classes,” Sociology 47, no. 4 (2012): 793–809, 797–798.
11 Karin van Es and Michiel de Lange, “Data with its Boots on the Ground: Datawalking as Research Method,” European Journal of Communication 35, no. 3 (2020): 278–289.
12 Keith Bassett, “Walking as an Aesthetic Practice and a Critical Tool: Some Psychogeographic Experiments,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 28, no. 3 (2004): 397–410.
13 van Es and de Lange, “Data with its Boots on the Ground,” 280.
14, 15 Ibid.
16 Lonely Planet, Pocket Rome, 95.
17 Rachel Chang, “Why Rome is building a barrier in front of one of its most iconic sights,” Lonely Planet (2020), https://www.lonelyplanet.com/news/rome-trevi-fountain-barrier-plans.
18 The work by Karin van Es was partially supported by a Spinoza grant of the Dutch Research Council (NWO), awarded in 2021 to José van Dijck, Professor of Media and Digital Society at Utrecht University.
van Es, Karin and Marcel Broersma. "Place-Maintenance at the Trevi Fountain". Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 4 (November 2023)
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