Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sea in the City

By Patricia Winton

At Novel Adventurers, we share the task of selecting topics, and I chose this week’s theme, Bodies of Water. At the time—several months ago—I planned to write about the Mediterranean, that placid sea where I’ve sailed and swum and floated, off and on, for four decades. But when I put my fingers on the keyboard, they went in another direction.

The last time I faced the theme Bodies of Water, it was the topic proposed by my Guppy chapter of Sisters in Crime for the group’s first short story anthology. To be precise, the theme was “a body of water, preferably one with fish in it.” 

I was not pleased. I had two goals: one, to write a story strong enough to meet the competition and have it selected, and two, to introduce the character who stars in my two works in progress. This star writes about food, and the idea of eating fish from the dirty Tiber, the river running through Rome, made me nauseous. I fumed for a couple of weeks until I had one of those light bulb moments.

The Trevi Fountain, arguably one of the most potent symbols of Rome, is a monument to the sea, but it also pays tribute to the crops that depend on water—fruit, grain, etc. As I walked past the fountain, that light bulb clicked on. What could be a better setting for my story, I thought, with both a body of water and food? It suited my purposes perfectly.

The fountain marks the end of the Virgo (Virgin) Aqueduct. Its central statue stands high on the fountain in a shell-shaped carriage. The figure depicts Oceanus who, ancient mythology tells us, represents the river of the world from which all streams and other bodies of water derive. The statue is often mistakenly identified as Neptune, and I blush to admit that I made this mistake in my story.

Oceanus’s carriage is drawn by two seahorses, each led by a Triton. The seahorse on the right rises placid and regal; its Triton is an old man blowing into a conch and paying little attention to his seahorse . On the left, the seahorse rages against its young Triton, who can barely hold on. These images represent both the dangers and the benefits of the sea.

From the area below Oceanus’s carriage, water flows, crashing over rocks and into a series of pools at the base. The thunderous sound can be heard before you enter the piazza, and it always lures me to linger a moment watching the splash, much as I’m mesmerized by winter waves at the beach.

In niches above the fountain four statues stand: Abundance, holding a cornucopia of fruit; Fertility of Crops, clutching sheaves of wheat; Gifts of Autumn, displaying a cup and grapes; and Joy of Prairies and Gardens, adorned with flowers. Thirty species of plants peek from various parts of the fountain, from mullein, a medicinal herb favored by my father, to artichoke and marsh marigold.

The fountain rises against the backdrop of the Poli Palace, which today houses the National Geographic Arts Gallery. The gallery windows provide a spectacular view of the fountain and the water crashing into its pools. From this vantage point, I have my heroine see fish in the fountain, which shouldn’t be there. Afterward, she goes home to cook, what else, fish soup.

In the story, young schoolgirls toss coins in the fountain, which tradition says, ensures your return to Rome. After the murderer is unmasked, the heroine tosses a coin, too. The tradition of tossing a coin has its roots in a practice of ancient Roman soldiers, who threw coins in fountains, streams, and rivers to cause the water gods to smile on them and help them return home safely. But there’s a suggestion that when the fountain was being refurbished by the popes, the custom was re-invented to help pay for the project.

I’m happy to report that my story, “Feeding Frenzy,” was selected and appears in Fish Tales (Wildside Press, 2011). If you want to read it, you can find it here.


  1. The Trevi holds a special place in my heart. It was on October 12, 19__ (so long ago that writing the year depresses me) that my friend and I connected with two of my college classmates I had arranged to meet. So began one of the most exciting years of my life, actually 14 months.

  2. Polly, I know you treasure your time in Rome. Today, it might be difficult to meet someone there, the crowds are so large. You'd have to choose a specific spot, I think.

  3. That's true, Patricia. I went back years later and you could barely see the fountain for the crowds. That was the way it was everywhere--lines and more lines. So different than my original experience.

  4. I always learn something interesting from your posts, Patricia. Now, the next thing I need to do is come visit you in Rome and see the fountain in real life (like Polly, I also saw it many years ago, and I don't think I really appreciated it then.)