Back in the late sixties while in the Navy, I was in and out of Italy a lot. On a number of port calls I put in for two day leave to travel around the country and on one trip I managed to spend a couple of days in Rome again. I had been friends with a girl from Florence and we arranged to meet in Rome. I stayed in a hostel while she stayed with an aunt who lived in Rome. Back in those days young Italian girls had to be chaperoned, at least in the evenings.
Before the Euro the Italian currency was the Lira and the exchange rate to the U.S. Dollar ranged between 600 to 800 Lira (₤) to a dollar and it was common to carry around 5,000 and 10,000 Lira notes. The smallest Italian coin was a 10 Lira and the Italians had lots of uses for those 10 Lira aluminum coins. Need to use a public restroom 10₤, ride an elevator 10₤ and they were more common than pennies in America.
Back in the fifties a popular movie came out called Three Coins In The Fountain about three American roommates working in Italy who wished to meet the man of their dreams by throwing coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Before that movie it wasn’t a practice to throw coins in Trevi and over the years that movie scene has morphed into a tradition. Now it’s throwing a coin over your right shoulder into Trevi Fountain to guarantee that you’ll come back to Rome.
Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi) is the most famous fountain in Rome and is considered a Baroque masterpiece and is on most tourist’s list of sights in the Eternal City. It was designed by Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1762.
In the mid sixties Trevi Fountain again became the center of attention when Federico Fellini’s movie La Dolce Vita staring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg was released. Trevi Fountain is the night scene of Anita Ekberg in a strapless black dress dancing and wading through the fountain.
Throwing coins into water isn’t new and probably can be traced back to the time of Germanic tribes when they made offerings to gods in springs. From that came the more modern tradition of wishing wells but filling public fountains with coins probably has its beginnings with that 1950’s movie.
Getting back to the point of the story, my Italian friend and I visited the Vatican Museum on that Rome trip. In the sixties the attractions in Rome weren’t the mob scenes they are today. The Coliseum was in the middle of a traffic circle with no barriers, or admission tickets – you just walked in through one of its many arches. Likewise the Vatican and Saint Peters where just open with not any mobs of people except on Sundays when the Pope offered his blessing over St. Peters Square.
In the Vatican Museum there is a grand marble spiral staircase that goes to the upper floors. Sitting at ground level in the middle of the staircase was (still is) a marble urn on a pedestal that stands about five feet tall. Somewhere between the second and third floor we got the notion of trying to throw a 10₤ coin into the urn – you always had a pocket full of those coins and after about five or so tosses we got one in and moved on to the art galleries.
After we spent some time visiting the exhibits we returned to descend that spiral stairs and discovered that we had started something. Two guards were on the ground floor sweeping up coins as dozens of people on the stairs were still tossing coins trying to fill the urn. It was a comic scene and nobody seemed to be getting upset.
Looking back I don’t think three coins in the urn caught on like Trevi fountain and probably didn’t last beyond that one day at the Vatican Museum. I still believe that the Catholic Church missed out on a money-making opportunity with that one.