Italian police have arrested a vandal who confessed to smashing a marble statue in Rome's famed Piazza Navona and of trying to damage the nearby Trevi Fountain.

He was caught near the square a day after the attack after police noticed he was wearing the same white trainers as the vandal, who was captured on security cameras.

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno urged no mercy for the suspect, saying Italy must protect its artistic heritage with an "exemplary punishment."

The video footage showed the man climbing in the Moro Fountain on the southern end of Piazza Navona early on Saturday and repeatedly attacking the statue - one of four large faces at the edge of the fountain - with a large cobblestone and then walking away.

The damage is on a 19th-century copy of the original Moro Fountain by 16th-century artist Giacomo della Porta. Bernini added the central figure in the 1600s.

Restoration work has begun to reattach the pieces, with the damaged fountain being drained and the broken pieces being cleaned.

A police spokesman said the man had confessed to both the Piazza Navona attack and of throwing the rock at the Trevi Fountain a few hours later.

"I hope that this criminal is given an exemplary punishment, including jail time, because it's necessary to make clear the gravity of the crime to defend our artistic patrimony," he said.

Tourists in Piazza Navona seemed to concur.

"It is a crime," said Briton Norman Rose. "I don't know how important it is, but it is a crime against the values of civilisation."

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