~ Roman Monographs ~

· part I ·
Ancient Fountains


By the time of the Gothic War (535-553), Rome was set under siege several times. The longest one lasted about one year, by the Ostrogothic king Vitiges, who had the aqueducts still working cut off (a historical account can be read in Aqueducts, part IV). Most fountains dried up, turning into useless and bulky ruins, from which building material could be freely taken.
During the Middle Ages many inhabitants had to draw water from the river again, as their early predecessors had already done one thousand years before. This, as well as other historical events of those years, had a devastating demographic impact: the city's population, which during the paramount stage of Rome's imperial age had reached 1.5 million people, rapidly dropped to only a few ten thousands.
well-curbs: (left) 11th century, in St.Bartholomew's church,
(right) 12th century, below the porch of St.Mark's basilica
We can imagine how the lack of water caused highly unhygienic conditions, which often burst into plagues.
During these gloomy centuries, besides the river, the only sources of water were the very few nozzles still reached by the Aqua Virgo (the aqueduct that worked more regularly than others, but only served a small area below the Quirinal Hill), the outlets that drew water from other temporarily restored aqueducts (none of which worked for more than 100-200 years before ending up clotted, or leaking, or bursting again), and a number of wells, which collected rain water and sometimes exploited underground springs. The latter were found especially by churches, convents and monasteries.

These wells were used for several purposes. In particular, they provided the many hospices and hospitals, run by religious establishments, with the amount of water needed to maintain the minimal hygienic standards. They were also used for watering the gardens by the convents, where the monks grew medical herbs needed for their healing practices.
Among the religious purposes, instead, was the filling of the large baptismal fonts, in which, during the archaic rite, the baptismed person actually bathed up to the waist.

Besides wells, during the early Middle Ages it was a common use for the main churches to have a source of water (a fountain, or a bath) standing in a garden or yard within the precincts, where the faithful could refresh themselves and carry out ritual ablutions before entering the holy building.

9th century well in the cloister
of Rome's cathedral, St.John in the Lateran

the cantharus in Santa Cecilia's courtyard
These gardens were also known as 'paradises'. In most cases the water came out of a large vase, or drinking cup with spiral handles, which used to be called a cantharus, so the whole fountain was referred to with this name. They were taken from the ruins of ancient Roman baths or villas, where they lay abandoned. Few of these vases still exist, but the only one standing before a church, closely recreating the early medieval setting, is by Santa Cecilia's basilica: although in time the site underwent alterations, in the middle of the garden a marble cantharus still spurts water into a low square basin.

In the early days, the most famous one was that standing before St.Peter's basilica. Built in the classic shape of a vase, it was set into place probably around the 4th century, not long after the same church was built, although by tradition pope Symmachus (498-514) is credited for its making.
The structure of the old St.Peter's was that of a typical early Christian basilica.
From the open area which now corresponds to the wide plaza in front of St.Peter's, a flight of steps led to a square courtyard before the church, surrounded by columns; there, in the middle, stood the fountain (far right).

In order to provide water for the 'paradise', already under pope Damasus (366-384) a system of ducts had been dug below the Vatican Hill in order to draw water from a number of small springs, known since earlier times, that had never been exploited at their best. This basically represented a mini-aqueduct, that enabled St.Peter's basilica to face its needs for religious purposes, although the amount of water the system could provide was not too rich, nor too constant.

the courtyard of San Clemente's church
once was a 'paradise', although the present
fountain is not the original one

the old St.Peter's, with the canopy fountain
in the courtyard (circle); at the back,
works for the new church are in progress

About 400 years later, probably under pope Hadrian I (772-795), a bronze fountain of Roman age, shaped as a huge pine-cone, was taken from the remains of the Baths of Agrippa, behind the Pantheon, and used as a replacement for St.Peter's vase-shaped one. In fact, it was pope Hadrian who had a full restoration carried out to the Aqua Traiana, the ancient aqueduct that ran along the nearby Janiculum Hill, which finally provided once again the Vatican area with enough water. Its grand opening may have likely represented a good occasion for renewing the old fountain of Roman age.
The new pine-cone spouted water for two more centuries, until the aqueduct stopped working again.

a cantharus in the Roman National Museum

St.Peter's fountain, in a
pen drawing by anonymous (c.1525)
During the times when the Aqua Traiana did not work, the old system of Roman ducts was used (if not dry), and on special occasions, such as religious celebrations, a sufficient amount of water for the pilgrims to rince and refresh themselves might have been drawn by hand from the nearby Tiber.
Medieval chronicles such as the famous Mirabilia Urbis Romae (12th century) mentioned St.Peter's fountain among the city's noticeable features. The water gushed from the huge pine-cone through hundreds of tiny holes on its surface (see the picture at the bottom of the page). Scarce Renaissance drawings feature the fountain standing in the centre of a square basin, covered by a canopy that rested over eight columns (originally they were four) and richly decorated with marbles of various types; in particular, on its top parts were bronze peacocks, maybe from the mausoleum of Hadrian, which in the description provided by the chronicle are referred to as 'griffons' covered with a gold leaf.


De lo Cantaro de Santo Pietro.
In paradiso de Santo Pietro čne lo Cantaro, lo quale fece Simachus papa. Et fo adhornato de colopne de porphiro. Et intorno era de tabole de marmo. Et de sopre erano IIIIor griphoni narate. Et lo celo era de rame, et adhornato de flori narati. Et de sopre IIIIor delphini de rame, li quali gettavano l'acqua per la vocca. Et in medio de lo Cantaro era una pignea narata, la quale fo cohopertime de Santa Maria Rotonda. Ne la quale pignea de sopre fo la statova de dea Cybeles, matre de tutti li dii. La quale pignea, per connutto de plombo, per tutta gettava l'acqua ad quelli ke la voleano. Et quella acqua per connutto gia fi ad la gulia, ad lo banio de Nero imperatore.

About St.Peter's Cantharus.
In St.Peter's paradise is the Cantharus, built by pope Symmachus. And it was adorned with columns of porphyry. And it was faced with marble all around. And above were four golden griffons. And the uppe part was made of copper, and adorned with golden flowers. And four copper dolphins above spouted water from their mouths. And in the middle of the Cantharus was a golden pine-cone, which once covered Santa Maria Rotonda's church. Above the pine-cone was the statue of goddess Cybele, mother of all gods. The pine-cone, through a lead pipe, kept pouring water for anybody who wanted it. And by means of a duct that water reached the spire, by the baths of emperor Nero.

It is also mentioned in Dante Alighieri's Inferno, being likened to the face of a giant:
His face appeared to me as long and large
As is at Rome the pine-cone of Saint Peter's,
And in proportion were the other bones;
[XXXI, 58-60]

When St.Peter's was completely rebuilt (1506-1614), the fountain and the canopy were dismantled, and most of the precious materials were reused for other purposes. The only parts spared were the peacocks and the pine-cone, which around 1565 Pirro Ligorio set in the large niche of the Courtyard of Belvedere, later renamed of the Pine-cone.

the original pine-cone and the replicas of the two peacocks
The peacocks now on display in the courtyard are copies; the original ones, which still shine as gold (as the old chronicle says), are kept indoors, in the Braccio Nuovo (new wing) of the Chiaramonti Museum (Vatican Museums).
detail of the water holes
on the bronze pine-cone

one of the original
bronze peacocks

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PART I · page 1