~ Roman Monographs ~

· part II ·
Small Fountains


page 2 page 3 page 4

What in Rome are known as fontanelle or fontanine, i.e. "small fountains", are the most humble water outlets, but still a source of interest, having been made during a time length of five centuries; for this reason they come in a great variety of different shapes.
Also their great number represents one of Rome's records. In fact, according to an old survey, in the second half of the 19th century they had almost reached 100, but if we take into consideration also the ones made over the 1900s, the total number of small public water outlets rises well over 1,000: many more than the ones boasted by any other city in the world.
Their sober look, at times even rather poor, clashes with the great importance that small fountains had in urban areas for several centuries: until private houses started having water taps fitted, they were the sources from which most people drew water for everyday's purposes.
← detail of the pretty fountain by lungotevere Aventino
But even nowadays, as these pictures clearly show, Rome's small public fountains are not at all merely confined to a role of useless relics from a faraway past; some of them, particularly the ones located by touristic spots, during the summertime are literally crammed ...and not only by visitors!

← the fountain in Esquilino district
still today is rather busy

This page reviews their different varieties, dividing them into two main groups: the old ones (from the 16th through the mid 19th centuries) and the modern ones (late 19th century to date).

not only humans enjoy small fountains


Although an important restoration and alteration of the main city aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo, had already been made by pope Nicholas V around the 1450s, it was no sooner than during the second half of the 16th century, when the city had already stepped out of its darkest age, and the population had reached again a considerable density, that the local administrators began to draft the first projects for having new fountains set in a number of city squares, for both public utility and - once again after a thousand years - for artistic/architectural purposes, a choice that marked the age of Renaissance.

Together with the larger fountains, the number of minor outlets that drew water from the revived aqueducts began to grow, as well, so to serve a greater number of spots throughout the city.

These small public facilities were used both by the local dwellers, for drinking and for other daily necessities (running water in houses was still a very long way to come), and by the many thirsty horses, which in those days represented the bulk of Rome's "traffic". In fact, another name which most small fountains used to be called with was beveratore, an old word for "drinking-trough".
They usually hung from a wall, where one or more nozzles, often embellished with grotesque faces, animal heads and other decorations in relief, spouted water into a small basin below.

a very simple trough, with no decoration

the sarcophagus in via Bocca di Leone
The latter was frequently rectangular in shape, resting directly on the ground or on a platform, or on rests. Due to the wealth of ancient roman remains, which throughout the Middle Ages had been totally disregarded, basins for these fountains were often obtained by reusing old sarcophagi, in most cases beautifully carved, sometimes bought from privates or churches, in whose estates they had been lying abandoned for centuries, or had been found during maintainance works.
Among the many samples are the ones in via di Santo Stefano del Cacco, in via Bocca di Leone, in the courtyard of San Silvestro in Capite's church, and by the Colosseum (next to the subway station).

sarcophagus-fountains were set in the streets...

...but today some are found in the courtyard of churches

Sometimes not sarcophagi, but tubs made of stone or marble, coming from the many public baths of ancient Rome, were used for the new fountains.

the nice sarcophagus-trough by the Colosseum

tub-shaped trough in Sant'Angelo Castle's grounds

the Roman Forum in the early 17th century:
note the round trough in the lower right corner,
used by cattle, whose market was once held here
Also other kinds of remains could have been suitable; for instance, the large round basin found in the late 1500s beneath Marforio's statue, as described in the previous part I, was turned into a trough, but an old urn, or even the hollow shaft of a broken column, placed under a water outlet, would have worked well for this purpose.

Besides the drinking-troughs, a number of fountains were more specifically designed for the people. Usually these ones had a smaller basin, at a higher level than a trough, and their decoration could considerably vary in richness.
However, the great importance that all of them had for the neighborhood's life can be told by the fact that in some cases the street where they stood was named after the fountain, regardless of its size and artistic value.

A typical example is that of Fontanella Borghese, now looking as a plain nozzle (the original decoration went lost) with a tiny basin below, located at the back of Palazzo Borghese. The latter is one of Rome's hugest and most important noble palaces, whose courtyard boasts a beautiful ornate fountain, over twenty times the size of this one. Nevertheless, this insignificant and rather miserable looking outlet took the name of the Borghese family.
Originally, the fountain was built at the expenses of another family, the Della Genga, around year 1600; therefore, initially it may have likely been called Fontanella Della Genga. But due to the looming presence of Palazzo Borghese, the most important landmark of the neighborhood, the small fountain too ended up being named in this way, in order to be more easily identified. And the same name was then handed down to the street where it stands, and even to a nearby square, both of which are still called Fontanella Borghese.

the tiny Fontanella Borghese

Still small, but certainly prettier, are the two niche-shaped fountains hanging on the wall of Palazzo della Rovere, along the southern side of via della Conciliazione, in Borgo district, next to the Vatican. They are almost twins, but one them comes from a building taken down during the works for the opening of this modern avenue. Their decoration is a dragon, and one of them also features an eagle, both of them are devices from the coat of arms of the Borghese family, whom pope Paul V (1605-21), i.e. Camillo Borghese, belonged to.
The water they pour is drawn from the Acqua Paola, the reactivated aqueduct once called Aqua Traiana, whose restoration and reopening had been sponsored by the same pope in the early years of the 17th century.
One of the two bears the three letters S P A, acronym for Salus Per Aqua ("health by means of water" in Latin), a mark which used to be placed on sources of water believed to be good for one's health. Others. though. claim that the three letters stand for Sacro Palazzo Apostolico ("Holy Apostolic Building").

the fountain by the pawn-shop
Devices and coats of arms are a common feature on Rome's fountains, and the dragon and eagle of the Borghese family are among the ones most frequently found.
In the same Borgo district once stood another fountain known as Mascarone di Borgo ("Borgo's grotesque face"), which had the eagle of the Borghese on it; but when the local houses were roughly pulled down, between 1936 and 1937, also the fountain went lost. An old etching of this fountain is shown in part III page 13.

coat of arms
of the Borghese

However, a very similar one, dating from the early 1600s, still decorates the front of Palazzo del Monte di Pietà, in Regola district, the building that houses the public pawn-shop (an establishment founded in 1539). As the lost fountain in Borgo did, also this one pours water from a grotesque face, above which the Borghese eagle perches with open wings. This one, though, is smaller. Lacking an official name, it is simply referred to as 'the fountain of Palazzo del Monte di Pietà'.

Not far from the previous one, the Fontana del Mascherone ("grotesque face fountain") features the insignia of a different family. Located in the charming Renaissance atmosphere of via Giulia (see The 22 Rioni, Ponte and Regola), it draws water from the Acqua Paola aqueduct, which had been opened a few years earlier.
The water pours from the large face and fills the smaller basin, trickling down into the larger one below. The face and the trough are ancient roman remains. The metal fleur-de-lys above the fountain, instead, reminds us of its owners, the Farnese, the important family in whose coat of arms are six of these flowers. This facility was built at their expenses, right behind the family's great palace, in front of which stand two more full-sized fountains (described in part III).

Another coat of arms is featured on the plain marble trough in piazza del Nazzareno, which bears a buffalo's head for the Del Bufalo family; it was heavily restored in the late 1950s. Over the doorway of their palace, facing the fountain, is a similar head.

the grotesque face of via Giulia

Besides the owner's emblems, also plaques inscribed in Latin were sometimes added to the small fountain's decoration; in many cases they simply praise their owner, but in doing so they sometimes provide some additional information.
An example is the trough in via di Porta Cavalleggeri, with a lion's head for the nozzle and a sarcophagus decorated with a traditional wavy-shaped motif: its upper inscription reads that pope Pius IV had the outlet set here in 1565 "for the benefit of the mounted soldiers", the Cavalleggeri corps whose barracks stood nearby, after which the place was named.
After some time, the fountain likely stopped working, because the lower plaque remembers another pope, Clement XI, for having reactivated it in 1713.

the trough by Porta Cavalleggeri and
← (left) the one of the Del Bufalo family

the small grotto fountain (left) and
detail of the water-spouting head,
once shaped a lion (below)
A large plaque also hangs above the small fountain located by the church of San Salvatore in Lauro. It has the shape of a niche with very rough walls, mimicking a grotto, in which the water gushes from a rather low outlet into a tiny basin. In its best days, the small sculpture through which the nozzle is fitted featured a lion's head, now barely recognizable, except the pattern of the animal's mane.
The inscription states the fountain's date, 1579, and mysteriously mentions "the dragon who rules over the world", referring to the device in the coat of arms of the Boncompagni, a family whom pope Gregory XIII (1572-85), the sponsor of the fountain, belonged to.
coat of arms of the Boncompagni

the sarcophagus before Palazzo Spada
with an additional statue and false
ashlar work painted in the background
In some cases, the simple look of a drinking trough fountain could be dramatically improved by adding elegant architecture elements.
For instance, along salita di San Sebastianello (on the right), below the Pincio Hill, is a simple sarcophagus fountain. Placed inside a tall niche, above a flight of steps, what would look like a very modest trough has a much more elegant appearance (also the small fountain in via Annia, mentioned in page 2, was given a niche to make it look more important). An empty frame over the outlet once contained a painting, or maybe a small shrine, but today no trace of it is left.
Here the water is drawn from the ancient Roman aqueduct once known as Aqua Virgo, presently known as Acqua di Trevi, whose main duct runs at the back of the niche.

the sarcophagus in the tall niche

Another sarcophagus, located in front of Palazzo Spada (above left), with a statue above it, placed once again inside a niche, with a painted background that mimics an ashlar work texture, has an even better appearance; two larger basins below collect the water that pours from two lion heads that decorate the sarcophagus.

The look of several other small fountains has radically changed, due to the many times they were moved from the site for which they had been originally made, disassembled and reassembled using different parts.
A typical case is that of the fountain without a name found outside the church of Santa Sabina, on the Aventine Hill, whose water pours from a grotesque face into a tub-shaped basin, and then overflows into a larger basin below.

the site where Della Porta's grotesque face stood from 1827 to the late 1800s →

the grotesque face, now by Santa Sabina's church
This face was designed in the late 1500s by the distinguished architect and fountain-maker Giacomo Della Porta, for a large drinking trough into which a large round basin of Roman age had been turned, in the area of the old cattle market (now the Roman Forum, see part I), where it stood for over two centuries. In the early 1800s the basin was moved to the Quirinal Hill, and the face was used for decorating a small sarcophagus-trough fountain by the bank of the Tiber opposite the church of San Giovanni de' Fiorentini (above). About 70 years later, by the time walls were built along the river to prevent further floods, it was disassembled once again, and stored in a deposit until 1936, when its ultimate location was finally agreed and it was set above a further basin (the third one!).

Page 2 reviews other small fountains whose life has been somewhat adventurous, while pages 3 and 4 describe their modern development from the 19th through the 20th centuries.


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