~ Roman Monographs ~

part II
Small Fountains


page 1 page 3 page 4

From the early 1500s through the 1800s, the number of small fountains, as well as that of large ones, kept growing larger and larger.
All fountains drew water from branches of the main aqueducts (see Aqueducts monograph), considered a public property and managed by the city's administrators for the benefit of the whole population. Private branches could be applied for, on the payment of a tax. Running water was considered so important that as a form of reward for doing good deeds, or sometimes simply on request, the rich owners of family palaces could be granted free amounts of water, on condition of building in a nearby street a small fountain for public use, and take care of its maintanance at their own expenses (so-called semi-public fountains); the owner also had the right to use a part of the given amount of water for his own private purposes.

the small Fountain of the Bees, by Gianlorenzo Bernini →

the three large bees
For the making of semi-public fountains the rich owners sometimes hired an artist of good level, in order to obtain a better result than a simple 'trough'; actually, the new fountain would increase the value of the nearby property and enhance the family's reputation among the people.
However, in time many of these fountains were moved from their original site, as mentioned in page 1. Some of them changed destination more than once, due to frequent and, in some cases, deplorable alterations endured by several old buildings, either following changes of property, or due to the growing traffic (carriages and coaches at first, then cars and buses).
A famous one is the Fontanella delle Api ("fountain of the bees", pictures above) on the spot where via Veneto meets piazza Barberini. Its renowned author, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, accounts for the ingenious design of this huge white sea-shell.
Three bees alight by its base, remembering the coat of arms of the Barberini, a powerful family to which pope Urban VIII (Bernini's sponsor, and client of this work) belonged.

the fountain (arrow) by the mid 1800s
But the fountain we see today was rebuilt and repositioned in modern times, around 1915. In fact, it originally stood on the corner with via Sistina, (opposite end of the square, see the detail on the right), hanging from the wall, as most other "troughs". Its basin had the shape of a second shell, which matched the vertical one, as in an open clam.
Around the mid 1800s it was dismantled, and stored in a deposit, where some parts went lost. Therefore what we see now is close to Bernini's creation, yet not the whole original work.

← the square in 1748; the fountain was on the corner with via Sistina (red arrow on the left),
presently, it stands at the beginning of via Veneto (red dot on the right), where in those days
WAS a smaller square, piazza de' Cappuccini; the parts in yellow were taken down

A curious fate was that of the Fontanella della Scrofa ("fountain of the sow"). It consisted of a plain nozzle and a tiny basin, not very different from the aforesaid Fontanella Borghese, decorated with a simple ancient Roman relief, featuring a sow.

the sow (left) separated from the small outlet (right)

Due to traffic reasons, in 1874 the fountain had to be moved to the nearby corner, but since the street had already been called via della Scrofa (sow street), in order to avoid renaming the place, the relief was left on the wall. It is still there, some 15 metres or yards away from its outlet, with a plaque that remembers the fact.
detail of the sow

two old semi-public fountains,
misplaced yet still working
To move a small fountain for traffic purposes was a very common practice. Most of Rome's old streets are narrow, and have no sidewalk. So when during the 19th century the number of coaches, carriages, carts, considerably grew, many of these fountains, which slightly reduced the roadway, created a problem despite their small size.
For semi-public ones the new position was usually chosen round the nearest corner, or at the back of the building, so to maintain a connection with the owner's house and to keep drawing water from the same source as before.

On the left are two more examples of semi-public fountains moved from their original site. One of them was recently fitted with a brass tap, to reduce the consumption of water (see also page 3).

On one end of via Lata, almost a lane crossing Rome's high street via del Corso, is the popular Fontanella del Facchino ("the porter's fountain"), despite the featured figure is really a water-carrier, holding a cask. It was hung in the mid 1500s on the front of a house no longer standing, as in the 1700s it was taken down and replaced with the mighty Palazzo De Carolis, now also called Palazzo del Banco di Roma. On the occasion, the fountain was spared, but moved round the corner, to the side of the building, where it is now.
Despite its bad state of preservation, the fountain reveals the hand of a skilled sculptor, who somebody in the past, way too optimistically, had claimed to be Michelangelo!
In fact, the early owner of the building where the fountain hung, Matteo Grifoni, personally knew the renowned artist, who lived in a lane called Macel de' Corvi, only 200 metres (or yards) off this spot. But this attribution has been now completely rejected. Instead it is possible that the Florentine painter Jacopino del Conte, who became the new owner of the building where the fountain was set, may have drawn the water-carrier by himself.
The fountain is also described in Curious and Unusual - page 2, as the Facchino belongs to the group of Rome's popular 'talking statues'.

(↑ above) a 17th century etching by G. B. Falda
still features the Facchino (blue arrow)
on the front of the building;

(← left) the water-carrier's fountain today,
hanging on the other side of the same corner

The Fontana della Botticella ("fountain of the cask") was probably inspired by the previous one and it was built in 1774, over two centuries later. Its location, along lungotevere Ripetta, faces the river.
However, it is still uncertain whether its personage too features either a water-carrier or an inn-keeper,i.e. whether the small barrel carved at the bottom of the fountain should have contained water or wine. In fact, every day hundreds of casks of wine reached Rome via the busy river port of Ripetta, which up to the late 1800s stood on this same spot, along the Tiber's bank.

← Ripetta's fountain

water-carrier or inn-keeper? →

The Babuino Fountain, in via del Babuino, is a further member of the "talking statues", together with the aforementioned Facchino and the older Marforio (part I).
It was set here around 1575, when secondary branches of the Salone water (i.e. the ancient Aqua Virgo aqueduct, which had just been reactivated) were created for the benefit of this growing district. The Grandi family had a semipublic fountain in the traditional style built by their house, using a statue of a reclining sylenus and a basin, both of Roman age. The statue was already in bad condition, so the people nicknamed it babuino ("baboon") because of its weird-looking face, and after a while the whole street, originally called via Paolina Trifaria (after pope Paul III), was renamed via del Babuino.
Around 1730 the house changed owner, and the alterations that followed caused the fountain to be moved across the street, set in a niche shaped as a false doorway of the building (below left).

the Babuino Fountain today

old drawing of the
18th century solution
for the Babuino fountain
Then, some 150 years later, the fountain was dismantled: the niche was turned into an actual doorway, the basin was used for another trough located off the city walls (see below), while the popular Babuino was placed in the courtyard of the building, as a statue. Only in 1957 the municipality found a further rectangular basin that could suit the old sylenus, who was finally given back his original role, almost on the same spot where his story started.
Probably due to the fact of being so ...talkative, up to year 2000 the wall by which the fountain stands used to be covered with thousands of graffiti, which were then completely removed.

the small fountain in via Annia (1864)

the oval fountain in lungotevere Aventino
One more misplaced small fountain is the one presently located in lungotevere Aventino, next to the Tiber's bank that runs below the Aventine Hill. It dates back to 1717 and it is shaped as a long narrow oval; it has a small front at one end of the basin, featuring a lion's head on the side of the nozzle and the coat of arms of pope Clement XI (Albani family) at the back. It used to stand about 150 metres or yards off its present site, very close to the larger fountain of similar age mentioned in part III, page 18, next to the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and the Temple of Vesta. In fact, it was set there for purposes such as washing laundry and drinking horses, in order to spare the aforesaid fountain from being damaged or getting clotted with dirt.

In just a few cases, small fountains took benefit from their relocation: an example can be seen at the end of via Annia, not far from the Colosseum (picture above right). Here is a 'trough-shaped' fountain, with an ancient sarcophagus and two small outlets shaped as lion heads, embellished with a decorated front featuring the coat of arms of pope Pius IX, an inscription with a date (1864), and a tiny round basin, also working, in its upper part. The structure stands on a platform with three steps, inside a niche over which hangs a further coat of arms of the city of Rome, flanked by a pair of small dolphins. The overall look is unusually smart for a small fountain; it should not surprise that one of the most renowned architects of the second half of the 1800s, Virginio Vespignani, is credited with its design. The platform and the niche, though, were added at a later stage: this fountain once stood by the church of St.Clement; when it was moved, in the mid 1920s, it was given the additional elements, which make it look more important than it did originally.

The two following fountains are not really 'small', and they could certainly rank among the full-sized ones. But since one of them stands side by side with a real trough, while the latter fountain has many analogies with the former one, they are both described in this page.

By a small crossing about 1 km (0.6 mi) along the old Flaminian Way, off the northernmost city gate Porta del Popolo, two different fountains face each other. At the bottom of the narrow street that divides them, pope Julius III (1550-55) owned a large villa, which today houses the most important collection of Etruscan antiquities in Rome (National Museum of Villa Giulia). The two fountains - i.e. the large one for humans, the smaller trough for animals - were set here as a sort of welcome for the many travellers and pilgrims who, coming to Rome from the north, passed by the pope's favourite mansion. Both fountains draw water from the ancient Roma aqueduct called Aqua Virgo, and renamed Acqua di Salone during the Renaissance (see part III), whose direction towards the city runs very close to this spot, parallel to the Flaminian way.
the crossing with the two fountains, etching by Giuseppe Vasi, c.1750
Of the two, the fountain on the left is named after Julius III, and it is sometimes listed among the full-sized fountains, despite only its front is large. It rests against a two-storey building, which up to the mid 1500s had only one floor. When architect Pirro Ligorio added a second floor, the fountain too was enlarged, and altered into its present look.

the bottom part of the fountain of Julius III
A large plaque replaced a smaller original one, and a coat of arms was hung at the top. Nevertheless, the outlet itself remained rather small and, despite the additional decorations, its lower part is not really different from an ordinary trough.

the fountain of Julius III, today

Facing this structure stands the second fountain, which is a real trough.
Its original shape can be told from old etchings: it had an outlet shaped as a small head in the center of a seashell, resting against a tall decorated front. This one too was heavily altered on different occasions.

the original trough and
the decorated front
In the 1800s, for unknown reasons, both the outlet and the basin were replaced with newer ones. The basin was the same one that earlier in time had supported the Babuino statue (previously mentioned). Then, in the 1930s, a rather anonymous building incorporated the small fountain, causing the loss of its decorated front.
These changes considerably diminished the appeal of this spot, once very picturesque.

Luckily, the original trough was preserved. After some time it was set up again, no longer with a front, at about 100 metres (or yards) off the crossing, along the same Flaminian Way, by a low modern wall (picture on the right).

(↑ above) the new trough, on whose basin the Babuino once rested;
(↓ below) the original trough

Other 'welcome fountains' could be found on the opposite side of town, but only one of them is now left standing.

the fountain of Clement XII
About 3 Km or 2 miles off Porta San Giovanni, along the via Tuscolana (another main road of ancient Roman origin), on the spot where a surviving stretch of the ancient Aqua Claudia aqueduct crosses the one called Aqua Felix, stands a lonely though rather ornate fountain, featuring a curious grotesque face with a pair of bat wings. Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) had it built for travellers who moved towards Rome along this busy southern-eastern approach, so that they could take a break and refresh themselves shortly before entering the city. Although nowadays this spot is located in one of the suburbs with the highest population density, in those days it was open countryside, barely in sight of the city walls. This fountain, that was also known as Fontana Bella ("pretty fountain").
In 1723, probably due to bad condition, it was restored by pope Clement XII, who though also altered and enlarged it into its present shape: this is why ever since it has been known as 'the fountain of Clement XII'. It stands against a pillar of the Aqua Felix, and draws water from the same aqueduct. It is also mentioned in Aqueducts - part III, page 2.
The 'pretty fountain', despite its 18th century alteration, is the only extant fountain out of the three that Sixtus V had set on the spots where the aqueduct he had personally sponsored (the Acqua Felice), crossed main city roads; the other two stood along via Casilina and via Tiburtina, but .

A few fountains were lucky enough to outlive the building they originally hung from, after the latter was taken down.

small fountain from Villa Ludovisi

The small outlet shown on the left, hanging from the northern stretch of Aurelian's walls, was built with the few fragments spared from a vast villa that once belonged to the Ludovisi family (as testified by the writing FONS LUDOVISIA, i.e. "Ludovisi fountain"); its grounds stretched over a very large area, which partly matches the northern part of the present Villa Borghese. When Villa Ludovisi was acquired by Rome's municipality, in the late 19th century, the land was used for building a whole new district, the 16th rione, which was named Ludovisi, as well. Unfortunately, now nothing is left of the villa, besides the large art collection it once housed, now held by the National Roman Museum, and very few scanty remains, among which this small fountain.

the fountain in Sant'Alessio's garden

In a similar way, in a garden by the church of Sant'Alessio on the Aventine Hill, a small basin supported by a bird on a background of rocks. A tiny inscription explains that it comes from a building that stood in the no longer extant piazza Rusticucci, near the Vatican; it was set here in 1937, following the extensive demolition program carried out in Borgo district

pretty but... no water nor basin!
Other small fountains, instead, were not as lucky as the ones described so far.

Some were temporarily left without water, after being moved from their original site; but others, such as the tiny fontanella del Putto ("small fountain of the child"), an elegant but rather worn mid 16th century niche in via Giulia that features a child holding two dolphins, were left permanently dry.
The latter fountain (left) not only lost its water, but its basin too. This is a pity, considering that a renowned artist, Antonio Sangallo the Young, is credited for this work.

view of piazza Navona in the early 17th century; in the center
of the square is a simple 'trough' with some horses drinking

A few more disappeared for a completely opposite reason, that is to be replaced by a much larger fountain. A clear example is piazza Navona's Fountain of the Rivers, described in part III: in the mid 17th century, one of Bernini's most famous masterpieces took the place of a simple drinking-trough for horses that stood in the middle of the square (see picture above).

Now let's step further in time on page 3, and see what the 19th and 20th century small fountains look like.


page 1

page 3

page 4