~ Roman Monographs ~

· part III ·
Main Fountains


1 | 2 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 


During the Middle Ages, the ancient Aqua Virgo aqueduct had been restored several times, but never throughoutly, due to the lack of hydraulic knowledge and technical skills. Nevertheless, these interventions had kept the aqueduct functional.
When in the mid 15th century a major alteration was carried out to the last stretch of its course, the ancient broken viaduct was by-passed by means of a tunnel that ran underground. By that time, though, the springs from which the aqueduct started were no longer the original ones, at the point that its name had been changed into Salone water, after the name of the place (see map in Aqueducts, part IV), and the same water no longer tasted as good as it did in ancient times; the change had also affected the aqueduct's flow, that was considerably lower than it once used to be.
A first project for radically restoring the aqueduct, in order to connect it once again to the original springs, had been taken into consideration by pope Paul III (1534-49), but political problems at first, then bureaucracy, and even the rivalry among different architects who criticized each other's projects, delayed the works for some thirty years.
From 1562 to 1570, under popes Pius IV and Pius V, the original Aqua Virgo was finally reactivated. A few months after the works had been completed, the making of a number of underground branches was agreed, in order to supply districts not directly reached by the old duct.
On November 4th, 1570, a special commission of cardinals (called 'Water-springs Congregation') agreed the first program concerning the making of new public fountains on the most important spots that would have been reached by the new ducts, concentrated in the north-western part of the city, ancient Rome's Campus Martius.

late 16th century: the remains of the ancient Aqua Virgo viaduct
still crossing the Pincio hill; after the restoration works
of 1453 the working water duct ran underground
A document mentions these locations as follows:
«...The three-way junction in piazza del Popolo. The site of the aqueduct below the Trinitą . San Rocco for the benefit of the port . Either piazza Sciarra or piazza Colonna. Santi Apostoli, San Marco . Piazza Altieri . The Minerva. The Ritonda . The Dogana . Two in Agone , at both ends. Campo de Fiori. Piazza Giudea . Piazza Montanara . Monte Giordano if the water can reach the place. Piazza di Ponte 10 . One midway along via Giulia.»

1 - the church of Trinitą dei Monti
2 - Ripetta river port, no longer extant
3 - now piazza Venezia
4 - now piazza del Gesł
5 - the Pantheon's square
6 - the old Customs office, now piazza Sant'Eustachio
7 - piazza Navona
8 - no longer extant, once by the old Jewish district
9 - no longer extant, once near piazza Campitelli
10 - southern end of Sant'Angelo Bridge

vicolo del Bottino, as it appears today
The branches of the main duct, whence the location of the fountains, pointed towards some of the city's most densely inhabited districts, or whose population was growing in those days. The distance they could reach depended on technical parameters such as the water pressure and flow, and the number of outlets supplied (i.e. public fountains, private houses, etc.). The farther from the main duct the water travelled, and the greater the number of outlets, the lower was its pressure and its flow, as shown in the scheme on the right.

A new network of water pipes began to cross the city, sometimes leaving a trace in the names of the streets: the central via dei Condotti ("water pipe street"), today crowded with posh fashion stores, is a clear example.

major outlets;  smaller outlets

Antonio Brambilla's map (1590) features a fountain in piazza Altieri,
bearing no.33, where no fountain was ever really built; on the right
stands the semipublic fountain of piazza dell'Aracoeli (page 9)

Corrections had to be made to the initial project along the way; several scheduled fountains were never actually built, either because the water reached the spot with a low pressure (Santi Apostoli, via Giulia), or because the square was not large enough for a fountain (piazza Altieri), or because the spot was not considered worthy of receiving such an expensive facility (piazza Ponte), or because the spot could not be reached by a branch of the water network (Monte Giordano), or for various other reasons (Minerva, Dogana).

Below the church of Trinitą dei Monti, along the main course of the aqueduct, only a cistern popularly named bottino ("small barrel") was built for provision purposes, but not the public fountain that had been scheduled; today the cistern no longer exists, yet the lane where it stood (picture above left) still carries its name.

Along via Lata stood the church of St.James with an annexed hospital: in April 1572 this was the first establishment to receive a supply of running water, as remembered by a commemorative plaque set in 1981 (picture below). After well over 400 years, both the hospital and the water supply are still active.

the main branches of the Salone Water aqueduct
and the early fountains drawing water from them;
the small map shows their position within the urban area

In a similar way, the hospital by San Rocco's church, located not far from a branch of the aqueduct, was granted a small amount of water; a real public fountain could only be built there two centuries later (see Fontana della Botticella in part II).
The schematic maps shown above right indicate the water distribution compared to the urban boundaries (small map) and the main course of the aqueduct and its branches through the city (blue line).

Besides the ancestor of the Trevi Fountain, described in the previous page, which was already standing at the end of the main water duct (1), the only new fountains built out of the project were those in piazza del Popolo (2), piazza Colonna (3, preferred to piazza Sciarra), the two in piazza Navona (4), one in front of the Pantheon (5), one by San Marco (6, later removed), one in Campo de' Fiori (7), and one in piazza Giudia (8), though the latter was built off the scheduled spot, in the nearby piazza Mattei.


The first of the new fountains was the one for piazza del Popolo (1572). In the second half of the 16th century this square, now so famous, was scarsely inhabited, and still had a somewhat shabby look, despite other parts of the city had already been refurbished according to the Renaissance town-planning schemes.
Under popes Pius V and Gregory XIII it was enlarged, and the three-way junction opposite to Porta del Popolo, Rome's northernmost gate, was given a more regular and symmetrical shape.

Della Porta's first fountain, in its present location; note how the steps
help the fountain to stand straight despite the sloping ground

the fountain in a late 1600s etching by G.B.Falda;
the base of the obelisk is seen on the right
During these works, Giacomo Della Porta was in charge for the making of a new fountain for the center of the square, that replaced a small preexisting outlet. His creation was likely inspired by the late medieval fountains that stood in the Vatican and in Trastevere (see page 1), as this one too consisted of two basins of different size, from which the water poured into a larger one below; the only difference with the one by the Vatican was the octagonal shape of the lower basin, and of the three matching steps.

But when the fountain was set in place, it turned out to be too small for the vast square. Some marble tritons and sea-shells were then carved as additional decorations, but probably due to their large size they were not used, and kept aside for some other purpose (as described in page 3).
In 1589 Sixtus V gave the square its most imposing monument: the tall Egyptian obelisk, that once stood in the Circus Maximus, was unearthed from the original site and moved to the center of piazza del Popolo. The fountain was left below the spire, facing the three-way junction.
three stages of
piazza del Popolo's arrangement:

(above right ä) a view from the west:
in c.1570, before any change,
there was barely a square;

(← left) in a view from the east,
in c.1577, the new fountain
makes its first appearance;

(right →) viewed again from the west,
in 1593, the towering obelisk stands
next to the small fountain

Not satisfied yet, the pope thought of replacing Della Porta's fountain with a larger structure, in the shape of four spouting lions, an animal featured in his own family's coat of arms, upon which the obelisk would have rested.
This project was never carried out, and for over two centuries the octagonal fountain remained in piazza del Popolo, overlooked by the towering spire, whose bronze top element bears a cross over the three hills and the star, heraldic devices of Sixtus V.

← coat of arms of Sixtus V

(↑ above) piazza del Popolo today, looking towards the west;
(right →) the lions by Valadier that replaced Della Porta's fountain
The fountain was replaced only in 1823, when architect Valadier gave the square its present look: partly following the old pope's idea, yet enlarging his project, four marble lions in Egyptian style (so to recall the obelisk's origin, but also the coat of arms of Sixtus V) were rested on each corner of a short flight of steps leading to a platform where the monument's base stands; in front of each lion, a round basin was set, to collect the water.

Valadier also marked the eastern and western boundary of the square building two curved walls, and added a further fountain in their central part. One of them is shown below, but they are described more in detail in page 19, among those built in the 1800s.

one of Valadier's wall fountains (western side of the square)
Della Porta's fountain was temporarily used as a replacement in front of the church of San Pietro in Montorio, on the Janiculum Hill: here the one built by Giovanni Fontana (see picture in page 1 or page 12) had been badly damaged during a battle fought in 1849.
Some twenty years later, also this one was removed, disassembled, and stored in a deposit for almost one century.
Unfortunately, during this time its two upper basins went lost, or were stolen; when in the 1940s the fountain was inspected in order to be used again, only the lower octagonal basin was found. The missing ones were then carved again, using as a model the late 17th century etching by G.B.Falda (previously shown).

the new basin on the original baluster
The larger of the two original basins had four dragons with open wings in relief, the family device of Gregory XIII, under whose pontificate the fountain was built.
In the early 1940s Italy was still under the fascist regime; since Rome's governor was a member of the powerful Borghese family, instead of carving only dragons, as the original basin had, two eagles were added in alternate order, in honour of the high officer. This slight alteration did not affect the overall look of the fountain, still very faithful to Della Porta's original work.

In 1950 the fountain was finally reassembled, and given its ultimate location: piazza Nicosia, a central yet much smaller square than piazza del Popolo, crammed with parked cars at any time of the day (see the paragraph's first picture).

↑ top: one of the eagles
that replaced the original dragons;

↓ below: the coat of arms of Gregory XIII (left)
and of the Borghese family (right)

other pages in part III

1 | 2 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22