~ Roman Monographs ~

· part III ·
Main Fountains


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In 1574 one of the new branches of the Aqua Virgo reached the former site of emperor Domitian's stadium. An open space during the Middle Ages, in Renaissance Rome it had gradually turned into a square, yet maintaining the original long and oval shape, when buildings had risen all around its perimeter. Once officially called piazza in Agone, by the 16th century this name had already been corrupted by the people into the more familiar piazza Navona.


According to the cardinals' document, two fountains were to be built here, at both ends of the oval. Since the water duct crossed the center of the place, a third outlet, a simple drinking-trough for horses, was added to the original project between the two larger structures.

piazza Navona (early 1600s): the two fountains and the central trough can be seen;
in the left half of the square a pedlar or a charlatan is surrounded by a small crowd
Della Porta was commissioned for the making of the two main fountains. Following his design, two marble basins were carved, with a multilobed shape; in the original version they rested above two steps. Then each of them was encircled by a marble parapet, to prevent them from being damaged by the many carriages that drove through the square.
Since the two basins still needed a decoration, Della Porta thought of recycling the four large tritons that had already been carved for piazza del Popolo (see page 2), but had been kept aside.

the masks and tritons around the basin
These ones were used for the fountain on the southern end of the square: here the water gushed from a small group of rocks in the center of the basin, and from the horns played by the four tritons. Small additional groups were carved for each of the two fountains, in the shape of a grotesque mask between a pair of small dolphins.
But when the time came to carve the remaining four large tritons (or similar figures) for the northern fountain, there were no longer funds left. The same four masks that should have adorned its bare basin were reused for the making of another fountain that Della Porta was building, the one in front of the Pantheon.

This arrangement remained steady for almost one century.
When in 1651 the square's central trough was replaced by Bernini's famous Fountain of the Rivers (see the second part of this page), with the remaining funds also the southern fountain was enlarged.
Why the money was spent on this one, and not on the northern one, still unfinished, may be easily understood considering that on the southern side of the square, facing the fountain, stands Palazzo Pamphilj, and who had ordered the works was the same owner of the mansion, pope Innocent X, i.e. Giovanni Battista Pamphilj.
Bernini, in charge of this work too, replaced the rocks with a group consisting of three dolphins topped by a large murex shell, that the people of Rome immediately nicknamed "the Snail".

the fountain in 1630, before Bernini's alteration, and (right) Palazzo Pamphilj →

Innocent X was not very happy with the rather small size of this group, and only one year later he got rid of it by giving it as a present to his sister-in-law, the famous (and infamous) Dame Olimpia. Bernini was then asked to create something larger.

the final arrangement of the Fountain of the Moor,
including the ground basin added by Bernini
Following a further unsuccessful project, the versatile artist finally satisfied the pope by drawing a naked bearded figure balancing on a shell, in the attitude of grasping a dolphin by the tail, while the latter, between the man's legs, spouts water from its mouth. Due to their proportions, either the man is a giant, or the dolphin is a midget!
The facial expression of the figure, vaguely reminiscent of an African (although this was not Bernini's purpose), caused the figure to be referred to as 'the Moor', whence the name Fountain of the Moor, still officially used.

Instead the other fountain, at the northern end of the square, without any particular group nor decoration, used to be called Fountain of the Coppersmiths, after the nearby shops that sold cauldrons, pans and other metal kitchenware.

In drawing the moor's figure - at least its upper part - Bernini may have likely been inspired by the popular "talking statue" of Pasquino (see Rome's Talking Statues), which stands only 50 metres or yards off this spot, as a comparison of the two figures clearly suggests. This is strange, because due to its very poor condition no artist would have thought of Pasquino as a model.
Furthermore, in those days the "talking statues" represented the worst enemies of the pope-king (who in this case was Bernini's client), and the old torso without limbs took the blame for most of the satirical posters against the ruling class, often hung to its neck at night-time. But Bernini was known to be a man of humour, and his choice may have not been a mere coincidence, maybe a revenge for how Innocent X had treated him earlier.
the Moor (left) and
the nearby Pasquino

Since further funds for piazza Navona's works had been obtained, Bernini removed both the steps and the parapet from the southern and the northern fountains, and built for the southern one alone a larger basin at ground level, or pool, that completely surrounded the original structure, repeating its shape, and certainly improving its look.

Meanwhile, at the northern end of the square, the more neglected Fountain of the Coppersmiths still remained without tritons, without masks, and most of all without a central group. The following pope Alexander VII had a ground basin made for it, like the one at the southern end. But to be finished, the fountain had to wait until the fall of the papal rule.

the Fountain of Neptune, and details of its 19th century groups

In 1873, no longer the pope's whims, but a public competition held by Rome's municipality chose the central group, carved by Antonio della Bitta, featuring Neptune in the attitude of piercing a large octopus with his trident, surrounded by smaller ones featuring horses, putti and naiads, in alternate order, by Gregorio Zappalà. Obviously, its name changed into Fountain of Neptune.

Bernini's "Snail" (copy)
The reader might wonder what happened to the "Snail".
The latter was actually used for another fountain, a late work by Alessandro Algardi, located in the heart of Villa Pamphilj, once private gardens of the noble family, and now a public park. In recent times, the original group was replaced by a copy, and stored in the Doria-Pamphilj Gallery.

And what about the old drinking-trough?
At first, it was moved to the northern end of the square, and simply left beside the unfinished Fountain of the Coppermakers, until the latter was completed. It was then taken to Villa Borghese, to a small clearing near the pond, where it can be seen today.
But by the time this happened, piazza Navona's southern fountain was to suffer a rather disgraceful alteration.

Since the tritons and the mask groups carved by Della Porta already showed heavy signs of their age, instead of being restored, these ones too were moved to Villa Borghese. In piazza Navona they were replaced by copies, carved by the obscure artist Luigi Amici, while the originals, exposed to bad weather and occasional vandals, kept growing more and more dilapidated. Only very few years ago, the tritons were removed, in order to be restored. The trough and one of the mask groups, instead, are still there.

Villa Borghese: (above) the old trough and (right) one of Della Porta's
original masks, over a sarcophagus arranged as a trough fountain


Approaching year 1650, a Jubilee year, pope Innocent X had in mind to build a third fountain in piazza Navona, where his family mansion stood, by replacing the central drinking-trough with something more grand.

the Fountain of the Rivers
Under the previous pope Urban VIII (Barberini), the famous architect Gianlorenzo Bernini had been the official fountain-maker. The Barberini and the Pamphilj families, though, were enemies, up to the point that after Urban VIII's death and the election of Innocent X, some members of the Barberini family, who were responsible for the massive corruption during the previous years, were persecuted and had to flee Rome, disguised in women clothes.
This explains why Innocent X chose not to be the patron of Bernini (who was the author of many outstanding works for his predecessor's family), preferring to him another famous architect, Francesco Borromini.
The pope held a contest for the making of the central fountain of piazza Navona, which the most renowned architects of the time took part in; only Bernini was not invited to submit a project.

Borromini could have easily won, if only his creation had been less simple than the one he drew, i.e. an obelisk, whose base was surrounded by four sea-shells that spouted water. But Borromini was not a fountain-maker, and his name is not remembered by any of Rome's fountains.
Bernini was relegated to a secondary role by Innocent X, who entrusted him with the making of a new duct that drew water from the main outlet of the Acqua Vergine aqueduct (i.e. the present Trevi Fountain), and carried it straight into piazza Navona; the flow of the old branch was insufficient for a third large fountain.
On this occasion Bernini resorted to his legendary cunningness.
Innocent X's sister-in-law, Dame Olimpia Maidalchini (simply Pimpa, or Pimpaccia for the Romans, who hated her), was a very greedy woman. Especially atfer the death of her husband, the pope's brother, she was known to exert a strong influence upon Innocent's decisions.
Bernini, yet not taking part to the contest, drew all the same a beautiful project, and made a silver model of it, which he presented to Dame Olimpia, making her eyes sparkle.

the coat of arms of the Pamphilj family, on both sides of the fountain
Pope Innocent, who meanwhile had rejected all the projects by the other architects, was then convinced by his sister-in-law to choose Bernini's fountain.
A second version of the story exists, according to which Bernini built his model in clay, as all other architects had done, and had it stealthily taken into Palazzo Pamphilj, with the help of cardinal Niccolò Ludovisi; when Innocent X saw it, he fell in love with it, at the point that he decided to choose it.
The irascible Borromini went literally mad when the pope assigned the victory to his archrival! The legends about the friction between these two architects (see Legendary Rome) were born following this fact.

The expenses for the new fountain turned out so high that to satisfy his sister-in-law Innocent X had to levy a tax on bread, at the same time slightly reducing the weight of the standard loaf of bread. So the people had one more reason for hating Pimpaccia, whom they held responsible for this further vexation.
What Bernini conceived for piazza Navona is undoubtly the most complex and ingenious composition ever drawn for Rome's fountains. He knew that the pope would have liked an obelisk to overlook the fountain, particularly the ancient Roman one that had been recently unearthed by the Circus of Maxentius, carved as an imitation of the famous Egyptian spires (see also Obelisks, part II), but in those days it was believed to be original. Bernini made the obelisk look much taller by standing it over a pyramidal group of rocks, that form a cavity below, in the shape of a cavern. In those days this was an absolute novelty, as the classic architectural schemes forbade the use of a hollow base for a heavy weight, such as that of an obelisk. But Bernini proved this to be perfectly possible.
↑ above, the allegory of the Ganges river
and the tall palm-tree recalling Africa;
← left, the obelisk above the fountain

The central pyramid of rocks, a work that kept Bernini and his equipe busy for no less than two years, was carved in travertine from Tivoli, strong enough to hold the weight of the heavy obelisk.
Four huge allegories in white marble sit on the corners of the rocks; they represent the major river of each of the four continents known by the 17th century, i.e. the Danube (carved by Antonio Raggi) for Europe, the Ganges (by Claude Poussin) for Asia, the Rio de la Plata (by Francesco Baratta) for America, and the Nile (by Antonio Fancelli) for Africa. The Nile allegory was carved with a veiled head, referring to the unknown sources of this river, only discovered in the 19th century.

the veiled Nile
On the northern and southern sides hang two beautifully ornate coats of arms of the Pamphilj family, ideally representing Innocent X's religious authority over the whole world.
The water fills a large ground basin, springing from several holes in the rocks and flowing along their surface; once they were golden in colour (the paint has now completely vanished), but it is likely that they were also partly covered by weeds, an effect that the author had foreseen. The many small streams and waterfalls, whose noise is part of the composition, as well, were an absolute novelty, because up to then fountains had always spouted water from one or more standard nozzles.

the dramatic attitude
of the Rio de la Plata
A variety of animals peeps from the rocks, providing a reference to the four continents.
On the eastern side, a lion emerges from its den, i.e. the cave below the rocks, to have a drink by a tall palm-tree, which climbs almost up to the base of the obelisk. On the opposite side, a horse comes out in a similar way, raising his front legs in a gallop; the animal is the only part of the fountain personally carved by Bernini.

the horse, carved by Bernini
Below the Rio de la Plata, a strange-looking armadillo peeps from the corner of the northern side of the fountain. Bernini had the opportunity of seeing one in Rome, because Gesuit Athanasius Kircher, a famous Egyptologist who had been consulted about the text carved in hieroglyphs on the four sides of the obelisk, owned a small private collection, that he kept in the Roman College seminary; it included also a stuffed armadillo (in those days the animal was called a taitù) that had been sent to him from south America by other Gesuits. This was undoubtedly the model that Bernini copied.
the curious armadillo
By the base of the allegory, a stash of coins reminds us that in the 1600s the legend of the Sierra del Plata was still alive; since the time of the Spanish conquest, a 'silver hill' was believed to exist somewhere in South America, and the same Rio de la Plata (i.e. "silver river") was named after it. Also the elaborate anklet worn by the allegory was likely meant to be in silver. On the opposite side of the same rock, a group of cacti grows on the reef, while a snake crawls in the upper part, with a fearsome open mouth.

A large fish and a water serpent swim afloat in the ground basin, swallowing the water, thus providing a fancy drainage device.

the snake above the rocks and the water-swallowing fish

Not only Innocent X appreciated Bernini's masterwork, but the whole city of Rome did (except poor Borromini!). When the fountain was finally unveiled, on June 12, 1651, the awesome composition left everybody stunned. Walking around the fountain was like taking a virtual trip around the world.

A faithful description in verse of piazza Navona's fountains is found in the famous epic poem Meo Patacca by Giuseppe Berneri, written in archaic Roman dialect and first published in 1695. The passage about the fountains is included in the Canto III, while further pictures of the Fountain of the Rivers can be found in the page Meo Patacca's Setting.

other pages in part III

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