~ Roman Monographs ~

part III
Main Fountains


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Another fountain by Giacomo Della Porta is the one in piazza Colonna; the name of this square, as well as that of the whole district, recalls the tall column of emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose spiral carvings, from the bottom to the top, tell the story of the military campaigns fought by emperor Marcus Aurelius (see The 22 Rioni, Rione III - Colonna).
The imposing monument, that stands in the same square, would have certainly diminished the appeal of any fountain. But once again Della Porta accepted the challenge, and drew an interesting basin in portasanta marble, shaped as a fancy-looking tub, likely inspired by the large ones once found in ancient Roman baths.
It has eight curved sides, convex and concave, in alternate order. Along its outer part are sixteen vertical bands in white marble, suggesting the "legs" of the tub, each one ending with a small lion head (see below).
Originally, the fountain stood over a short flight of five steps, which acted as a base, but due to the change of height of the ground level, the tub now rests directly on the ground.
Curiously, the first project drawn by Della Porta included the statue popularly known as Marforio (see Rome's Talking Statues): the huge reclining figure should have been moved from its original location, by the Capitolium hill, and placed against the base of the column, leaning on one side of the basin. But the pope rejected this version, whose preparatory designs by Della Porta still exist.
This is not the only occasion on which the architect tried to convince the pope to let him use Marforio for his fountains, as will be said about the one built for piazza San  Marco (described in this page).

One century later, Bernini even had in mind to move the whole fountain of piazza Colonna to the aforesaid piazza San Marco, but also his project was not taken into consideration.

one of the lion heads

Today the pretty basin is still in place; but besides the missing steps, other changes it underwent in 1830 are the water outlets: the small central basin was replaced with a new one, and two small groups of shells and dolphins were added at the opposite ends of the oval, in place of a much smaller element.

← the fountain's original look
and the 19th century dolphins ↑


Piazza della Rotonda is the square on whose southern side stands the Pantheon, probably Rome's most glorious ancient monument, due to its excellent state of preservation. During the Imperial Age, the look of the place was not much different from today, more or less square in shape, with an arch in the centre, on the spot where now the fountain stands. Over the Middle Ages, the number of small shops and stalls in the square had gradually increased, up to the point of spoiling the place, by covering the view of the important building (some of them had been opened even between the columns of the Pantheon's porch). Still, the part just before the Pantheon had been decorated around 1530 with some ancient remains, namely a pair of Egyptian lions that once belonged to the Iseum Campensis, unearthed one century earlier, and a couple of basins, resting on column fragments (see pictures below).

↑ mid 16th century: the lions and basins by the Pantheon,
also featured in a map of 1572 (asterisk), when no fountain →
was there yet, and the obelisk (arrow) stood nearby

These remains were removed shortly before the works for the fountain started, in 1575. In particular, the two lions were recycled a few years later for the making of the 'display fountain' of the Acqua Felice aqueduct, described in page 6 of this monograph.
Della Porta's project followed his traditional scheme: a four-lobed basin made of grey African marble, resting on a short flight of steps; the water gushed from a vase in its center, and from four grotesque faces, the same ones that had originally been carved for piazza Navona's northern fountain, but never used.

← the original shape of the fountain

c.1600: the fountain had been built (asterisk)
but the obelisk (arrow) still stood by San Macuto
One and a half centuries later, in 1711, pope Clement XI, following the great success that the Fountain of the Rivers (see page 3) was still having, decided to alter the shape of this fountain too in a similar fashion, and had Filippo Barigioni replace the central vase with a larger group of rocks, over which an obelisk was placed, recalling Bernini's masterwork. The spire chosen for this purpose was a small Egyptian one coming from the large temple of gods Isis and Serapis, that once stood in the same district; during the Middle Ages the monument had been unearthed and stood in front of the nearby church of San Macuto.
← coat of arms of Clement XI
  (from the Albani family)

several figures decorate →
the rocks below the obelisk

The grotesque faces we see today, though, are not the original ones: during the restoration works in 1886, instead of receiving a conservation treatment, they were hastily replaced by modern copies, as the ones in piazza Navona (see page 2), a procedure that today would be considered absurd.


detail of the same spot, from a map dated 1551 and a modern one:
1 - piazza San Marco (now piazza Venezia);  2 - Palazzo Venezia;
3 - Palazzetto Venezia;  4 - via Lata (now via del Corso)
What is today one of Rome's largest squares, piazza Venezia, would have been barely recognizable up to the late 19th century. It was then called piazza San Marco, and its size was maybe less than 1/3 of its present dimensions.

Palazzo Venezia, the mansion of the Venetian pope Paul II (1464-71), is the only building that today still stands on its original spot.
The southern and eastern sides of the square were respectively closed by Palazzetto Venezia (connected to Palazzo Venezia, being part of the same residential complex) and by a district made of old houses; the latter was completely demolished, while Palazzetto Venezia was taken down and faithfully rebuilt about 80 metres (or yards) west of its original location, still in connection with Palazzo Venezia.

All these alterations were carried out from 1885 to 1911, for the making of the enormous memorial dedicated to king Victor Emmanuel II (seen at the bottom of the modern map). But the fountain in piazza San Marco had already been taken away some fifty years earlier, in the mid 1800s.

detail of a 1572 map showing piazza San Marco;
the ancient tub (arrow) stood by Palazzetto Venezia
In the 1460s, the aforesaid pope Paul II had an old granite tub coming from ancient Roman baths, moved from the small church of St.James by the Colosseum (no longer extant), where it stood in those days, and placed in piazza San Marco, in front of his family mansion. The pope was an art lover; his collection was the original nucleus from which the Capitoline Museums were founded, centuries later. The large tub had traditional decorations carved on both sides: a pair of handles, and a lion's head in the centre.
Sometime during the mid 1500s, it was given to the Farnese family (see page 14) in exchange for a slightly smaller and simpler one: this one had no handles carved on it, and its shape was not oval, but had six sides.

When a few decades later Giacomo Della Porta started working on San Marco's fountain, he obviously thought of using it, and included it in his project.
But due to the long distance from the duct's origin, and to the increasing number of private houses that were connected to this branch under the payment of a tax, the water reached piazza San Marco with a very low pressure, not strong enough for the making of a fountain. So Della Porta's project was set aside.
Ten years later, the new pope, Sixtus V, had already completed 'his' new aqueduct, i.e. the Acqua Felice (see also Aqueducts, page 4), and the works for a new set of fountains were already in progress. Della Porta's old project was finally approved.
In order to exploit at its best the low pressure of the branch of the Salone water (i.e. the ancient Aqua Virgo), the architect placed the ancient tub inside a large basin, resting it below the ground level, so to have its outlet in the lowest possible position.

18th century: the fountain's front (circle) on the front
of Palazzetto Venezia, in an etching by G. Vasi
This solution did work, and for the second time Della Porta asked the permission to use the statue of Marforio as a decoration.

the ancient tub, once the fountain
of piazza San Marco, in its present location
At first Sixtus V gave his consent, and Marforio was actually moved to piazza San Marco; but only a few days later the statue was dragged to the top of the Capitolium hill, for reasons that will be explained in page 8. Della Porta replaced it with a simple front, bearing an inscribed plaque.
The fountain was not very successful, and after some time it even turned dry. Both the basin and the tub became a sort of dump, where the people threw their litter, up to the point that within a couple of centuries they had been almost buried under heaps of trash.
In the mid 1800s pope Pius IX decided to move them from the square to the Pincio Hill, on a humble location where they are still now.

other pages in part III

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