~ Roman Monographs ~

part III
Main Fountains


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This pretty fountain was born out of the power exerted by the aristocracy on Rome's administration.
The waterworks project that had been agreed by the congregation of cardinals (see page 2) included a fountain in piazza Giudia, a no long exisiting square, in front of the main door of the Jewish ghetto, the small enclosure within whose boundaries the roman Jews had been confined since 1555 (for more details see Rome's Ghetto).
The branch of the Aqua Virgo reached piazza Giudia around year 1580. But in a small square nearby lived the noble Mattei family. They were not as important as other famous families, such as the Colonna or the Barberini, but still influent enough to convince the cardinals to make the duct follow a short diversion, and to use all the available water for a fountain in front of their residence, Palazzo Mattei.
As usual, the architect in charge was Della Porta, who drew something less grand than his previous works, more proportioned to the small square, yet very elegant.

the fountain stands among Rome's finest ones

the fountain of piazza Mattei (left) in a map of 1593; the one for the
nearby piazza Giudia (right, in construction) had to wait a few more years
His project consisted of five tiny basins, a traditional one above and four fancy ones below, in the corners. On each of the lower ones, whose shape recalls hollow shells, rests a small dolphin, upon which sits a young male figure in the attitude of raising his arm. Both the dolphins and the male figures are made of bronze; Taddeo Landini from Florence is the artist credited for them.

The dolphins were supposed to be eight; but despite all of them had already been moulded, four were never used.
The fountain originally rested on a base consisting of a few steps, according to Della Porta's traditional scheme.
Instead the unusual composition was considerably different from the other fountains built so far, and the people were very impressed by the final result, also because of the variety of colours: a deep grey upper basin (grey African marble), a white baluster with grey veining, small lower basins speckled in grey, red and white (portasanta marble), and the bronze statues.

only four out of eight dolphins were used

Almost one century later (1659), pope Alexander VII had the fountain restored, and on this occasion he decided to add something above the four figures; their fingers did not reach the edge of the top basin (probably this was due to the few changes that had been agreed during the making of the fountain). Four bronze tortoises were created for this purpose, and placed on the basin so to fill the gap. Obviously, the fountain's name steadily turned into "of the Tortoises".
During the same works, the pope also had the base removed, and replaced by a small ground basin, which slightly increased the size of the structure, yet without affecting the fountain's perfect harmony.
A Latin inscription in four parts, on each side between the small basins, refers to the pope's sponsorship with the following words:


the dynamic attitude of the four figures

According to a curious legend, one of the owners of Palazzo Mattei, the mansion that faces the fountain, was a hard gambler and lost a fortune; for this reason, the parents of his future bride refused him their daughter's hand. So the aristocrat invited them to a feast, which lasted the whole night, during which he stealthily had the fountain built. At the break of dawn, he asked his future in-laws to lean from the window between the two doorways, saying "Look what a Mattei can do!", thus convincing them to let him marry their daughter, but then having the window walled up, as it still is today.

Thanks to the last restoration work on the fountain (2005-2006), the stunning visual contrast of the three different marbles and the shiny bronze of the statues could be retrieved. Prior to the recent cleansing, the different materials were barely distinguishable one from the other, as the detail on the left shows.

← the fountain in 2003, before being restored


Campo de' Fiori is one of old Rome's most popular squares, whose atmosphere has not changed much during the past four centuries, ...except that hereticals are no longer burnt here, as actually happened to the philosopher Giordano Bruno in 1600.
This has always been the site of a popular market; its stalls once sold mainly hay, fodder and flowers, whence the name of the square. In its very center, around 1590, Della Porta set the last fountain among the ones that were made out of the program agreed twenty years earlier.

Campo de' Fiori

the modern copy of the fountain, in Campo de' Fiori
It consisted of a fancy-shaped tub, with tapered ends; its sides were carved with round handles and roses, the Riario family coat of arms (the same flower is also found on the large Chancellery Palace, at the back of Campo de' Fiori, see Rione VI, Parione, and on a small fountain built in the 1930s, see Small Fountains, page 4).

On the tub's rim four small bronze dolphins spouted water. These were the ones that had been spared from the fountain of piazza Mattei (not yet "of the Tortoises").

Due to the presence of the market, the local people had the bad habit of throwing into the fountain all sorts of trash. Police notices issued on several occasions forbade to use it as a dump, but neither fines nor corporal punishments worked well in preventing the tub from being constantly filled with hay, rotten leaves and other waste coming from the stalls.

the Riario rose (from the original fountain)

the original 'tureen', in its present location
The measure taken in 1621 to avoid this nuisance was rather peculiar: the four dolphins were removed (never to be seen again), while a big lid in travertine, the least expensive variety of marble, was carved and rested on top of the tub, making the fountain look as a huge tureen!
New outlets were opened through the carved roses, and the unknown artist also inscribed a curious motto around the collar of the lid's knob, which reads: LOVE GOD AND DO NOT FAIL DO GOOD DEEDS AND LET OTHERS SAY 1621, a good advice to keep away from the ill-famed Inquisition tribunal, which in the age of the Counter-reformation was more active than ever.

When in 1899 the memorial monument of Giordano Bruno was erected, the fountain was removed and stored for a few decades.
In the early 1920s, the city administrators decided to give back Campo de' Fiori its fountain. Strangely, instead of using the original one, a copy was made (without the additional cover), and placed on the square's northern end.
Instead, for the old 'tureen' a different location was found: the nearby piazza della Chiesa Nuova, inside a very simple rectangular pool, slightly below the present ground level, due to the water's low pressure.

the motto carved below the knob

other pages in part III

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