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· part III ·
Main Fountains


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The smallest among Rome's seven hills is also the one with the highest concentration of main fountains; the wealth of water and the ancient statues that decorate the outlets remark the importance of the square, officially considered Rome's centremost spot, and see of the city's administration.

Before taking into consideration the fountains, it is useful to spend a few words about the place itself, in particular to remember what the Capitolium square looked like in the late 16th century (see the following picture).

Of the three buildings originally included in the project, Palazzo dei Conservatori (on the right side) was finished, while the medieval Senators Palace (at the bottom of the square) was being enlarged and refurbished. Therefore, the top of the hill was still an open workshop. What the place looked like at this stage can be seen in an etching featured in Capitolium Square.
The arrangement of the square, drawn by Michelangelo, had been partly finished before his death, in 1564. Initially no fountain had been included in the project, simply because in those days running water did not reach this spot. However, the two huge reclining statues resting below the staircase of Senators Palace, coming from the ruins of the Baths of Constantine, are river allegories, the Nile (left side) and the Tiber (right side), which in their original location suggested an ideal connection to water.
the Capitolium by the end of the 1500s; the left side of the square was still empty and in direct
communication with the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli; three minor fountains are seen at the bottom:
from the left, the one in piazza Aracoeli, the one in piazza Campitelli, and the one in piazza Montanara

the she-wolf once was a tiger
A curious detail is that the statue of the Tiber (on the left and below) originally represented another important river, the Tigris, and the small animal at the base was actually a tiger. But since a connection to Rome's own river could not be avoided, the tiger's head was replaced with that of a she-wolf (left), and the two mythical twins Romulus and Remus were added to its sides: this was enough to turn the allegory into that of Rome's own river. Unfortunately, also the she-wolf head is now partly missing.

Only the niche in the center of the staircase remained empty. In 1583 a tall statue of goddess Athena (shown further in the page) was taken from the courtyard of Palazzo dei Conservatori and placed there, in order to fill the vacant space. Besides the niche, the Senators Palace was also still lacking its façade, and the upper part of its tower. The whole building on the eastern (left) side of the square had not even been started yet, so that the Capitolium square adjoined the nearby church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli by means of a rough and steep wall, as shown by the asterisk in the map above.
allegory of the Tiber (originally the Tigris)

As soon as the water of the Aqua Felix reached the Capitolium, by the end of 1587, Sixtus V held a contest for the making of a fountain in the square atop the hill. Due to the pope's cold relations with the official fountain-maker Della Porta (see page 6), it is not really surprising that the architect was set aside again, despite he had already built on the western side of the square Palazzo dei Conservatori (the see of Rome's Curators, the city's chief administrators), and was now finishing the front of the Senators Palace.

small sphynx, over which the
Nile's figure rests its elbow
Instead, it is more surprising that the pope's choice fell on the project by Matteo Bartolani, the same architect who only a few years earlier had worked on the Aqua Felix, but had been fired when, at a certain point of the aqueduct, the water began to slope back towards the springs.
Bartolani's project was really lavish: although no drawing is left, a description of his fountain mentioned five basins of different sizes, to be set by the staircase of Senators Palace, topped by Rome's she-wolf.

In the same days Giacomo Della Porta, besides the building's front, was also working on a fountain in piazza San Marco (see page 4), one of the last ones supplied by the Salone water, for whose making the large statue known as Marforio should have been used. But only a few days after the statue had been moved to piazza San Marco from the nearby Campo Vaccino, it was hastily heaved onto the Capitolium hill, already busy with Della Porta's and Bartolani's workshops.
One of Rome's most distinguished scholars, Cesare D'Onofrio, maintained that this sudden and apparently mysterious change in destination conceiled an attempt by Della Porta to propose a different solution for the square, thus to dissuade Sixtus V from letting Bartolani build his grand fountain, which would have altered Michelangelo's original arrangement of the palace's staircase.
Della Porta aimed at building a fountain of his own on the bare side of the square, so to fill the large gap, at the same time leaving the staircase as it was.
The 'tough pope', as Sixtus was nicknamed, was too stubborn to change idea; Bartolani's ambitious project was confirmed, while Marforio was simply parked somewhere in the square.

the Nile

the mounted statue of Marcus Aurelius by the Lateran, in the early 1500s; the two Egyptian lions by the base are probably the same ones of the fountains by Michelangelo's staircase →
Two lions of dark basalt had been moved to the Capitolium in 1582. They were likely the same ones that in an early 1500s drawing by Maerten van Heemskerck are featured at the base of the mounted statue of Marcus Aurelius, when the latter still stood near St.John in the Lateran. They might have belonged to the temple of Isis and Serapis that once stood by the nearby Oppian Hill, in ancient Rome's third district (actually named Isis et Serapis). In 1588, Della Porta turned them into fountains, placing them at the bottom of the flight of stairs that Michelangelo had built to reach Capitolium Square; a marble vase was added below each lion, to collect the water.
These fountains became particularly popular during the 17th century, when during the celebration of special events, instead of the usual water, they actually spouted ...red and white wine! Quite obviously, on these occasions Romans crammed in the small square below the hill, to drink and carry away as much free wine as possible.

This fountain is also one of the rare cases in which the original statues were removed and then set back.
In 1885, pope Leo XIII had the ancient basalt lions moved to the Vatican Museums, replacing them with copies (whitish in colour!); also the vases below were taken away, as seen in the picture on the left, dating to the early years of the 1900s. No sooner than 1955 the original arrangement was retrieved and the originals were restored into place.

Stepping back to 1588, Della Porta was still busy with the making of the fountain for Senators Palace. Two large basins were actually carved and set into place, one inside the other, below the tall central niche. But pope Sixtus V died two years later, in 1590, while the works were still in progress.

the whitish copies of the twin lions, without a vase, in the early 1900s
His three successors, namely Urban VII, Gregory XIV and Innocent IX, were certainly not blessed with longevity, as each of them reigned for less than twelve months; so the works in Capitolium Square were delayed, until a fourth pope, Clement VIII, was elected in 1592.

the statue of Athena
In the end, the remaining three basins of Bartolani's fountain, yet already carved, were never used, nor the she-wolf replaced the goddess in the niche, and the structure remained unfinished, very similar to what we see today.

However, the fountain was still to undergo its last alteration. In 1593, apparently without a reason, the large statue of Athena was taken back to the courtyard of Palazzo dei Conservatori, and replaced with an allegory of Rome, holding a spear and wearing a beautiful red garment (in porphyry), yet definitely too low for the tall niche. The small size of the figure is also underlined by the three different stands it had to be rested upon, in order to lift it and fill the empty space left by the previous statue.

the small allegory of Rome

During the following year, Giacomo Della Porta could finally start the project that the 'tough pope' had not been impressed by: a fountain with Marforio statue (see also Rome's Talking Statues), for the eastern side of the square.

Della Porta's Fountain of Marforio, in its present location
The bearded figure was given a basin shaped as the ones Bartolani had drawn for the Senators Palace (this may have even been one of the three unused ones), and a tall front at the back, on which, high above, hung a huge head of emperor Constantine (now in the courtyard of Palazzo dei Conservatori), and the bronze sphere that a few years earlier Sixtus V had removed from the top of the Vatican obelisk during the works for its erection in St.Peter's square (see Obelisks, part I).
the huge head of
emperor Constantine
once hung above Marforio
with the sphere below ↓

Indeed, this was the work in which Della Porta diverged most from his usual scheme (see page 1); it was also the last one built by the great architect, probably the most prolific fountain-maker of all times.
Unfortunately, the whole structure had to be disassembled only half a century later, when the making of the third building that Michelangelo had drawn for the square finally started; in its courtyard the fountain of Marforio was rebuilt, though without its tall front, in 1734.

← the bearded Marforio, an allegorical figure
representing either the sea or a river

other pages in part III

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