~ Roman Monographs ~

· part III ·
Main Fountains


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Three of the fountains supplied by the Acqua Felice are located rather off the main course of the aqueduct. Only one of them had been officially scheduled by the city's administration; the other two were privately payed for, yet the urban context in which they were built considerably differed.

Villa Medici in 1593; the asterisk indicates the fountain

In the mid 16th century, cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici had his roman residence built on top of the Pincio hill, an exclusive corner of the city, where already in ancient Rome the rich families owned gardens and vineyards.
The main duct of the Salone water passed just below Villa Medici, but due to the location, both the mansion and its beautiful gardens were reached by a very small amount of water, which had to be pumped uphill, a rather complicated operation in those times.

As soon as the Aqua Virgo reached Rome (1587), the villa was finally supplied with plenty of water. Since cardinal Medici had been appointed supervisor of the new aqueduct works by Sixtus V, it is not surprising that one of the first spots to be reached was his own property.
Rich fountains could be activated in the villa's private gardens, but there was enough water left also for a small public facility outside, in front of the main entrance.
The cardinal, who was an art lover and collector of ancient remains, had recently bought two basins of granite, coming from the churches of San Salvatore in Lauro and San Pietro in Vincoli. One of the two was mounted on a stout baluster, and set into a large octagonal pool. Its author remained unknown, although some suspect that the same architect who drew the villa, Annibale Lippi, may be credited for this fountain, as well. The water gushes from a sphere resting in the center of the ancient basin; according to a popular legend (see A Gun-shot At Villa Medici, this ball was the one shot by Christina of Sweden from the top of Sant'Angelo Castle.
the fountain in front of the villa


the heart of Monti district, in 1625; note the
different setting, compared to the previous fountain
The environment this fountain was built in is completely different from the previous one.
Monti is Rome's largest historical district (see The 22 Rioni, Rione I - Monti), whose center overlaps the ancient and ill-famed subura, the neighborhood at the back of the Fora and the Colosseum, a swampy ground where thieves, prostitutes and outlaws sought shelter from the police. Its popular atmosphere did not change much during the Middle Ages, nor it did during the Renaissance, although the 16th century popes, and particularly Sixtus V, improved its road system by opening long straight streets that cut through the narrow lanes of the old slums.

Piazza Madonna dei Monti (once simply piazza ai Monti) is one of the district's many typical corners; in 1589 it was finally reached by the Acqua Felice. Unlike the fountain in front of Villa Medici, the one in this square would have not been used merely by a few idle valets and occasional passers-by, to quench their thirst: it would have satisfied the many daily needs of a whole bustling district, common people who drew water at any time of the day, for drinking, cooking, washing, hygienic purposes, etc.
In this square Giacomo Della Porta had already built the Madonna dei Monti church, so he was also given the commission for the fountain.

the fountain's original vase was replaced by a further basin

c.1675: the original vase, still in place
This time the architect did not really rack his brains to find an original shape: a hexagonal lower basin, overlooked by the small upper round basin, quite similar to his first creation for piazza del Popolo (see page 1) yet less elaborate.
The original project also included a vase, that stood above the upper element, from which the water gushed; sometime during the 17th century this part was replaced with a further round basin, whence the fountain's present look. The vase, whose shape is known thanks to old engravings, was somewhat reminiscent of a small cantharus (see part I page 2), similar to the large ones that stood in the courtyard of some medieval churches, which Della Porta was likely aware of.

the small fountain below the obelisk

During the Renaissance, the Lateran district was barely the shadow of what it used to be during the early Middle Ages. Here once stood the Patriarchium, i.e. the pope's residence, and the Sessorium, the emperor's own, very close to each other. Once the center of both the temporal and the religious power had been moved elsewhere, the importance of this district had gradually subsided to that of a poor suburb, covered with ancient ruins.
Some important works carried out during the second half of the 1500s under Gregory XIII and especially under Sixtus V (see the map's detail on the right) were meant to revive the Lateran grounds; but the new landmarks were in striking contrast with the poor shanties that still lay all around the place.
The real point of reference of the district remained the ancient basilica of St.John, the only building that had stood the Middle Ages fairly well, having been heavily restored more than once.
Shortly after the turning of the 17th century, St.John's Chapter covered the expenses for the making of a small fountain, the first one on this side of town, set in the very heart of the district, below the imposing Lateran obelisk, the tallest among Rome's ancient spires, that Sixtus V had recently stood on one side of the basilica (see also Obelisks, part I). This spot could be reached by a branch of the Aqua Felice aqueduct. The works for the making of the fountain started under Clement VIII, and were finished in 1607, under Paul V; but between the two, also Leo XI had been pope: a very brief reign, lasted but a few months, since his election in 1605 was followed by his death in the same year. This short lapse of time was enough for Leo XI to leave his mark on the Lateran fountain, as will be said, although no trace of it has been left.
the fountain (č) by the obelisk facing St. John's (1);
the works sponsored from 1575 to 1590 by Gregory XIII
(4 - St.John's Gate) and Sixtus V (2 - Lateran Palace,
3 - the Holy Steps building) revived the old district

Due to its size, the Lateran fountain may have been listed among the small ones (part II), but its shape is more elaborate than most of the latter, as it includes heraldic references to different popes.

device of Clement VIII on the upper edge
The original design, whose author remained unknown, had two small basins of different size (a smaller one above and a larger one below) hanging from an ornate front that stands right in front of the obelisk's base; on its upper edge, crenellated bands and eight-pointed stars in relief refer to the coat of arms of Clement VIII.
coat of arms of Clement VIII
(Aldobrandini family)

coat of arms of Leo XI
(Medici family)
Soon later, a statue of St.John was placed on top of the front, with two large iris flowers (the heraldic fleu-de-lys) on its sides, cast in bronze. These flowers very likely represented a device of the aforesaid pope Leo XI, who was a member of the Medici family: his coat of arms featured six spheres, the uppermost of which enclosing three tiny fleur-de-lys.

When Paul V was elected, the fountain's design was altered again: on its front appeared two large dragons and an eagle, from the pope's family coat of arms. Finally, the fountain achieved its present look sometime during the 18th century, when the statue of St.John and the two flowers were removed.

in the late 1600s the fountain still had
a statue and two fleur-de-lys above the front

one of the devices of Paul V
We do not know whether this was done deliberately, with the purpose of cancelling a trace of the powerful Medici family, or simply because these parts were in bad condition.
In fact, up to the 1930s in St.John's square and its surroundings a curious celebration was held every year, on the eve of the summer solstice (June 23rd), called St.John's night. According to a common belief, witches and demons were said to fly over the Lateran, and great crowds gathered, in the hope of seeing them soar through the sky. The people ate and drank huge quantities of wine, throughout the night; it is very likely that the mob bathed in the fountain, and used its front as a standpoint climbing on it, whence the damages to the bronze parts.
coat of arms of Paul V
(Borghese family)

other pages in part III

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