~ Roman Monographs ~

· part III ·
Main Fountains


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This last page dedicated to the 16th century describes two fountains that were moved from their original location, following the many alterations suffered by Rome's historical districts during the early decades of the 20th century.
It also tells about the attempt of carrying the Acqua Felice water to the western side of the Tiber.
Lastly, the page includes the curious Navicella Fountain, which became so only during the early 1900s.

Gorgon's head from the fountain of piazza Giudia


Piazza Giudia, as suggested by the name, was the square where up to 1870 stood one of the tall doors that closed the infamous Jewish ghetto, described in Curious and Unusual page 6. Inside the enclosure there was no source of water, and for almost half a century since the ghetto had been established (1555) no fountain could be found in the surrounding district either, being the closest one in front of Santa Maria in Trastevere's church, on the other side of the Tiber, some 800 metres (½ mile) off this spot.
For the many roman Jews, who were crammed inside this 8-acre area, to have a fountain nearby was no doubt a primary need. But when the first program by Gregory XIII had designated this square for one of the outlets of the Salone water, the Mattei family, dwellers of a nearby palace, succeeded in having the fountain built in front of their own building (see page 5).
A few years later, piazza Giudia was chosen again to be the site of a fountain. It was also one of the last spots to be served, but at last Della Porta built one also here.

Despite the repetitive scheme, the shape of the lower basin and that of the usual steps below is rather interesting. The former consists of two pairs of semicircles of different size, connected by short convex sides with a slighter curvature; the steps roughly follow this shape, but have sharp corners to match the sides.

The top basin is decorated with four fearsome Gorgon's heads. This part was removed in 1924, when the fountain was disassembled, following the extensive alterations of the district, due to which the same piazza Giudia disappeared. The basin was temporarily set on a different fountain, on the Janiculum hill. But when six years later Della Porta's work was placed again in its present location, facing Palazzo Cenci Bolognetti (only a few metres or yards away from its original location), it was given back its top part.

← 18th century: the fountain standing in piazza Giudia, next to the pole
used for judicial purposes; on the right is the doorway leading to the ghetto


This is the fountain whose life was more adventurous than any other.
Its size is not too large, but the original fountain was born much smaller than the present one: a plain basin with a low prysm rested in its center, tapered towards the top almost as a small pyramid, whose only decorations were the pope's insignia. It had been designed in 1589 by Della Porta, an 'economy class' work for the small square located by the Theatre of Marcellus, at the southern end of the Capitolium hill.
By the turn of the 18th century, a nearby nunnery obtained the privilege of using a part of the water drained from the fountain; in return, the nuns payed the expenses for the making of a round baluster, with four small water-spouting faces for its square base and a simple basin at the top, in the traditional fashion that a hundred years earlier Della Porta had used for most of his other works, but not for this one.
Shortly afterwards, also the lower basin was probably replaced with a similar one that had papal coats of arms on it; but for some unknown reason, the old one was soon set back into place.
It was replaced again in 1829: this time, instead of the papal insignia, the new basin featured those of the Conservatori, the city's chief administrators; in those times, all public charges were still held by members of the noble families, each of which had their own coat of arms. Their present condition (pictures on the left) makes them almost no longer readable. This was the fountain's last change of shape.

In the early 1930s all the districts surrounding the Capitolium hill underwent heavy alterations, and most of the old houses were hastily demolished. Piazza Montanara, as well as many other small squares, disappeared from Rome's city plan for the making of the large street called via del Teatro Marcello. Also the fountain was removed, and rebuilt in the Orange Garden on the top of the Aventine hill (see The 22 Rioni, Rione XII - Ripa). It remained there for about forty years, and then in 1973 it was moved again to its ultimate location, the small piazza San Simeone, along via dei Coronari (see previous picture).

the fountain in its early location; at the back is the ancient
Theatre of Marcellus, on which private houses had been built


During the last three decades of the 16th century the 'water revolution' had considerably enhanced the development of the city's central and northern districts, but the western bank of the Tiber, i.e. Trastevere and Borgo (including the Vatican) was still relying on the small amount of water drawn from the Janiculum hill (see
page 1), and this clearly hampered the development opportunities of this part of Rome.

a street plaque that remembers the flood in 1598
As of 1592, a further project agreed by the municipal administration concerned an extension of the Acqua Felice network, in order to cross the Tiber and reach Trastevere. A new duct was specifically built for this purpose: it stretched from the Quirinal hill all the way down to Santa Maria Bridge, just past the Tiber Island.
Since its making was slowed down by bureaucratic reasons, Galeazzo Riario, the owner of a large mansion below the Janiculum (now called Palazzo Corsini) offered himself to buy the whole duct from the municipal administration, so to speed up all the formalities. The Farnese family, who owned the nearby Villa Farnesina, bought a second private duct. But fearing that the new supply would have critically reduced the amount of water available for the other fountains in the city, the municipal administration continued to delay the delivery towards Trastevere, despite the private ducts had been completed, and had already been paid for, as well!

Unexpectedly, in 1598, on Christmas eve, a tremendous flood submerged most parts of Rome, smashing Santa Maria Bridge (which was never built again, and whose surviving fragment was renamed Ponte Rotto, "broken bridge"). The ducts it carried were badly damaged, as well, and this caused a further delay for Trastevere's water supply.
It took six more years to alter the ducts' course, so to cross the bridges of the Tiber Island, and in 1604 the water finally reached the western district.
The old fountain before Santa Maria in Trastevere was restored (its leaking plumbing was one of the reasons of the lack of water) and its flow could be slightly increased thanks to the Acqua Felice.

the broken Santa Maria Bridge (asterisk) and the new direction
of the ducts (arrow) across the Tiber Island, towards Trastevere (T)


Curiously, the Navicella (i.e. the "small ship") was not born to be used as a fountain.
In ancient Rome, on the Coelian hill stood the headquarters of a navy corps, the sailors of Capo Miseno. Among their duties was the peculiar one of operating the velarium, an enormous canvas that covered the Colosseum by means of a complex system of pulleys, so to protect the spectators from the rain or the strong sunlight. This corps had dedicated to goddess Isis, the sailors' patron, a small replica of a ship, carved in marble.

During the early Renaissance years, this model was unearthed in the surroundings of the church of Santa Maria in Domnica, which meanwhile had been built there during the early Middle Ages. The ruin was badly preserved, and in time it went lost.

the Navicella fountain
But before this happened, architect and sculptor Andrea Sansovino was given the comission by pope Leo X to make a faithful copy of the ship, which in 1513 was set in front of the church, rested on a rectangular base that bears the papal coat of arms.

the ship's prow
Besides its artistic value, the small model of the vessel also provides some reliable information about the shape and the decorations found on ancient Rome's military ships. An interesting detail is its prow, which mimics a boar's head.

After the small ship, also Santa Maria in Domnica was popularly nicknamed 'the Navicella church'. But no running water reached the Coelian hill, so this sculpture could have no other purpose than to embellish the small area facing the church, whose front, meanwhile, Sansovino had rebuilt. It remained in fact as a mere decoration for over five centuries.
Only in 1931, when the modern network of aqueducts had already covered all parts of Rome, the sculpture was connected to a branch of the Acqua Felice and turned into a fountain. On the same occasion, a round pool was added below the composition.

other pages in part III

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