~ Roman Monographs ~

part III
Main Fountains


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In 1605 cardinal Camillo Borghese was elected pope, and chose for himself the name Paul V, the western suburbs, namely Trastevere and Borgo - the latter officially belonged to Rome's municipality since a couple of decades - were still suffering from a chronic lack of water, which had been only partly alleviated a few years earlier, when a limited amount of water from a branch of the Acqua Felice could finally reach this part of the city by crossing the Tiber over a bridge (see page 11).
The basilica of St.Peter's was still relying on the small volume of water that could be drawn from the nearby hills (Vatican and Janiculum) thanls to the old system of tunnels built by pope Damasus, during the late roman empire (see part I page 2).
So one of the first thoughts by Paul V, only a few months after his election, was to provide a good water supply for western Rome. The pope tried to charge the expenses of the works to Rome's municipality, claiming that a further aqueduct would have represented a useful investment for the development of the aforesaid districts, and would have also enabled the Capitolium Hill (whose many fountains were already working thanks to the Acqua Felice) to receive an extra supply of water. But most of all, the pope had in mind to exploit the water for the gardens in the Vatican, where he dwelt. Nevertheless, Rome's administrators agreed the project, without any objection.

the coat of arms of Paul V above the Fountain of the Acqua Paola,
decorated with several eagles and dragons

In selecting suitable springs for the new aqueduct, the choice fell on the Lake of Bracciano, located about 40 km (25 mi) north-west of Rome, from where the old Aqua Traiana had drawn water in roman times (see Aqueducts, part III page 3). Since the late Middle Ages, both the land and the lake belonged to the Orsini family, who also owned the beautiful castle in Bracciano; they were obviously very happy to sell a certain amount of their water for the aqueduct.
Inspired by what Sixtus V had done with the remains of the Aqua Marcia, Paul V thought of restoring the surviving ruins of the Aqua Traiana, so to use again the many parts that had been left standing, and rebuild only the missing ones. The works started in 1608.

The ancient aqueduct built by emperor Trajan was about 57 km long (35 mi); in order to have the new one ready in the shortest possible time, its whole length was divided into sections, each of which was assigned to different teams, led by distinguished architects (Carlo Maderno, Pompeo Targone, Domenico Castelli, and others), while Giovanni Fontana acted as a supervisor of all the works. In 1610 the water reached the top of the Janiculum hill, the highest spot in the western part of Rome. When its flow was first tested, and the duct was opened, unexpectedly, it turned out so powerful that the gush of water literally flooded the Janiculum, damaging some local estates.
In those days, there was no panoramic plaza in front of the fountain (it was added by the end of the century by pope Alexander VIII), and the steep hill formed an almost vertical cliff. a certain amount of water drawn by the new aqueduct fell down along the cliff, creating an artificial waterfall. Small mills were then built by the base of the hill, whose wheels were powered by that water.
In documents and projects, the aqueduct was initially mentioned as Acqua Sabbatina, or Acqua di Bracciano (after its origin), but in the end it was obviously renamed Acqua Paola, in honour of Paul V. But the people whose benefit the new aqueduct had been built for were soon to find out that the water from Bracciano was much less tasty than the one drawn by the Acqua Felice and especially by the Acqua di Trevi aqueducts. So 'Acqua Paola' became the synonym of something insipid, scarcely valuable, at the point that still today the popular expression to have acqua paola in one's head is used to remark a foolish, unwise behaviour.

the Fountain of the Acqua Paola

Besides supervising the aforesaid works, Giovanni Fontana had also been given commission to build the aqueduct's "display", that would have celebrated the pope on the spot of the main water outlet.
Fontana's project was indeed grand: it should not surprise how his creation is still today referred to by the people of Rome as fontanone, i.e. big fountain. Sadly, most of the marble for its making was stolen (simply 'taken', in those days) from the ancient Forum of Nerva. The cooperation with another important architect, Flaminio Ponzio, and the inspiration that the Fountain of Moses undoubtly exerted upon Fontana's work, explain why his work recalls the older structure, that only twenty years earlier had received so many criticisms, yet with more balanced proportions.

Also this one has a lower part consisting of tall arches separated by columns, three large central ones and smaller one on each side; this time a window was opened through the large ones, so that the botanical gardens, that once were located at the back of the fountain, could be seen as a picturesque background. In the upper half, a large inscription remembers the pope's sponsorship for the making of the aqueduct, topped by an enormous coat of arms of Paul V, beautifully carved (see previous pictures). The fountain was finished in 1612.

(↑ above) coat of arms of Alexander VIII and the inscription
dated 1690 that remembers the making of the large basin (← left)

the huge commemorative inscription,
wrongly mentioning the Aqua Alsietina
But the fountain also reveals a curious mistake: the pope and his architects erroneously thought that the ancient duct they had restored was the Aqua Alsietina, i.e. the one that emperor Octavianus Augustus had made for his naval stadium in Trastevere, which followed the same route as the one built by Trajan, about one century later. In fact, the fountain's large inscription (on the left) remembers how Paul V restored the ancient ducts of the Aqua Alsietina. And above a nearby archway, where the aqueduct crosses the Aurelian Way, a smaller inscription refers to the ancient structure as built by emperor Octavian Augustus. This gives further evidence that Paul V's architects had indeed mistaken the ancient remains (a picture of the archway is shown in part III page 3 of the Aqueducts section).

a water-spouting dragon in a side niche
According to the original project, the water gushed into five basins, at the base of each arch, as seen in the etching on the right.
About eighty years after its making, pope Alexander VIII decided to have the fountain enlarged; in 1690 Carlo Fontana (Giovanni's nephew) added a single enormous ground basin, that replaced the five small ones. On the same occasion, the pope's coat of arms and a commemorative inscription were hung below the central arch.

the original look of the fountain

The fountain's original shape is clearly visible in a 17th century etching by Giovan Battista Falda (above right), prior to the alteration.

A curious detail is that even the short pillars surrounding the basin bear the device of the pope-sponsor, i.e. eagles and dragons in alternate order, a distinctive feature that no other fountain in Rome can boast.

eagles and dragons on the pillars around the basin →

the Acqua Paola duct (in blue) and the
original site of the fountain (red dot)

The Acqua Paola was also used for supplying with running water a charity establishment, built two decades earlier under Sixtus V, which included a hospice and a hospital for the poor. The complex stood along the eastern side of the Tiber, where via Giulia reaches one end of the old Sisto Bridge, that links the districts of Regola and Trastevere (see map detail below). Although most parts of central Rome had already been reached by the Salone Water (formerly Aqua Virgo) or by the Acqua Felice, prior to 1613 Regola district was rather far away from their course: the water pressure here was too low for the making of a fountain.
So, as soon as the new aqueduct was working, Paul V had a fountain built at the very bottom of via Giulia; it drew water from pipes coming from the Janiculum Hill that crossed the old bridge and reached the hospice.
The project was drawn by a Dutch architect, Jan van Zant, whose name was Italianized into Giovanni Vasanzio; Giovanni Fontana, instead, supervised the hydraulics. It consisted of a tall niche, framed by a pair of columns and topped by the usual commemorative inscription, with the coat of arms of Paul V high above.

in 1676 the fountain (blue arrow) stood at the very bottom of via Giulia; →
its present position is at the opposite end of Sisto Bridge (blue dot)

(left) the fountain by the hospice, in Regola district up to the late 1800s, and (right) its present location in Trastevere district

the top basin, now dry
The water gushed into a small basin hung in the top part of the niche, and then trickled down into a larger basin below, also reached by an intersecting jet of water spouted by two dragons, one on each side of the fountain. Small lion heads on both sides of the fountain provided two more water outlets.
one of the dragons and one of the lion heads

Almost three centuries later (around 1880), due to the works for the making of the high walls along the Tiber's banks, many old buildings that stood along the way were taken down.

the fountain by Sisto Bridge and the 'big fountain'
in the background, on the Janiculum Hill
Also the hospital and hospice at the end of via Giulia had to be demolished, but the fountain was preserved, and moved to the opposite end of the bridge, in Trastevere, despite its old inscription still remembers the previous location. Now it no longer rests against a wall, but stands alone, at the top of a short flight of steps.
In recent times its water flow has been drastically reduced: the top basin is now dry, while the two dragons spout a minimal amount of water, barely enough to call this a fountain.
The very end of via Giulia, no longer closed by the charity establishment, now provides an interesting standpoint from which the fountain appears almost crowned by the towering 'big fountain', clearly visible in the distance on top of the Janiculum hill (on the left).


Despite the Acqua Paola aqueduct drew plenty of water to the western side of Rome, another fountain built in Trastevere was a small work by Giovanni Fontana, located in front of San Pietro in Montorio, that stands only 150 m (or yards) from the aforesaid 'big fountain'. This is one of the two national Spanish churches in Rome, and Fontana's client may have likely been a member of the royal court of that country.
In fact its ornate design (see also the picture in page 1) recalled the coat of arms of Castile: the central group had the shape of a castle's tower, and its top was encircled by a large crown, while below crouched four lions, one on each side. For this reason, this was also known as the Castilian Fountain. Most of its parts, though, were not in marble but in plaster, and this caused an easy deterioration.
Then, in 1849, the fountain found itself caught in the cross fire between the troops of the newly proclaimed Roman Republic and the French army, on which the pope had called to quell the revolt. Artillery shots from both sides likely gave it the finishing blow, because soon later it was definitively removed. No part of it was spared.
Its place was taken for some time by the first Renaissance fountain built in Rome (see page 2), that now stands in piazza Nicosia.

the fountain once by San Pietro in Montorio, etching by G.B.Falda (17th century)


A map of Rome by Giovanni Battista Falda (1676, below right) and an etching by Giuseppe Vasi (c.1750, below left) are the only two visual sources that mention a Fontana Secca ("dry fountain") on the corner of a crossing in Trastevere district.
It was built sometime during the early 1600s, soon after the opening of the Acqua Paola aqueduct. It consisted of a tall front with a central niche that likely contained a statue or a group, from whose base the water gushed; a pair of small dragons and a central spire (or a similar element) rested over the front.
The fountain was already dry a few years after its making, being only referred to with this name. It was taken down in 1890; no trace of it is left today.

(↑ above) a map by G.B. Falda mentions the no longer extant 'dry fountain' (blue arrow);
(← left) etching by G.Vasi that features the front of the fountain

other pages in part III
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