~ Roman Monographs ~

part III
Main Fountains


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 


Paul V had promised to bring more water to Trastevere, but besides the "big" fountain and the small Castilian one, described in the previous page, no others were built in the district. Instead, in 1614 new fountains appeared in the Vatican gardens as well as in the adjacent Borgo district, which meanwhile had considerably expanded, despite the lack of running water. All these works were commissioned to Carlo Maderno who, during the reign of Paul V, built several fountains, although the pope's official fountain-maker was Giovanni Vasanzio.
As already mentioned in the foreword of this section, the ones presently located within the boundaries of the Vatican City (see pictures on the right) will not be taken into consideration, except the two in St.Peter's Square, which despite the extraterritorial status may be still considered one of Rome's landmarks.

Before describing the fountains and their history, a few notes about the setting will help the reader to locate these places, as in time the district deeply changed (for further information see Rione XIV - Borgo, and The Popes' Walls, part I page 1), and the fountains too were moved from their original sites.

Vatican fountains by Maderno (etchings by G.B.Falda)
In the early 17th century the Vatican grounds included the hill behind St.Peter's, and the complex of buildings north of the church (left half of the map).
In front stood Borgo, stretching towards the Tiber. Paul V decided to have three fountains built on the spots indicated by red arrows in the map: in St.Peter's Square, in piazza Scossacavalli (the square in the heart of Borgo), and at the end of the district, facing the river bank.


The larger of the three was the one in front of St.Peter's basilica, obtained by altering the late medieval fountain that had been standing there since 1490 (see also page 1).

the late medieval fountain by St.Peter's (left) and its new design after the alteration by Maderno (right)

Maderno maintained its lower basin; instead the top half was replaced with a similar element, still shaped as a basin but turned upside down, i.e. with its convex part pointing upwards.
The purpose of this innovative design was that the water, gushing high above from the central pipe, would fall down on this surface, carved with a scaly texture, breaking into a thousand droplets before dripping into the real basin below. Since plenty of water had become available, Maderno could also increase the fountain's height by resting it on an octagonal base; its panels feature the pope's coat of arms and a motif consisting of two entwined dolphins. The base was then placed in the middle of a third larger basin, whose shape recalls the ones that fifty years earlier had been drawn by Giacomo Della Porta (see below).
The new fountain initially stood on the same spot of the old one, i.e. facing St.Peter's in an asymmetrical position, slightly to the right of the church's axis.
About 60 years later, pope Alexander VII (1655-67) decided to have the square completely redesigned by Rome's most distinguished Baroque architect, Gianlorenzo Bernini.
As the famous quadruple colonnade was built, embracing the square with its elliptical shape, the fountain was shifted, so to preserve the symmetry of the new architecture.
The project also included the making of a second matching fountain, identical in shape, that was finished in 1677. The only difference between the two are the papal coats of arms (the new one obviously refers to Alexander VII) and the decorative panels on the base, as seen in the following pictures. Maderno's fountain was moved to the left (southern) half of the square, while its twin was set in the opposite half, not far from the spot where the medieval fountain at first, and then the same one by Maderno, had previously stood.

← the plan of the new St.Peter's Square; the old site of the fountain is also shown

the base of Maderno's fountain (left) and of the twin fountain

The two fountains, with the Vatican obelisk in the middle, were positioned along a horizontal axis that cut the new St.Peter's Square into two halves.
Although Bernini was in charge for the colonnade, most sources claim that the twin fountain was built by Carlo Fontana. However, according to scholar C. D'Onofrio, the same Fontana, in his Treatise published in 1696, wrote:  Cavalier Bernini was ordered to look after the making of the aforesaid second fountain , clearly suggesting that the author may likely be the famous architect and sculptor.

the twin fountain, with St.Peter's in the background

The original water flow of the aqueduct would have not been sufficient for supplying a second fountain as big as these ones; so while the works in the square were in progress, the pope had the flow of the Acqua Paola increased.
But a team of experts, which included the same Bernini, found the original source of water, i.e. the Lake of Bracciano, quite unsuitable, so the additional amount of water was then drawn from a nearby brook.
Since the land where the brook's springs were located belonged to the Papal State, the pope did not only obtain plenty of water needed for St.Peter's Square, but also avoided to pay a further charge to the Orsini family, owners of the lake.
Once the aqueduct's flow had been increased, the water reached the Vatican with a stronger pressure too: an amazing feature of the two fountains was their very high jet of water, that sprung up as high as the fountain itself, as the photograph on the right, taken around 1870, clearly shows.

Regretfully, to avoid a waste of water, as of the second half of the 20th century the flow of both fountains was drastically reduced, and the water jet, now rather low, has lost its original appeal.


Piazza Scossacavalli was the heart of Borgo: it was the only square of the district, where an ancient church dedicated to St.James stood. Unlike the fountain for St.Peter's Square, whose purpose was mainly decorative, the one built for this densely inhabited spot would have finally supplied the residents with a source of water for their daily needs.
While still busy with his other works, Maderno built a rather small yet elegant fountain, whose design was very likely inspired by Della Porta's heritage: a round basin, resting on a baluster decorated with Paul V's device (the eagle and dragon of the Borghese family, see detail below), placed in the middle of a larger geometrically-shaped basin. Here the water gushes from five pipes, a central one above, and four below, on each side.

the fountain in its present location

the original location of the fountain, etching by G.B.Falda
The fountain peacefully stood in piazza Scossacavalli for over three centuries. In the late 1920s, architect Pietro Lombardi, the author of the small district fountains (see part II page 4), built one of his creations just next to Maderno's basin, as seen in the vintage photograph below on the left.
But only a few years later, starting from 1936, Borgo district suffered from a rough and hasty demolition program for the making of the large avenue that leads to St.Peter's, and all the central part of the district, with its old houses and St.James' church, were carelessly taken down. The same piazza Scossacavalli disappeared from Rome's map; today only its name survives, borne by the street that once led to the square.

← both fountains, still in piazza Scossacavalli (c.1930);
the small one by P.Lombardi is in the foreground

the baluster features the eagle
and the dragon of the Borghese

When the demolition was over, the fountain by Maderno was disassembled and stored in a deposit; only in 1958 it was given a new location, in front of Sant'Andrea della Valle's church, not far from piazza Navona. What we see today is still the original work, except the upper basin: either lost or stolen, it had to be replaced with a faithful copy.
The small fountain by Lombardi, instead, was set up again in 1964 in the northern suburb of Tomba di Nerone (see part II, page 4).

the demolition of Borgo's 'spine' in progress (late 1930s)

Sant'Andrea della Valle's church by the fountain (bottom right)


The last fountain built by Maderno in Borgo has already been mentioned in part II page 1, due to its size and design. It was referred to as Mascarone di Borgo (Borgo's grotesque face) by some historical sources, such as the etching below. It consisted of a large face hanging from the wall of the district's last building, in front of the river bank; the water was spouted into a small basin shaped as a seashell, from where it tricled down into a trough. Two smaller heads below provided side outlets.

↑ the Mascarone Fountain, in an etching by Tiburzio Vergelli,
was replaced in the mid 1800s with the one on the right →
in a vintage picture dating back to c.1930
The fountain was topped by an eagle (the heraldic device of the Borghese family) and by a large plaque bearing a dedicatory inscription with the coat of arms of pope Paul V.

In 1849, due to its bad condition, Pius IX had the fountain taken away and replaced: in its upper part, the new one had a seashell, while in the lower half a basin collected the water poured by two dolphins; two tall columns on the fountain's sides supported an archtrave, on which the papal coat of arms rested. The main outlet drew water from the Acqua Paola aqueduct, but two smaller nozzles on its sides drew water from the Acqua Marcia (as another small fountain in Borgo district did).

In 1938, the demolition of the central part of Borgo district for the making of the present via della Conciliazione was in progress; by that time, the surviving parts of the fountain were rebuilt in the Vatican grounds.
At the end of the modern buildings that replaced the old district, two large trough-shaped fountains were added, almost recalling in shape and in location the old Mascherone. However, the present ones look very simple, rather anonymous, and now they are also dry.

other pages in part III
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22