~ Roman Monographs ~

· part III ·
Main Fountains


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While the districts on both sides of the Tiber benefitted from the Acqua Paola, during the 17th century several new fountains were also built on more central spots, altering and improving the network of ducts connected to the Salone Water (i.e. the ancient Aqua Virgo) and to the Acqua Felice.

Santa Maria Maggiore

One of Rome's most important churches, Santa Maria Maggiore, is faced by an ancient fluted column standing on a tall base, in the middle of the square. This arrangement dates back to c.1613-15, when pope Paul V had the only surviving column from the Basilica of Massentius (also known as Basilica of Constantine) moved from the Forum area and set in front of the church, probably to match the obelisk that Sixtus V, about 25 years earlier, had stood in identical position at the back of the same building. The architect in charge of the work was Carlo Maderno, who also placed above the column a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The bronze for the making of the statue came from the gate that surrounded the early medieval pine-cone fountain in the old St.Peter's (see part I page 2), which in those years was being rebuilt.
Bronze eagles and dragons (the pope's device), made from the same metal, were added on the four corners of the base.

In front of the column Maderno built a fountain. Its original design consisted in an oval-shaped basin, with a pair of water-spouting dragons, or maybe a dragon and an eagle, by each end; midway along each side was a further outlet in the shape of a small relief featuring a dragon-eagle (i.e. an eagle with jagged wings and a pointed tail), and a tiny basin supported by a grotesque face. In the middle of the oval basin, a smaller one, round in shape and rested on a baluster, was filled by a central jet of water.

the fountain in a 17th century etching

The fountain we see today, though, is a bit different: sometime during the 18th or 19th century the large dragons were taken away, and later on also the top basin and its baluster were replaced with smaller ones, of minor artistic value.

the original basin
is shown in grey

(right →)
one of the elements with
the dragon-eagle and
the grotesque face


The 'old boat', with the famous Spanish Steps at the back, represents one of Rome's most fascinating spots, where even the most hasty tourists stop and take a picture. But in the 17th century the place looked quite different.

the coat of arms
of the Barberini
The reign of Paul V had come to an end in 1621, and his successor, Gregory XV, had died only two years later. In 1623 cardinal Maffeo Barberini from Florence became Urban VIII, the pope who during his twenty-one years of reign would have left a whole swarm of 'bees' hanging on Rome's walls and monuments.

Meanwhile, the population in the city's northern districts had kept growing, and the old ducts of the Aqua Virgo needed to be modified and connected to the new houses. In charge of this work was Pietro Bernini; born in Tuscany, as the pope, this versatile artist was mainly a painter and a sculptor, but before coming to Rome he had worked several years in Naples, and in both cities he had built a number of garden fountains for rich owners of mansions and villas.

the Barcaccia Fountain, in piazza di Spagna

17th century view of the square:
compare it with the following picture
In 1570, the list of places chosen to build fountains supplied by the Aqua Virgo had initially included ...the site of the aqueduct below the Trinità, see page 2. But since later on this spot had been disregarded, due to the low pressure of the water, when Urban VIII asked Pietro Bernini to draw the project for a new fountain in piazza di Spagna, adjacent to the old duct that ran below the Pincio hill, he might have thought of filling a gap left in the old project half a century earlier.
In those years piazza di Spagna (once called piazza della Trinità dei Monti after the name of the church) did not have its famous Spanish Steps yet; the side of the hill, from whose top the aforesaid church already overlooked the square, was but a rough slope, with a simple path climbing to the top.

In order to exploit the available pressure as much as possible, Bernini drew a very low structure, completely surrounded by an oval pool dug below the ground level (an expedient that Giacomo della Porta had already used in piazza San Marco, see page 4).
But the most innovative element of his work is undoubtly its shape, which reproduces a boat with a high prow and stern, and very low sides.
Here the water gushes centrally from a tiny elongated basin, lower than the boat's ends, supported by a short stout baluster or stem; it then pours into the boat, filling its bottom, until it trickles over the low sides, into the ground basin. There are six more water outlets (i.e. three on each side): one, shaped as a sun, is placed at the boat's ends, pointing towards the inside, although part of the water reaches the pool directly along two small gutters, while the two other nozzles are on the outer side (see the following illustrations).
The Barcaccia was finished in 1629. The result was very different from any other source of running water previously built in Rome. For the first time, the composition was entirely conceived as a sculpture; it no longer had a high central outlet, nor the typical basin with vertical sides and a geometrical shape.

modern view of the square, with the Spanish Steps: →
note the position of the fountain, below the ground level
The design is based on a harmonic blend of curves, undulations and torsions, while straight lines are practically missing. Therefore, the Barcaccia can be considered the city's earliest example of Baroque style applied to fountain-making (except for a much smaller and simpler wall fountain by Francesco Borromini, built two or three years ealier in the Vatican gardens), a real milestone in this field.

Why Bernini chose such a peculiar shape is a matter of debate. According to a popular story, once a boat, driven here from the river bank during one of Rome's frequent floods, had been found aground on this spot. Others claim that in ancient times a small naumachia (naval stadium) stood in this place, and the shape of this fountain would have recalled the no longer existing structure.

Also the name Barcaccia, which more or less sounds as "old, worn out boat", is commonly believed to refer to the half-sunken sides, i.e. as if staved in, and shipping water.
Instead the shape of Bernini's fountain mimics precisely a particular variety of boat that was used for carrying barrels of wine to Rome's river port (see picture on the right): its sides were very low in order to unload it more easily. And the official name of this kind of boat actually was barcaccia.
Since pope Urban VIII was the sponsor of this work, other noticeable decorations are the devices of the Barberini family he belonged to, found at both ends of the fountain: on the outer side, between the two outlets, hangs a papal coat of arms featuring the well-known three bees, while on the inside the blazing sun acts itself as an outlet.

It is said that also Pietro Bernini's son, the more famous Gianlorenzo, took part to the making of the Barcaccia fountain. But within a couple of decades he certainly excelled his father and main teacher with many other superb works, in the fields of fountain-making, sculpture, architecture and painting.

boats used for carrying wine barrels, by the old river port
of Ripetta, in an etching by G.B.Piranesi (18th century)

← the papal coat of arms featuring three bees and the radiant sun ↑
are heraldic devices referred to Urban VIII (from the Barberini family)

other pages in part III
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