~ Roman Monographs ~

part III
Main Fountains

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The page only deals with the fountains by Gianlorenzo Bernini that have not been already described
elsewhere in this monograph (for further details follow the links in the text).

By the time the Barcaccia fountain was finished, among the many artists active in Rome the young Gianlorenzo was already a distinguished sculptor. Having been taught by his father, he had entered the family workshop as a teenager. Very soon, his talent caught the attention of cardinal Montalto, the nephew of pope Sixtus V.

Villa Montalto (highlighted) in the early 1600s; the asterisk
shows the location of the pool, where the Neptune group stood
One of his first important commissions, around 1620, was to design a group for a pool located inside Villa Montalto, which the cardinal's famous uncle had already been very fond of (see page 6). Besides a rich mansion, the vast estate included several gardens, fountains, vineyards, and even an enclosure where exotic animals such as lions were kept. The young Bernini carved a frowning Neptune, who menacingly points his trident towards the water surface, with a smaller figure (a young triton) crouching between his legs and sounding a conch shell.
Gianlorenzo Bernini
(1598 1680)

the Neptune group,
now in London
Unfortunately, the villa completely disappeared during the 19th century: a densely inhabited district and Rome's central train station, both built in the late 1800s, took its place.
But Bernini's group was spared from destruction; in time, it ended up in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, where it is still kept today. Instead, the only surviving remain from the villa still extant in Rome is a wall fountain by Domenico Fontana, consisting of a richly ornate niche, with a small water-spouting lion's head over a group of rocks, called the Fountain of the Prisoner, after a no longer existing statue that stood before it. Following the destruction of the villa's remains, in 1938 the niche was moved to the bottom of the Janiculum hill, on a rather anonymous spot.

the fountain from Villa Montalto, now by the Janiculum Hill

Gianlorenzo's growing success enabled him to become acquainted also with cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who was particularly impressed by his works up to the point that after having been elected pope (Urban VIII) in 1623, he became the patron and the main client of the versatile artist.
Around 1625, Urban decided to have a rich family mansion built on one side of the Quirinal hill, just beyond the most densely inhabited part of the district. The best available architects and painters were hired, namely Carlo Maderno, Pietro da Cortona, Francesco Borromini and both Bernini, father and son. The nearby square, once called piazza Grimana, was later on renamed piazza Barberini (as it is known today) after Palazzo Barberini, the most lavish mansion built in Rome during the Baroque age.

the mansion (in yellow), the Acqua Felice (blue dots), and the square, still with the old name (c.1640)

Maffeo Barberini, Urban VIII
The main branch of the Acqua Felice aqueduct ran along the top of the Quirinal hill, very close to the mansion (see picture above, and page 6).
Thanks to its location, Palazzo Barberini could be easily provided with running water; in fact below the building's porch, inside a central niche, originally stood a garden fountain, whose design included a bee and a sun, the heraldic devices of the Barberini family. This work might have been a creation by Gianlorenzo. However, only a few years later major alterations were carried out to the porch, and the fountain was removed, never to be seen again.

A new one was set in front of the building only during the second half of the 19th century but, besides being much more simple than the old one, now it is dry.

Palazzo Barberini, the family's coat of arms above the balcony, and the 19th century fountain, now dry

the Fountain of the Triton, one of Bernini's masterworks

Since the aqueduct's branch ran so close, in 1642 Urban VIII thought of exploiting it again in order to give the nearby square, now called piazza Barberini, a public fountain for the benefit of the district's inhabitants.
Despite in those years Bernini was already working on another project, which would have soon been bogged down (as will be said further in the page), this commission too was given by the pope to his favourite fountain-maker, who drew for piazza Barberini one of his most successful creations.
In the center of a large basin at ground level, or pool, four dolphins with open mouths rise from the water surface. Their bodies form a base, tapered towards the top, where their tails entwine like tentacles around the keys of the pope's coat of arms, whose shield bears the well-known three bees.
On top of this 'pyramid' rests the open shell of a huge clam, acting as a platform, on which a triton kneels with his scaly legs, while his mighty torso points up straight towards the sky, as he blows into a conch: a jet of water rises from it, as if it were the mighty sound coming out of the shell. Then, falling down onto the large clam, the water forms two small streams that drop into the pool below.

In designing the four dolphins, Bernini resorted for the first time to a particular device, very innovative in those days, which almost became the hallmark of his works: a base with a hollow space below, that gives the composition a more slender and elegant appearance than if resting on a solid mass, and also creates a shadow and light effect below the main group.

the muscular triton →

This concept, though, clashed against the orthodox precepts of the 17th century architecture; for this reason, Gianlorenzo's works featuring a hollow base (see Curious and Unusual page 1 and Legendary Rome page 2) were bitterly opposed by his detractors. This did not happen with the Fountain of the Triton, probably because Bernini was too high in the esteem of pope Urban VIII to criticize him.
The idea of surrounding the group with a low basin, geometrical in shape (the only detail in common with older fountains) yet rather complex, was probably inspired by the oval one that his own father had used for the Barcaccia Fountain, described in the previous page. Later on Bernini used again this same element for the Fountain of the Moor, in piazza Navona (see page 3).

← the dolphins forming the hollow base and the coat of arms


Shortly after the making of the Fountain of the Triton, Urban VIII died.
During the reign of the following pope, Innocent X (1644-55), Bernini's fortune partly subsided; the conflict between the families of the Barberini and the Pamphilj (to whom Innocent belonged) was so strong that not only the previous pope's relatives, but the whole entourage of politicians, counsellors, and even artists who had been protected by Urban VIII fell in disgrace very soon after the new election. Nevertheless, the cunning Bernini managed all the same to be preferred to his rival Borromini as the maker of the central fountain of piazza Navona, thus creating one of his best known masterpieces, the Fountain of the Rivers, described in page 3. In the same square he also enlarged an older fountain by G.della Porta, the Fountain of the Moor.

the coat of arms of Innocent X,
from the Fountain of the Rivers

detail from the Fountain of the Bees
Things went much better after Innocent's death, when Alexander VII became the new pope: Bernini, appointed chief architect for the making of the new St.Peter's Square, also designed the enormous quadruple colonnade, changed the position of Maderno's fountain, and added a twin one, as described in page 13.

As a fountain-maker, the list of works left by Gianlorenzo Bernini includes a number of small creations, most of which built during the early years of his career for the courts and gardens of private mansions (not dealt with by this monograph), but also the Fountain of the Bees, described in part II page 2, set in a corner of the same square where the larger Fountain of the Triton stood.

Yet even a genius like Bernini inevitably clashed into a few flops. Besides the group known as the 'snail', carved for piazza Navona's fountain, disliked by pope Innocent X - and by the people, as well - and replaced shortly after (read more details in page 3), another failure concerned the great Trevi Fountain, one of the most famous landmarks in Rome, whose complicated story, strewn with rejected projects by many architects, both famous and obscure, is dealt with more in detail in the following page 17.
Around 1640, while the family mansion of Urban VIII was being given its finishing touches, the pope thought of refurbishing the old fountain by the end of the Salone Water aqueduct, located by a three-way junction, whose shape in those days still consisted of three large but very simple outlets, from which the water poured into a long rectangular basin below (see page 1).

Bernini's unfinished work, detail from an etching by G.B.Falda;
in the distance (top right corner) is the tower of Quirinal Palace
Bernini not only drafted a lavish structure, submitting his designs to the pope, but began to actually build his project. For the making of the new fountain, some old houses standing on the southern side of the junction were taken down, turning the site of the junction into a small square.
Also the fountain's orientation was altered, and its front was turned by 90 degrees towards the south.
Bernini then built two large semicircular basins, one inside the other; in the middle, just below the water surface, he placed a base, whose purpose was very likely to support a central group.

But no statue was ever carved, nor any further progress was made, as the funds for the expensive project became insufficient, also because meanwhile Urban VIII had moved to war against the duchy of Parma, and was spending most of the Papal State's money for this unholy purpose.
Therefore, when in 1644 Urban died, Bernini's ambitious project was abandoned, and the new fountain was left unfinished.
How it developed into one of Rome's marvels, during the 18th century, is the main subject of the following page.

the fountain (yellow), still with the old shape in a map of 1593 (left),
and after Bernini's alterations, in a map of 1676 (right),
in which it looks smaller only due to the different map scale


About 2.5 km or 1.5 mi north of the city walls, next to the bank of the Tiber slightly after the confluence of the river Aniene, stands a curious structure made of travertine, whose base is located below the ground level. A tiny yard can be reached by means of a flight of steps, closed on three sides by a curved wall that ends in its upper part with a decorated front. In the lower half of the wall, three niches feature the heraldic device of the Chigi family, referring to pope Alexander VII: six small hills topped by an eight-pointed star. From each niche a nozzle pours water. From the upper half, in the center, hangs the coat of arms of the aforesaid pope and a dedication plaque dated 1661, the same age during which Bernini was most active.
Bernini, though, has really nothing to do with this fountain, whose project was drawn by the Baroque painter Andrea Sacchi. Nevertheless, one of its earliest depictions, by Giovanni Battista Falda (c.1675) mentions the name of the great fountain-maker, wrongly crediting him as the author.

the etching by Falda (c.1675) that credits "the Knight Gio. Lorenzo Bernini" for the nymphaeum, and its present look

The mistaken attribution may be explained with the resemblance of the top part of the fountain's front with the similar yet much larger element resting above Popolo Gate, actually designed by Bernini for the same pope Alexander VII six years earlier.

← the upper part of Popolo Gate, a work by Bernini

To trace the origin of this fountain we should step back in time to the 16th century, when a spring was first discovered on this spot.
Its water was rich in iron and carbonic acid, it had a sligthly sour taste, and drinking it started proving an effective remedy for several diseases.
Very soon it became renowned all over Rome as acqua acetosa ("vinegar-tasting water"), a name that it still bears today and that was also given to the whole neighbourhood.
At first, Paul V had a small fountain built on this spot in 1613, with a plaque reading in Latin: "this wealthy water cures the kidneys and the stomach, the spleen and the liver, it heals a thousand diseases".

← typical water-sellers (16th-17th centuries)

the plaque by Paul V that praises the healing virtues of the springs
Water-selling peddlers, known as acquacetosari after this fountain, came here to fill their casks with the precious water, which they loaded onto their mules and then sold throughout the city.

About 50 years later Alexander VII considerably enlarged the fountain, altering its shape into that of a small nymphaeum and lowering its base below the ground level. Also trees were planted all around, in order to make some shade: the idea was to have a place where it could be possible to enjoy the tasty water keeping away from the hot weather. Three nozzles were fit for the public, that kept coming in crowds, despite the distance from the city, at the point that sometimes an actual queue formed in front of the nymphaeum. The inscription that praises the therapeutic properties was left in place, on the left wall.
When in 1712 a restoration of the fountain became necessary, Clement XI sponsored the work, leaving his own plaque that remembers how the water springs were unified and the ducts were cleaned.

the inside of the nymphaeum: the nozzles come out from the three niches

At the back of the nymphaeum are some simple blocks of travertine, measuring about 30 cm or 12 in in height; a German inscription, now barely readable, remembers that they were set there to act as seats where to rest by crown prince Ludwig of Bavaria, who loved to linger by this fountain during his Roman vacation.
At the back of the nymphaeum is also one part of a hydrometer, dating back to the late 1800s; its lower sections hang from the wall along the flight of steps.

Over the 1950s the modern city districts stretched up to this spot, and the sewage network likely polluted the old spring. Having the water turned unsuitable for drinking, in 1959 the fountain was disconnected. After having been left dry for about 40 years, it was recently connected once again to the water ducts and, although it no longer draws the tasty water as it once did, it is now working once again.
During the last restoration work (2009-2010) the fountain has been enclosed in a small public garden, named a bit haughtily Acqua Acetosa Fountain Park, which is now separated from the nearby road by an iron railing.

← one of the stone seats and the hydrometer at the back of the nymphaeum

other pages in part III
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