back to the MAIN INDEX  ~ Roman Monographies ~

· part I ·
Ancient Fountains


When Rome was sieged during the Gothic Wars (6th century), the aqueducts still working were cut by order of the Goth general Witigis. Most fountains dried up, turned useless, and were left in decay. During the Middle Ages many inhabitants had to draw water from the river again, as the early romans had already done 1000 years before. The city's population decreased from almost 1.5 million (during Rome's empire) to only a few hundreds, also because of the water shortage. In fact, we can imagine that the lack of water caused terribly unhygienic conditions, which could have often burst into a plague.
piazza di San Bartolomeo all'Isola - St.Bartholomew's church piazza di San Marco - St.Mark's church
well-curbs: (left) 12th century, in St.Bartholomew's church,
(right) 12th century, below the porch of St.Mark's basilica
During these gloomy centuries, besides the river, the very few sources of water were the outputs still reached by the Aqua Virgo (the aqueduct that worked more regularly than others, but only served a small area below the Quirinal Hill), the outputs that drew water from other temporarily restored aqueducts (none of which worked for more than 100-200 years before ending up clotted, or leaking, or bursting again), and a number of wells, which collected rain water and sometimes exploited underground springs. The latter were found especially by churches, convents and monasteries.
These wells were used for several purposes. In particular, they provided the many hospices and hospitals, run by religious establishments, with the amount of water needed to maintain the minimal hygienic standards. They were also used for watering the gardens by the convents, where the monks grew medical herbs needed for their healing practices.
Among the religious purposes, instead, was the filling of the large baptismal fonts, in which, during the archaic rite, the baptismed person actually bathed up to the waist.
piazza di Porta San Giovanni -
San Giovanni in Laterano
9th century well in the cloister
of Rome's cathedral, St.John in the Lateran

Besides wells, during the early Middle Ages it was a common use for the main churches to have a source of water (a fountain, or a bath) standing in a garden or yard within the precints, where the faithful could refresh themselves and carry out ritual ablutions before entering the holy building.
piazza di S.Cecilia
the cantharus in Santa Cecilia's courtyard
These gardens were also known as "paradises". In most cases the water came out of a large vase, or drinking cup with spiral handles, which used to be called a cantharus, so the whole fountain was referred to with this name. They were taken from the ruins of ancient roman baths or villas, where they lay abandoned. Few of these vases still exist, but the only one standing before a church, closely recreating the early mediaeval setting, is by S.Cecilia's basilica: although in time the site underwent alterations, in the middle of the garden an ancient marble cantharus still spurts water into a low square basin.

The most famous one in mediaeval times was that of St.Peter's. In the classic shape of a vase, it was set into place probably around the 4th century, not long after the same church was built, although by tradition pope Symmachus (498-514) is credited for it.
The structure of the old St.Peter's was that of a typical early Christian basilica. From the open area which now corresponds to S.Peter's Square, a flight of steps led to a square courtyard before the church, surrounded by columns; there, in the center, stood the fountain.

piazza di San Clemente
the courtyard of San Clemente's church, once a "paradise"
Etienne Du Perac's map of Rome (1577), detail of the Vatican
the old St.Peter's, with the canopy fountain
in the courtyard (center-left); at the back,
works for the new church are in progress

Besides the fountain, already under pope Damasus (366-384), a system of ducts had been dug below the Vatican Hill in order to draw water from a number of small springs, known since earlier times, that had never been exploited at their best. This basically represented a mini-aqueduct, that enabled St.Peter's basilica to face its needs for religious purposes, although the amount of water the system could provide was not too rich, nor too constant.

About 400 years later, probably under pope Hadrian I (772-795), a bronze fountain of roman age, shaped as a huge pine-cone, was taken from the remains of the Baths of Agrippa, behind the Pantheon, and used as a replacement for St.Peter's vase-shaped one. In fact, it was pope Hadrian who had a full restoration carried out to the Aqua Traiana, the ancient aqueduct that ran along the nearby Janiculum Hill, which would have finally provided once again the Vatican with plenty of water. Very likely, its grand opening may have represented a good occasion for renewing the old fountain. The new pine-cone poured running water for two more centuries, until the aqueduct stopped working again.
Roman National Museum, by the Baths of Diocletian
a cantharus in the Roman National Museum
(courtesy of Stuardt Clarke)

drawing of the fountain (Francisco de Hollanda, mid 1500s)
drawing of St.Peter's fountain
by Francisco de Hollanda (early 1500s)
In times when the Aqua Traiana did not work, the old system of ducts was used (if not dry), and on special occasions, such as religious celebrations, etc., enough water may have been drawn by hand from the nearby Tiber.
Mediaeval chronicles such as the famous Mirabilia Urbis Romae (12th century) mentioned St.Peter's fountain among the city's noticeable features. The water gushed from hundreds of tiny holes on its surface (see the picture at the bottom of the page). Scarce Renaissance drawings show us the fountain standing in the center of a square basin, covered by a canopy that rested over eight columns (originally they were four) and was richly decorated with marbles of various types; in particular, on its fronts were bronze peacocks, which the following chronicle mentions as "griffons", covered with a gold leaf.


De lo Cantaro de Santo Pietro.
In paradiso de Santo Pietro čne lo Cantaro, lo quale fece Simachus papa. Et fo adhornato de colopne de porphiro. Et intorno era de tabole de marmo. Et de sopre erano IIIIor griphoni narate. Et lo celo era de rame, et adhornato de flori narati. Et de sopre IIIIor delphini de rame, li quali gettavano l'acqua per la vocca. Et in medio de lo Cantaro era una pignea narata, la quale fo cohopertime de Santa Maria Rotonda. Ne la quale pignea de sopre fo la statova de dea Cybeles, matre de tutti li dii. La quale pignea, per connutto de plombo, per tutta gettava l'acqua ad quelli ke la voleano. Et quella acqua per connutto gia fi ad la gulia, ad lo banio de Nero imperatore.

About St.Peter's Cantharus.
In St.Peter's paradise is the Cantharus, built by pope Symmachus. And it was adorned with columns of porphyry. And it was faced with marble all around. And above were four golden griffons. And the ceiling was made of copper, and adorned with golden flowers. And four copper dolphins above spouted water from their mouths. And in the middle of the Cantharus was a golden pine-cone, which once covered Santa Maria Rotonda's church. Above the pine-cone was the statue of goddess Cybele, mother of all gods. The pine-cone, through a lead pipe, kept pouring water for anybody who wanted it. And by means of a duct that water reached the spire, by the baths of emperor Nero.

When St.Peter's was completely rebuilt (1506-1614), the fountain and the canopy were dismantled, and most of the precious materials were reused for other purposes. The only parts spared were the peacocks and the pine-cone, which in the early 17th century were moved to the Cortile della Pigna, now part of the Vatican Museums, their ultimate location.
Cortile della Pigna - Vatican Museums
the original pine-cone and the copies
of the two peacocks
The peacocks now on display in the courtyard by the pine-cone are copies; the original ones, which still shine as gold (as the old chronicle says), are kept indoors, in a gallery of the same museum.
Cortile della Pigna - Vatican Museums Chiaramonti Museum - Vatican Museums
(left) the pine-cone's holes and (right) one of the original peacocks

*  *  *
PART I · page 1