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Main Fountains

Part III deals with main fountains. To clear any doubt, the ones listed in these pages are certainly larger than the simple drinking-troughs and the other types described in part II as "small", yet not necessarily huge nor imposing.
What distinguishes them is basically the fact of having been created keeping in mind the artistic purpose as much as the practical one. When water had to be drawn from wells and reservoirs, the people may have appreciated their utility more than their look; in fact they used to be called "fountain of..." after the place where they stood, rather than with a name referring to the featured theme. But nowadays a public source of water is no longer a primary need, and the importance of the fountains' functionality has been clearly overcome by their pure esthetic value: even when dry (for maintainance, restoration, or other reasons), the main fountains are fine monuments to behold.
detail of the Fountain of the Tortoises (1584)

But since small troughs and main fountains alike need water to work, with very few exceptions both typologies could only be conceived after having satisfied two basic conditions: the restoration of the ancient aqueducts, and the making of an underground net of ducts for carrying the water to different parts of the city; all this began in 1570.
For this reason, the main criterium according to which the fountains are listed in the following pages is chronologic, as it follows the sequence of the aqueducts' reopening and, for each of them, the various places that the city administration chose as suitable spots for receiving the new precious resource: running water.

Besides actual photographs, also old maps of Rome and engravings are shown, as they illustrate the original urban setting in which the fountains were built (sometimes very different from today's), and the changes that many of them underwent through the years.

This first page, instead, describes three early ancestors of the fountains we see today, i.e. the ones previously mentioned as "few exceptions", that worked before the making of the new net of ducts, and whose shape heavily influenced many others built in the following centuries.

Lastly, this page also briefly introduces the main fountain-makers who worked in Rome, famous architects whose names are frequently mentioned in the following pages; despite the many fountains, their number is really very few.
one of the four lions in piazza del Popolo;<BR>
one of the wall fountains is partly visible at the back


in this page
the late medieval fountains
fountain-making and fountain-makers

other pages
(clickable index)

page 2
the opening of the Salone water
the fountains of piazza del Popolo
page 3
the fountains of
piazza Navona
page 4
the fountains of piazza Colonna,
piazza della Rotonda,
piazza San Marco
page 5
the Fountain of the Tortoises
the fountains of Campo de' Fiori
page 6
the fountains of the Aqua Felix
the Fountain of Moses
page 7
the fountains of
piazza del Quirinale
and Campo Vaccino
page 8
the fountains for
Capitolium Hill
page 9
the semipublic fountains
the fountain of
piazza dell'Aracoeli
page 10
the fountains built off the main
course of the Aqua Felix
page 11
the remaining fountains
of the Aqua Felix
page 12
17th century: the making
of the Acqua Paola
page 13
the fountains in
Borgo district
page 14
other fountains
east of the Tiber
page 15
fountains supplied
by other aqueducts
page 16
the magnificent
page 17
the mother
of all fountains
page 18
other fountains of
the 18th century
page 19
the 19th century
page 20
the 20th century
from 1900 to 1930
page 21
the 20th century
from 1930 to the present days

(15th CENTURY)
Very few fountains were known to exist prior to the mid 16th century, due to the lack of running water that during the Middle Ages for about 1,000 years represented one of Rome's main problems.
The only aqueduct still partly working was the Aqua Virgo, whose springs were located east of Rome, although it reached the city from the north, due to the duct's winding course. The water flow was much lower than in ancient roman times, as the original channels were damaged, and new springs were used, closer to Rome, yet less abundant and less clean (see also Aqueducts,
page 6).
The aqueduct ended in a central spot, below the Quirinal Hill, by a three-way junction (in Latin trivium), mentioned in old chronicles as Treio, whence the other name "Trevi water" still in use today, although some maintain that this name derived from the location of the original springs, a place once called Trebium.
The water gushed out from three individual outputs, each of which had a plain basin, without any particular decoration. Visual records of this early fountain are very scarce; one of them is a painted medallion by Taddeo di Bartolo (c.1410), featuring a simplified map of Rome's monuments and ancient ruins. Few would recognize in this small structure the nucleus of what is today one of Rome's most renowned landmarks, the Fountain of Trevi, described in a further page.
painting by Taddeo di Bartolo, early 15th century
the three original basins (arrow)

the fountain, following Nicholas V's alterations

Only at the end of the Middle Ages pope Nicholas V improved its shape by replacing the three basins with a long rectangular one, also adding a large marble plaque, whose inscription read: pope Nicholas V, after decorating the city with important monuments, in 1453 restored the Aqua Virgo from its old decay. This look remained basically unchanged for over two centuries.

In the city's western outskirts stood St.Peter's basilica. The Aqua Traiana, which in ancient times had served this part of Rome, had been restored in the late 8th century, but it had only worked again for 200 years.
The Vatican could still rely on a small amount of water, thanks to a few very early ducts, that had been originally dug by the time of pope Damasus (366-84); they drew water from minor springs, that had been found somewhere below the nearby Janiculum and Vatican hills.
These ducts supplied the main fountain in St.Peter's courtyard (see part I page 2), and probably also two smaller ones, located not very far from the basilica. They had remained in good condition thanks to maintainance works occasionally carried out, especially under two popes: the afore-mentioned Nicholas V (1447-55) and Julius II (1503-13).

the old fountain facing St.Peter's,
featured in mid 16th century drawings
One of the two working fountains stood in the open place in front of the basilica, today's St.Peter's Square; a few old drawings show in detail its elegant shape, consisting of two round basins of different size, collecting the water that gushed from the uppermost element, decorated with four small figures, and resting on a circular base of three steps.
drawing by M. van Heemskerk
the old St.Peter's basilica and the fountain (arrow), in the mid 1500s
According to old documents, it was built around 1490. A decade later, probably among other works for the Jubilee year 1500, pope Alexander VI had nozzles shaped as bull's heads added to the top basin, but the fountain's shape remained basically the same.

An even older one is featured by the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in a map dated 1472 which shows no fountain by St.Peter's yet. Being similar to the previous one, it is likely that it may have acted as a source of inspiration for the one described above.
(left) S.Maria in Trastevere in a map of 1472, and (right) enlargement
of the fountain; in this map no fountain stood yet before St.Peter's
Santa Maria's church stands on the same side of the Tiber as St.Peter's, about 1.5 Km or 1 mile further south, thus the fountain was almost certainly connected to the same early ducts that drew water from the Janiculum's springs. In the map its lower basin appears square in shape, but this may have been a simplification due to the miniature size of the actual drawing: in fact, many medieval baptismal fonts and wells were octagonal, and this shape was also maintained by several fountains of the 16th century. Furthermore, in 16th century maps it seems to have eight sides.

Built around the mid 1400s, some scholars suspect that it may have replaced an even older one, whose dating could likely extend far back to the ancient roman days. In fact, the Aqua Alsietina, i.e. the aqueduct that emperor Octavianus had built for his naval stadium in Trastevere (see Curious and Unusual,
page 4), very close to this spot, may have easily supplied also a local fountain, although the water it drew was non-drinkable.
But the Aqua Alsietina had been abandoned during the late imperial age; sometime around the 4th century, the surface of the lake from which the water was drawn (see Aqueducts, part III page 3) had dropped below the level of the aqueduct's tunnel. Therefore, in the 15th century Trastevere's fountain could only work with the little water drawn from the Janiculum springs, whose pressure was also rather low.
For this reason, around year 1500, the uppermost basin was removed, so to lower the height of the nozzle. We see the result in 16th century maps (more detailed visual sources are not available). Scholar Cesare D'Onofrio maintains that wolf's heads were also added to the remaining round basin, referring to cardinal Lopez, who was in charge for Santa Maria in Trastevere and its surroundings, and whose surname was reminiscent of the Latin word lupus ("wolf").
map of Rome by A. Tempesta, 1593
the fountain without its top basin

During the following centuries, both the fountain in front of St.Peter's and the one in Trastevere underwent further changes. The former, deeply altered, still exists, while the latter, also altered, was definitively replaced in 1873. Since their evolution was affected by the reopening of the ancient Aqua Traiana aqueduct (1612), they will be dealt with again in the pages yet to be published. Nevertheless, their classic shapes stirred the architects' interest throughout the Renaissance, and inspired many fountains built up to the turn of the 17th century.


During the Renaissance the making of fountains became a new and rather frequently requested activity. Owners of mansions and villas, city administrators, the popes, anybody who could afford fountains wanted them. Special skills were developed in the field of hydraulics, and a few architects became specialized in blending art and science, obtaining results in which beauty and utility were cleverly combined.
The making of a fountain was a complex team work, that involved a certain number of artists and craftsmen.
Usually the architect was in charge for the final result; he was the one who designed the fountain, agreed its shape and costs with the client, but also kept in mind the water's pressure and flow, the hight of the chosen spot, the distance from the aqueduct's main course, and other technical parameters.
Very often a different artist designed in full detail the single statues, groups and reliefs needed for the project (seldom the architect did this himself); his artistic level was sometimes rather high, as in the case of the fountains built by Giacomo della Porta, whose preparatory drawings were made by the professional painter Jacopino del Conte.
detail of the Trevi Fountain, in piazza di Trevi
marbles and stones more often used
1 - travertine
2 - white marble
3 - portasanta marble
4 - African grey marble
5 - basalt
6 - granite
The drawings were then handed to one or more skilled stone-masons, who actually carved the statues, reliefs, etc.  In a few cases also this duty was carried out by distinguished artists, as in the case of the Fountain of the Tortoises, whose bronze groups are by sculptor Taddeo Landini.
But with very few exceptions, the only name remembered (or blamed, in a few cases) for the fountain was, and still is, the architect's own.

The type or types of marble and other stones used in the making of a fountain depended both on their cost and on their availability; if one quality was reputed too expensive, or a block suitable for being carved could not be found, often a different marble was agreed. The main qualities used were the whitish travertine (the cheapest one, thus the kind more extensively used), the more expensive white marble, the reddish portasanta marble (from the island of Chios, Greece), and the African grey marble. Other stones, such as basalt and granite, are sometimes found in the shape of statues and basins from ancient Rome or Egypt, unearthed and recycled in various ways during the Renaissance. Also bronze was used in a few cases, for statues and other additional elements.
Curiously, most of the marble used for the making of Rome's fountains did not come from quarries, as one could expect; it consisted of blocks taken from the remains of many ancient establishments (baths, fora, etc.) all over Rome, that were cut and reshaped to fit the new project's needs. Up to the 17th century, many of today's most important archaeological sites were literally plundered by the popes and their artists.

GIACOMO DELLA PORTA  (1533 - 1602)
Born in Genoa, della Porta was one of the most distinguished architects and sculptors of the 16th century. In Rome he worked in an incredible number of churches and buildings, often taking over unfinished projects by Vignola (his main teacher) and Michelangelo, and sometimes modifying their original designs.
During the last three decades of the 16th century he supervised the works for the making of the new St.Peter's basilica, whose dome he completed. After the reopening of the first aqueduct, he became the first official fountain-maker, and certainly the most prolific one Rome ever had: he is credited for fourteen main fountains, which he built in piazza del Popolo, piazza Colonna, piazza Navona (two), piazza della Rotonda, piazza San Marco, Campo de' Fiori, piazza Mattei, piazza Madonna dei Monti, piazza Giudia, piazza Montanara, piazza Campitelli, and two of the fountains on the Capitolium hill. Also the grotesque mask for the drinking trough in Campo Vaccino was carved by this architect (see part II, page 1), as well as a small semipublic fountain, no longer existing.
Della Porta is often accused by modern critics of having followed a somewhat monotonous scheme, which always includes one or two small basins (1), supported by a baluster (2), in the middle of a larger lower basin (3), usually with a complex geometric shape, resting on three or four steps (4) so to compensate any uneveness or slope of the ground.
This scheme was clearly inspired by the late medieval fountains previously mentioned.

typical scheme of della Porta's fountains

DOMENICO AND GIOVANNI FONTANA   (1543-1607)  (1540-1614)
Domenico was the most outstanding member of a whole family of architects from Ticino region, now in Switzerland. Still young, he came to Rome to work in the villa of cardinal Peretti, before he was elected pope (Sixtus V). Later on he worked on St.Peter's central lantern and naves, replacing della Porta as a supervisor, together with C.Maderno.
engraving by G.B.Falda, 17th century
the no longer existing fountain by G. Fontana
According to Sixtus V's busy town-planning projects, D.Fontana opened new main streets that cut straight through the old districts; he also moved four ancient obelisks to their new location, and built the new Lateran Palace.
The only fountain still standing that was entirely drawn by this architect is that of Moses, i.e. the main output of the Aqua Felix aqueduct.

Fontana's elder brother Giovanni, instead, is credited for having supervised the making of the Aqua Felix aqueduct and for having cooperated with Flaminio Ponzio for the making of the huge Acqua Paola fountain on the Janiculum hill. He also cooperated with Vasanzio for the fountain by Sisto Bridge. A smaller yet elaborate work entirely by G.Fontana (left), on the same hill, was removed in the 19th century, probably because badly damaged during a battle.

Other members of the family who worked in Rome were Carlo (Domenico's nephew, 1638-1714), Francesco (Carlo's son, 1668-1708) and Mauro (Francesco's son, 1701-67). Carlo added a basin to the Acqua Paola fountain, and slightly altered the old one before Santa Maria in Trastevere; he is also often credited for the second fountain in St. Peter's square, although this is controversial, as some reliable scholars maintain that Bernini was the actual maker.

A Dutch architect, wood-carver and engraver from Utrecht, whose name was Italianized when he came to Rome. Here he studied with Flaminio Ponzio, with whom later on he also cooperated. Although in the early 1600s Paul V appointed him "fountain architect", i.e. the official supervisor of fountain-making in Rome, he is mainly remembered for having built the large one by Sisto Bridge, and for having drawn a few minor ones for the Vatican grounds.

CARLO MADERNO   (1556 - 1629)
One more member of the Fontana clan: he was Domenico's nephew. Maderno began his carreer as a stone-mason. When his uncle called him to Rome, he distinguished himself with the making of Santa Susanna's church. In charge for St.Peter's works together with Domenico Fontana, he is credited for the enormous façade of the basilica. He also took part to the making of several among Rome's palaces and mansions, among which the Quirinal Palace and the famous "harpsichord" of the Borghese family (see The 22 Rioni, Rione IV - Campo Marzio).
He is also remembered as the author of the first of the two fountains in St.Peter's square, into which he turned the late medieval one previously described in this page. Maderno also built the fountain in front of Santa Maria Maggiore, and the one for piazza Scossacavalli (moved to the bottom of corso Rinascimento when this square disappeared).
Remarkably, also one of Carlo Maderno's nephews was to become a famous architect in Rome, although he only built a small wall fountain in the Vatican: Francesco Castelli, who later on changed name in Francesco Borromini (1599-1667).
detail of the fountain by Santa Maria Maggiore

GIROLAMO RAINALDI   (1570 - 1655)
Another dinasty of architects was the Rainaldi family. After having been taught by his own father Adriano, Girolamo came to Rome, where he met both Domenico Fontana and Giacomo della Porta; due to their influence, Rainaldi's architectural schemes mainly remained those of the late Renaissance, despite with the turn of the 17th century, in Rome the Baroque age had already begun.
His most famous building is Palazzo Pamhilj, but among other works he is also remembered for the curious bird cage built for Villa Borghese. His only fountains are the couple of ancient tubs that face Palazzo Farnese.
His son Carlo (1611-1691) at first cooperated with Girolamo in the making of the Palazzo Nuovo, on the Capitolium, then worked alone on the façade of Sant'Andrea della Valle, drew the project for the twin churches of piazza del Popolo, but he did not build any fountain.

Architect, sculptor, painter, playwright and scene-painter, master of Rome's Baroque age.
detail of the Fountain of the Triton,
in piazza Barberini
His teacher was his own father Pietro (1562-1629), author of the Barcaccia fountain.
After his early works for cardinal Borghese, he became the artist that pope Urban VIII preferred among the many available in Rome; for this pope Bernini built the famous canopy in St.Peter's, and created the colonnade that surrounds the vast square in front of the basilica. He is also remembered for several sculptures (Extasy of St.Theresa, and the so-called Minerva's Chick, among others). Despite Urban's successor, Innocent X, preferred to him Francesco Borromini, Bernini's production continued throughout the century, as he outlived three more popes.
As a fountain-maker, he is credited for masterpieces such as the Triton in piazza Barberini, and the great Fountain of the Rivers in the center of piazza Navona, the square in which he also improved one of the two preexisting works by della Porta. Some claim his authorship for the second fountain in St.Peter's square, but this issue is debated.

NICOLA (or NICCOLÒ) SALVI   (1697 - 1751)
A pupil of architect Antonio Canevari, he would have remained an obscure personage, had his only masterpiece not become one of Rome's very symbols: the Fountain of Trevi. Enough for his name to enter the hall of fame of the city's most famous fountain-makers.

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