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Main Fountains

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The many restorations carried out to the Aqua Virgo during the Middle Ages had kept this aqueduct functional, an important mid 15th century alteration of the last stretch of its course had by-passed the ancient broken viaduct by running underground, but the springs were no longer the original ones (see map in Aqueducts, part IV), and the water no longer tasted as good as it did in ancient times; the change had considerably affected its flow, as well.
A first project for radically restoring the aqueduct, so to connect again to the original springs, had been taken into consideration by pope Paul III (1534-49), but political problems at first, then bureaucracy, and then the rivalry among different architects who criticized each other's projects, delayed the works for some thirty years.
From 1562 to 1570, under popes Pius IV and Pius V, the original Aqua Virgo was finally reactivated. A few months after the works had been completed, the making of a number of underground branches was agreed, in order to supply districts not directly reached by the old duct.
map of Rome by A.Brambilla, 1590
late 16th century: the remains of the ancient Aqua Virgo viaduct,
on the Pincio hill; as of 1453 the water duct ran underground
On November 4th, 1570, a special commission of cardinals (called "Water-springs Congregation") agreed the first program concerning the making of new public fountains on the most important spots that would have been reached by the new ducts, concentrated in the north-western part of the city, ancient Rome's Campus Martis. A document mentions these locations as follows:
"...The three-way junction in piazza del Popolo. The site of the aqueduct below the Trinitą . San Rocco for the benefit of the port . Either piazza Sciarra or piazza Colonna. Santi Apostoli, San Marco . Piazza Altieri . The Minerva. The Ritonda . The Dogana . Two in Agone , at both ends. Campo de Fiori. Piazza Giudea . Piazza Montanara . Monte Giordano if the water can reach the place. Piazza di Ponte 10 . One midway along via Giulia."
1 - church of Trinitą dei Monti
2 - the no longer existing Ripetta river port
3 - now piazza Venezia
4 - now piazza del Gesł
5 - the Pantheon's square
6 - the old Customs office, now piazza Sant'Eustachio
7 - piazza Navona
8 - no longer existing, by the Jewish ghetto
9 - now piazza Campitelli
10 - southern end of Sant'Angelo Bridge

The branches of the main duct, whence the location of the fountains, pointed towards some of the city's most densely inhabited districts, while the distance they could reach depended on technical parameters: the farther from the main duct the water travelled, and the greater the number of outputs it supplied, the lower the pressure and the flow.
vicolo del Bottino
vicolo del Bottino, as it appears today
A new network of water pipes began to cross the city, sometimes leaving a trace in the names of the streets: the central via dei Condotti ("water pipe street"), now crowded with posh fashion stores, is a clear example.

Several of the scheduled fountains were never actually built, either because the water reached the spot with a low pressure (Santi Apostoli, via Giulia), or because the square was not large enough for a fountain (piazza Altieri), or because the spot was not considered worthy of being given such an expensive facility (piazza Ponte), or because the spot could not be reached by a branch of the duct (Monte Giordano), or for various other reasons (Minerva, Dogana).
Below the church of Trinitą dei Monti, along the main course of the aqueduct, a cistern popularly named bottino ("small barrel") was built for provision purposes, but not the public fountain that had been scheduled; today the cistern no longer exists, yet the lane where it stood (on the left) still carries its name.

San Rocco, instead, was located close enough to a branch, but received an amount of water barely enough to cover the needs of the hospital that stood by the church; a public fountain could only be built there two centuries later (see Fontana della Botticella, part II page 1).

The simplified maps on the right show the distribution of the fountains compared to the city boundaries (small map), and to the course of the main aqueduct and its urban branches (blue line).
Besides the ancestor of the Trevi Fountain mentioned in the previous page, already existing at the end of the aqueduct (1), the only new fountains built out of the project were those in piazza del Popolo (2), piazza Colonna (3, preferred to piazza Sciarra), the two in piazza Navona (4), in front of the Pantheon (5), San Marco (6, later removed), Campo de' Fiori (7), and piazza Giudia (8), though the latter was built in the nearby piazza Mattei.

the aqueduct's main branches and fountains;
the small map shows their position within the urban area


The first of the new fountains was the one for piazza del Popolo (1572). In the second half of the 16th century this square, now so famous, was scarsely inhabited, and still had a somewhat shabby look, despite other parts of the city had already been refurbished according to the Renaissance town-planning schemes.
Under popes Pius V and Gregory XIII it was enlarged, and the three-way junction opposite to Porta del Popolo, Rome's northernmost gate, was given a more regular and symmetrical shape.
During these works, Giacomo della Porta was in charge for the making of a new fountain for the center of the square, that replaced a small preexisting output.
piazza Nicosia
della Porta's first fountain, in its present location
His creation was likely inspired by the late medieval fountains that stood in the Vatican and in Trastevere (see page 1), as this one too consisted of two basins of different size, from which the water poured into a larger one below; the only difference with the one by the Vatican was the octagonal shape of the lower basin, and of the three matching steps.

But when the fountain was set in place, it turned out to be too small for the vast square. Some marble tritons and sea-shells were then carved as additional decorations, but probably due to their large size they were not used, and kept aside for some other purpose (as described in page 3).
In 1589 Sixtus V gave the square its most imposing monument: the tall Egyptian obelisk, that once stood in the Circus Maximus, was unearthed from the original site and moved to the center of piazza del Popolo. The fountain was left below the spire, facing the three-way junction.
map of Rome from the Civitates Orbis Terrarum atlas,
published in 1572

three stages of piazza del Popolo's arrangement: around 1570 (above right, eastwards view) before any refurbishment,
in 1577 (below left, westwards view) with the new fountain, and its final look (below right, eastwards view) in 1593
map of Rome by E. Du Perac, 1577

Not satisfied yet, the pope thought of replacing Della Porta's fountain with a larger structure, in the shape of four spouting lions, an animal featured in his own family crest, upon which the obelisk would have rested.
map of Rome by A. Tempesta, 1593

piazza del Popolo
piazza del Popolo as it is today (westwards view)
This project was never carried out, and for over two centuries the octagonal fountain remained in piazza del Popolo, overlooked by the towering spire.
It was replaced only in 1823, when architect Valadier gave the square its present look: partly following Sixtus V's idea, yet enlarging his old project, four marble lions in Egyptian style (recalling the obelisk's origin), with a round basin in front, were placed on the corners of a short flight of steps leading to the monument's base.

Valadier also marked the eastern and western boundary of the square building two walls, and added a further fountain in their central part. One of them is shown below, but they are described more in detail in page 19.
piazza del Popolo
the four lions by Valadier replaced
the small octagonal fountain by della Porta

Della Porta's fountain was temporarily used as a replacement in front of the church of San Pietro in Montorio, on the Janiculum Hill: here the one built by Giovanni Fontana (see picture in
page 1 or page 12) had been badly damaged during a battle fought in 1849.

piazza del Popolo
one of Valadier's wall fountains (eastern side of the square)
Some twenty years later, also this one was removed, disassembled, and stored in a deposit for almost one century.
Unfortunately, during this time its two upper basins went lost, or were stolen; when in the 1940s the fountain was inspected in order to be used again, only the lower octagonal basin was found. The missing ones were then carved again, using as a model a detailed 17th century engraving by G.B.Falda.

The larger of the two original basins had reliefs featuring a dragon with open wings, the family crest of Gregory XIII, who had been elected pope in the same year the fountain was built.
In the early 1940s Italy was still under the fascist regime; since Rome's governor was a member of the powerful Borghese family, instead of carving only dragons, eagles too were added to the new basin, in alternate order, as a sign of deference to the high officer. This slight alteration did not really affect the overall look of the fountain, still very faithful to della Porta's original work.

In 1950 the fountain was finally reassembled, and given its ultimate location: piazza Nicosia, a central yet much smaller square than piazza del Popolo, regretfully spoilt by the rather busy traffic (see the paragraph's first picture).
piazza Nicosia
top: a relief from the recreated basin;
below: the crests of Gregory XIII (left)
and of the Borghese family (right)

crest of Gregory XIIIcrest of the Borghese family

other pages in part III

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