This pretty fountain was born out of the power
exerted by the aristocracy on Rome's administration.
The waterworks project that had been agreed by the congregation of cardinals
(see page 2
) included a fountain in
piazza Giudia, a no long exisiting square, in front of the main door of the
Jewish ghetto, the small enclosure within whose boundaries the roman Jews had
been confined since 1555 (for more details see Rome's Ghetto
The branch of the Aqua Virgo reached piazza Giudia around year 1580. But in a small square nearby
lived the noble Mattei family. They were not as important as other famous
families, such as the Colonna or the Barberini, but still influent enough to
convince the cardinals to make the duct follow a short diversion, and
to use all the available water for a fountain in front of their
residence, Palazzo Mattei.
As usual, the architect in charge was Della Porta, who drew something less
grand than his previous works, more proportioned to the small square, yet
the fountain stands among Rome's finest ones
the fountain of piazza Mattei (left) in a map of 1593; the one for the
nearby piazza Giudia (right, in construction) had to wait a few more years
His project consisted of five tiny basins, a traditional
one above and four fancy ones below, in the corners. On each of the lower ones, whose shape
recalls hollow shells, rests a small dolphin, upon which sits a young male
figure in the attitude of raising his arm. Both the dolphins and the male figures
are made of bronze; Taddeo Landini from Florence is the artist credited
The dolphins were supposed to be eight; but
despite all of them had already been moulded, four were never used.
only four out of eight dolphins were used
The fountain originally rested on a base consisting of a few steps, according to Della Porta's
The unusual composition was considerably different from the other fountains built so far, and the people were
very impressed by the final result, also because of the variety of colours: a deep grey upper basin (grey African marble), a white baluster with grey veining, small lower basins speckled in grey, red and white (portasanta marble), and the bronze statues.
ALEXANDER VII | ON THE 4TH YEAR OF HIS PONTIFICATE | RESTORED | AND DECORATED (the fountain)
Almost one century later (1659), pope Alexander VII had the fountain restored, and on this occasion
he decided to add something above the four figures; their fingers did not reach the
edge of the top basin (probably this was due to the few changes that had been
agreed during the making of the fountain). Four bronze tortoises were created
for this purpose, and placed on the basin so to fill the gap.
Obviously, the fountain's name steadily turned into "of the Tortoises".
During the same works, the pope also had the base removed, and replaced by
a small ground basin, which slightly increased the size of
the structure, yet without affecting the fountain's perfect harmony.
A Latin inscription in four parts, on each side between the small basins, reads:
the dynamic attitude of the four figures
THE FOUNTAINS OF CAMPO DE' FIORI
Over the years the fountain underwent other maintainance works. The last one has just been finished (July 2006); it restored the amazing visual contrast of the three different marbles and the shiny bronze of the statues, which prior to this ultimate cleansing could be barely distinguished one from the other (the detail on the left shows the pityful condition of the fountain up to 2005).
Campo de' Fiori is one of old Rome's most popular squares, whose
atmosphere has not changed much during the past four
centuries, ...except that hereticals are no longer burnt here, as
actually happened to the philosopher Giordano Bruno in 1600.
This has always been the site of a popular market; its stalls once sold
mainly hay, fodder and flowers, whence the name of the square. In its very
center, around 1590, Della Porta set the last fountain
among the ones that were made out of the program agreed twenty years earlier.
Campo de' Fiori
the modern copy of the fountain, in Campo de' Fiori
It consisted of a fancy-shaped tub, with tapered ends;
its sides were carved with round handles and roses, the Riario family crest
(the same flower is also found on the large Chancellery Palace, at the back of
Campo de' Fiori, see Rione VI,
, and on a small fountain built in the 1930s,
see Small Fountains, page 4
On the tub's rim four small bronze dolphins spouted water. These were the ones
that had been spared from the fountain of piazza Mattei (not yet
"of the Tortoises").
Due to the presence of the market, the local people had the bad habit of
throwing into the fountain all sorts of trash. Police notices issued on several
occasions forbade to use it as a dump, but neither fines nor corporal punishments
worked well in preventing the tub from being constantly filled with hay, rotten
leaves and other waste coming from the stalls.
the Riario rose (from the original fountain)
the original 'tureen', in its present location
The measure taken in 1621 to avoid this nuisance
was rather peculiar: the four dolphins were removed (never to be seen again),
while a big lid in travertine, the least expensive variety of marble,
was carved and rested on top of the tub, making the fountain
look as a huge tureen!
New outputs were opened through the carved roses, and the unknown artist also
inscribed a curious motto around the collar of the lid's knob: it says LOVE GOD AND DO NOT FAIL,
DO GOOD WORKS AND LET OTHERS SAY · 1621, a good advice to keep away from
the Inquisition tribunal's summary justice, in times of Counter-reformation.
When in 1899 the memorial monument of Giordano Bruno was
erected, the fountain was removed and stored for a few decades.
In the early 1920s, the city administrators decided to give back Campo de' Fiori
its fountain. Strangely, instead of using the original one, a copy
was made (without the additional cover), and placed on the square's northern
Instead, for the old 'tureen' a different location was found:
the nearby piazza della Chiesa Nuova, inside a very simple rectangular pool, slightly below the present ground level, due to the water's
the motto carved below the knob
other pages in part III
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21