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Main Fountains

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The Salone Water (or Aqua Virgo) and the fountains that had been built so far represented a great improvement for the city, but already in the late years of his reign pope Gregory XIII thought of restoring a second aqueduct. This time the city would have been reached from the south, so to cover the districts of Rome that the Aqua Virgo could not reach.
vicolo dell'Acquedotto Felice
the Aqua Felix, crossing Rome's south-eastern districts
The choice fell on the old springs of the Aqua Alexandrina, located about 23 km (14 miles) east of the city. The death of Gregory XIII stopped the project, but the following pope Sixtus V, partly moved by reasons of personal interest, had the works resumed immediately after his election, and hastily completed within two years (see Aqueducts page 6 for more details). The viaducts of the new aqueduct, named Aqua Felix, were made by using again the remaining arches of the ancient Aqua Claudia and Aqua Marcia, whose course next to the city overlapped that of the Aqua Alexandrina; only the missing parts were built as a new structure.

Also in this case a program for the making of new fountains was agreed. First of all, an imposing one for the aqueduct's main output (a so-called "display" fountain, 1 in the map below); then one for each of the following spots:
  • piazza Madonna dei Monti (10);
  • Campo Vaccino (5);
  • piazza Santi Apostoli;
  • somewhere near Trajan's column
  • the square below the Capitolium (4);
  • piazza Altieri (now piazza del Gesł);
  • piazza Montanara (5, no longer existing);
  • on the corner of Tor de' Specchi's monastery (7).

  • Three of them were never built, namely the fountain near Trajan's column, the one in piazza Santi Apostoli and the one in piazza Altieri (the last two had already been cancelled also from the previous program, under Gregory XIII). However, they were replaced by three more fountains that had not been scheduled:
  • for the Senators Palace, Capitolium (4);
  • on one side of the Capitolium square (4);
  • in piazza Giudia, by the Jewish ghetto (9).

    It may appear strange how, once again, the new fountains were concentrated in a rather small part of the urban area, but the previous aqueduct had left almost dry the Quirinal hill, where the pope had his summer residence, and the Capitolium hill, the heart of Rome's administration, whereas the southern and eastern districts during the Renaissance were still poorly inhabited.

  • One more fountain was built in front of the Quirinal Palace (3) at the expenses of the Church of Rome, i.e. not as a municipal work, and another one below the Lateran obelisk (11) was payed for by the Chapter of St.John's. The owner of Villa Medici had one built in front of his mansion, above the Pincio hill (12). Furthermore, some private families were given funds, water, and sometimes marble for the making of semipublic fountains (2, 6, 8).
    So after the opening of the Aqua Felix, Rome was given fourteen new fountains; this total, though, does not include a number of small ones, and the three ones built outside the city walls, on the spots where the Aqua Felix crossed main roads (such as the so-called fountain of Clement XII, see part II page 2)

    Before his election as Sixtus V, the relations between cardinal Peretti and the previous pope Gregory XIII, had not been very warm; in particular, the cardinal was particularly fond of his villa on the Esquiline hill (whose boundaries he enlarged after becoming pope), and Gregory XIII had frowned upon such a material interest. This explains why the official fountain-maker, Giacomo della Porta, "guilty" of having celebrated Gregory XIII with so many fountains, was kept in lesser consideration.
    map of Rome by G. Maggi, 1625
    Villa Montalto (in yellow), privately owned by Sixtus V, that stretched from
    the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (1), to the Baths of Diocletian (2) and
    to Tiburtina Gate (3); the area whose colour is deeper indicates the site
    of today's Termini railway station; no part of the villa is still standing
    Altough his activity as an architect and a fountain-maker continued also during Sixtus V's reign, he was denied the commission for the fountains built on the three most important spots, namely the aqueduct's end (see below), the square in front of the Quirinal Palace, and the Capitolium hill. Della Porta was not even consulted when, during the making of the Aqua Felix, the aqueduct's inclination was found to be wrong, and a whole team of experts was instructed by the pope to find a solution.

    via Emanuele Orlando
    the Fountain of Moses

    The first fountain was the one built by the aqueduct's main output, a so-called "display", i.e. a lavish way of celebrating the main duct and its sponsor on the spot where its course ended. Actually, this was the first one specifically built for this purpose; when the Aqua Virgo a.k.a. Salone water was restored, it already had a fountain at its end, but its look was turned into a real display only in the 18th century.
    The Aqua Felix ended in a rather poorly inhabited district (see map detail below), still covered with ruins of the nearby Baths of Diocletian, but high enough to let the water reach the central districts, flowing downhill.

    The pope wanted this fountain to be a glamorous celebration of his sponsorship: almost half the height of the whole structure is represented by his family crest and the enormous inscription, that mentions Sixtus V, the location of the springs (the countryside near Colonna), the route followed (via Prenestina), the aqueduct's length (20 miles, 22 including the length of the water springs), and how it was called "Felix" after the same pope's name.
    map of Rome by A.Tempesta, 1593
    view of the district in 1593 (looking eastwards):
    1. the fountain - 2. Baths of Diocletian - 3. Four Fountains crossing -
    4. corner of Sixtus V's villa - 5. Porta Pia, the gate leading to via Nomentana
    A further line remembers that the work was begun in year I, finished in year III, 1587.

    via Emanuele Orlando
    the set of lions
    Domenico Fontana, in charge of the fountain's making, divided the lower part into three identical niches, marked by columns, whose central one contains a large bearded statue of Moses; the personage refers to the biblical episode in which the leader of the Jews made water spring from a rock by striking the latter with his staff.
    Each of the side niches contains a large panel, featuring a different biblical episode related to water.
    Below the columns are four crouching lions, that spout water in rectangular basins, enclosed by a balustrade.

    By the time the aqueduct was opened, the fountain was still unfinished, and most of its figures were yet to be carved. In fact, it was not called "fountain of Moses", but Fons Felix ("happy fountain"), as the aqueduct. Two of the lions, though, were already available: they were the ancient Egyptian ones removed from the Pantheon's square (see the Fountain of piazza della Rotonda, page 4); the remaining two, instead, were specifically carved for this purpose.

    It is likely that the pope urged Fontana to finish the fountain as soon as possible, but such hurry affected the quality of the final result. Despite the overall look of the work is quite imposing, the artistic value of the two side reliefs is rather modest, not to mention the central figure of Moses: soon after it had been set into place, everybody noticed that the statue is stout and rather short; furthermore, as Moses points his finger to the source of water, he holds in his left hand the Tables of the Law which, according to the Bible, he had not been given yet.
    via Emanuele Orlando
    the criticized Moses

    So he brought down the people unto the water:
and the Lord said unto Gideon, «Every one that
lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog
lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise
every one that boweth down upon his knees
to drink.»
(Judges 7:5)
    the left panel likely features
    Gideon choosing his soldiers
    The people nicknamed the figure "the ridiculous Moses", and even the talking statues shed a few stinging puns about the poor quality of the work, referring to it as fons infelix ("unhappy/unsuccessful fountain").

    The work was so hasty that while the left panel undoubtly features Aaron (Moses' brother) showing the people of Israel the source of water, the theme of the right panel is still debated. The original documents describe it either as Joshua leading the Jews across the river Jordan, or as Gideon choosing his soldiers by the way they drink; although in most publications the first of the two interpretations is mentioned, the soldiers and the drinking figures in the panel make the other theme appear more likely (run the mouse cursor over the picture for the relevant biblical passage).

    Even the author of the "ridiculous Moses" was mistaken; for a long time he was believed to be sculptor Prospero Antichi, who according to a popular belief is said to have died of grief following the people's criticism; but now we know that the statue was almost certainly finished by Leonardo Sormani.
    The balustrade reveals another trace of Fontana's hurry: simply taken from a preexisting building, it bears the inscription PIVS IIII (a pope who had reigned some 25 years earlier), clearly readable, though never removed nor covered.
    via Emanuele Orlando
    the balustrade bears the name PIVS IIII

    In the first half of the 1800s pope Gregory XVI had the two original Egyptian lions moved to the Vatican Museums, and replaced by copies.

    other pages in part III

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    PART I


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