Three of the fountains supplied by the Aqua Felix are located rather
off the main course of the aqueduct. Only one of them had been officially
scheduled by the city's administration; the other two were privately payed for,
yet the urban context in which they were built considerably differed.
THE FOUNTAIN IN FRONT OF VILLA MEDICI
Villa Medici in 1593; the asterisk indicates the fountain
In the mid 16th century, cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici
had his roman residence built on top of the Pincio hill, an exclusive corner of the city,
where already in ancient Rome the rich families owned gardens and vineyards.
The main duct of the Salone water passed just below Villa Medici, but due to
the location, both the mansion and its beautiful gardens were reached by a very
small amount of water, which had to be pumped uphill, a rather complicated
operation in those times.
As soon as the Aqua Virgo reached Rome (1587), the villa was finally supplied
with plenty of water. Since cardinal Medici had been appointed supervisor of
the new aqueduct works by Sixtus V, it is not surprising that one of the
first spots to be reached was his own property.
Rich fountains could be activated in the villa's private gardens, but there was
enough water left also for a small public facility outside, in front of the main
The cardinal, who was an art lover and collector of ancient
remains, had recently bought two basins of granite, coming from the churches of
San Salvatore in Lauro and San Pietro in Vincoli. One of the two was mounted
on a stout baluster, and set into a large octagonal pool. Its author remained
unknown, although some suspect that the same architect who drew the villa,
Annibale Lippi, may be credited for this fountain, as well.
The water gushes from a sphere resting in the center of the ancient basin; according
to a popular legend (see A
Gun-shot At Villa Medici
, this ball was the one shot by
Christina of Sweden from the top of Sant'Angelo Castle.
the fountain in front of the villa (temporarily dry)
THE FOUNTAIN OF PIAZZA MADONNA DEI MONTI
The environment this fountain was built in
is completely different from the previous one.
the heart of Monti district, in 1625; note the
different setting, compared to the previous fountain
Monti is Rome's largest historical district (see The 22 Rioni
Rione I - Monti
whose center overlaps the ancient and ill-famed subura
, the neighborhood at
the back of the Fora and the Colosseum, a swampy ground where
thieves, prostitutes and outlaws sought shelter from the police. Its popular atmosphere did not change much during the
Middle Ages, nor it did during the Renaissance, although the 16th century
popes, and particularly Sixtus V, improved its road system by opening long
straight streets that cut through the narrow lanes of the old slums.
Piazza Madonna dei Monti (once simply piazza ai Monti)
is one of the district's many typical corners; in 1589 it was finally reached by the Aqua Felix. Unlike the
fountain in front of Villa Medici, the one in this square would have not
been used merely by a few idle valets and occasional passers-by, to quench their
thirst: it would have satisfied the many daily needs of a whole bustling district,
common people who drew water at any time of the day, for drinking, cooking,
washing, hygienic purposes, etc.
In this square Giacomo della Porta had already built the Madonna dei Monti
church, so he was also given the commission for the fountain.
the fountain's original vase was replaced by a further basin
c.1675: the original vase, still in place
This time the architect did not really rack his brains to find an original shape:
a hexagonal lower basin, overlooked by the small upper round basin, quite
similar to his first creation for piazza del Popolo (see page 1
) yet less
The original project also included a vase, that stood above the upper
element, from which the water gushed; sometime during the 17th century
this part was replaced with a further round basin, whence the fountain's present
look. The vase, whose shape is known thanks to old engravings, was somewhat
reminiscent of a small cantharus
(see part I page 2
similar to the large ones that stood in the courtyard of some medieval churches, which
della Porta was likely aware of.
the small fountain below the obelisk
|THE FOUNTAIN BY THE LATERAN OBELISK
During the Renaissance, the Lateran district was barely the shadow of what
it used to be during the early Middle Ages.
Here once stood the Patriarchium, i.e. the pope's
residence, and the Sessorium, the emperor's own, very close to each other.
Once the center of both the temporal and the religious power had been moved
elsewhere, the importance of this district had gradually
subsided to that of a poor suburb, covered with ancient ruins.
Some important works carried out under
Gregory XIII and especially under Sixtus V (see the map's detail on
the right) were meant to revive the Lateran grounds; but the new landmarks were
in striking contrast with the poor shanties that still lay all around the place.
The real point of reference of the district remained the ancient basilica
of St.John, the only building that had stood the Middle Ages fairly well,
having been heavily restored more than once.
Shortly after the turning of the 17th century, St.John's Chapter covered
the expenses for the making of a small fountain, the first one on this side of
town, set in the very heart of the district, below the imposing Lateran obelisk,
the tallest among Rome's ancient spires, that Sixtus V had recently
stood on one side of the basilica (see also Obelisks
This spot could be reached by a branch of the Aqua Felix.
the fountain (asterisk) by the obelisk facing St. John's (1);
the works sponsored from 1575 to 1590 by Gregory XIII
(St.John's Gate · 4) and Sixtus V (Lateran Palace · 2,
the Holy Steps building · 3) revived the old district
The works for the
fountain started under Clement VIII, and were finished in 1607, under
Paul V; but between the two, also Leo XI had been pope: a very brief
reign, lasted but a few months, since his election in 1605 was followed
by his death in the same year. This short lapse of time was enough
for Leo XI to leave his mark on the Lateran fountain, as will be said,
although no trace of it has been left.
Clement VIII's insignia on the relief behind the eagle
Due to its size, the Lateran fountain may
have been listed among the small ones (part II
The original design, whose author remained unknown, had two small basins
of different size (the ground one slightly larger), with an ornate front
standing right in front of the obelisk's base; on its upper edge,
embattled bands and eight-pointed stars in relief refer to the pope's crest.
crest of Clement VIII
crest of Leo XI
Soon later, a bronze statue of St.John was placed
on top of the front, with two large iris flowers (the heraldic fleu-de-lys)
on its sides, also in bronze. The latter were very likely the hallmark of
the aforesaid Leo XI: his crest, featuring the six spheres of
the Medici family, in the uppermost one encloses three small fleur-de-lys.
When Paul V was elected, the fountain's design was altered again: on its
front appeared two large dragons and an eagle, from the pope's family crest.
Finally, the fountain achieved its present look sometime during the
18th century, when the statue of St.John and the two flowers were removed.
in the late 1600s the fountain still had
a statue and two fleur-de-lys above the front
We do not know whether this was done deliberately, with the purpose of cancelling
a trace of the powerful Medici family, or simply because
these parts were in bad condition. In fact, up to the 1930s in St.John's square and
its surroundings a curious celebration was held every year, on the eve of the
summer solstice (June 23rd), called "St.John's night". According to a common
belief, witches and demons were said to fly over the Lateran, and great crowds
gathered, in the hope of seeing them soar through the sky. The people ate and drank huge quantities of wine, throughout the night; it is very likely that the
mob bathed in the fountain, and used its front as a standpoint, whence the
damages to the bronze parts.
crest of Paul V
other pages in part III
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