Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bernini's Turtles

Here's a trivia question for you: do you know how many fountains there are in Rome? Want to venture a guess?

I found the answer 280 here, but who knows if it's accurate or not.

I read that the poet Shelley (no relation) said that Rome's fountains alone make a trip here worth it. You've probably heard of the famous Trevi Fountain, where you're supposed to throw in a coin to ensure that you come back to Rome one day. And maybe you've seen pictures of the fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps, called the Fontana della Barcaccia, designed by Pietro Bernini (father of Gian Lorenzo). If you've visited Rome you've most likely seen both. But my favorite fountain is a hidden jewel that you have to look a bit harder for.

Wandering through the Sant'Angelo rione (neighborhood), an area more commonly referred to as Rome's Jewish Ghetto, you can stumble onto the tiny Fontana delle Tartarughe, or Tortoise Fountain, in Piazza Mattei.

The piazza is named after the Mattei family, one of the most powerful families in Rome during the Renaissance. Although this fountain was originally supposed to be built in nearby Piazza Giudea where there was a market, Signore Mattei convinced the powers that be to build the fountain in Piazza Mattei, where his family owned all the palazzi (palaces). In exchange he agreed to pave the piazza and keep the fountain clean. I don't know about you, but I'm thinking that's something he probably delegated to "the help"--I'm just not seeing Mr. Mattei out there in rubber gloves (did they have those in the 16th century?), cleaning out his little fountain. Unless perhaps there were a lot of coins in it--you never know, even nobility can run into tough times, no? In any case, it looks like he promised whatever it took to get this marvelous fountain to land in his front yard.

People may tell you this fountain was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but actually only the turtles are attributed to him. In fact, the turtles weren't even added to the fountain until 1658, during a restoration ordered by Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi), who was a great patron of Bernini. The fountain itself was designed by Giacomo della Porta (the same guy who designed the fountain in Piazza Navona that I included in my recent post about La Befana) in 1581, a mere 77 or so years prior. My, how time flies! Della Porta worked with Michelangelo during his lifetime. The sculpture work was done by Taddeo Landini under della Porta's direction, and the fountain was completed in 1588.

This image from the Comune di Roma website

There were originally eight dolphins planned for spouting water (where you see the feet propped up), but once they finished they only put in four, because the water pressure wasn't strong enough for the elevation of the other four dolphins. So, what to do when you have four leftover dolphins from your little fountain project? Well, just tack them on to another fountain, of course! So the four extra dolphins ended up on the Fontana della Terrina, a fountain also designed by Della Porta. It was originally an open fountain placed in Campo de' Fiori, but in 1622 Pope Gregory XV had it covered, apparently to protect it from garbage being thrown in by the sellers in Campo's famous market. Good thing that tradition didn't catch on at Fontana di Trevi or you'd be throwing in your McDonald's wrapper instead of a coin to come back! Anyhoo, that's when the dolphins got taken off and unfortunately disappeared, and the fountain now stands in Piazza della Chiesa Nuova, a few blocks across the street from Campo.

This image from the Comune di Roma website

Speaking of disappearing acts, in 1979 one of the turtles was stolen. Vergogna! In fact, today all of the turtles are just copies of the originals as the other three were substituted, and I have no idea where they went. Racing some hares, perhaps? (Ok, I admit it, that was an eye-roller.)

The Tortoise Fountain was recently restored after being covered for about a year, and it's wonderful seeing it back in the middle of this charming little square. Stop by and say hi to Bernini's turtles next time you're here!

This image from Roma Viva


Tracie B. said...

we should do a survey to see how many people have thrown 3 coins in trevi, and of those, how many have returned, fallen in love with an italian, and married one.

that's the legend, right? for me, check one and two, he's working on number 3, but i'm still not convinced ;)

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Tracie: Ciao bella! Funny that you mention it, for me check one and two also (on my first visit to Rome, the day before I left Ale told me to throw in extra coins "just to be sure"), and as for three, well, the Wedding Channel online planner shouts at me that I have like 70 or so days to go! Mamma mia!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Hmmm, I have returned but the last two niente.

Shelley thanks for posting these great photos. I have heard so much about this fountain but could never find it.

I will have to look for the fountain on my next trip. I ran out of time last year.

Jane said...

I'll check the turtles out when I return. I have done the trevi fountain so it's a sure deal!

mad said...

I've thrown many coins in the Trevi & have returned 6 times & hope to return soon but not to marry, I have my man.

Loved the turtle fountain & will seek it out next time I'm there. All those fountains in Rome add to the beauty & romance of the city

the preppy princess said...

Just found your website! I wrote my undergrad thesis on Bernini in Rome/Florence back in 1993. Great to see these photos. Thanks for posting.

Although I've been back to Italy since then a few times (Milano and Bologna)...Maybe it's time for another visit to Roma. I would like to come back over and find a man ;-) Milano and Bologna weren't as lovely as Rome for me.

Tea & Margaritas in My Garden said...

Trevi Fountain is amazing! What a beautiful work of art. Thank you for visiting my blog :)


Paolo said...

This is also a favourite Roman fountain... my fiancee and I found it late one night, had a drink at Bartaruga, and can't wait to return.

Thanks for telling the story!