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The Turtle Fountain: A 16th-century fountain with an ancient heart


The Turtle Fountain: A 16th-century fountain with an ancient heart


The Turtle Fountain can be found in the heart of Rome on Piazza Mattei. It dates from the second half of the 16th century and is something of a relative to the more famous Trevi Fountain, although not for reasons of style or origin.

The Turtle Fountain, like Trevi Fountain, is one of those fountains whose water comes from the Roman acqueduct “Acqua Vergine”. This is the only Roman acqueduct still functioning, constructed by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in 19 BC for his baths. Today, it still provides water for practically all the great fountains of central Rome (the Turtle Fountain and Trevi Fountain, as well as the fountains of Piazza Navona, Bernini’s Barcaccia or “Ugly Boat”, and others).

Le acque che la alimentano affondano quindi le loro radici in venti secoli di storia e in una leggenda. Il nome infatti di acquedotto dell’Acqua Vergine sembra legato al fatto che fu proprio una vergine ad indicare ai soldati incaricati da Agrippa il luogo esatto dove trovare le fonti per alimentare questa grande opera.

Thus, the water of the Turtle Fountain flows through twenty centuries of history and a legend. The name “Aqua Virgo” seems to have come from the fact that it was a virgin, a young girl, who showed Agrippa’s soldiers the wellspring for this enormous work of Roman engineering.

An ancient heart for the Turtle Fountain, which was in fact constructed following the 1570 restoration and extension of the Acqua Vergine acqueduct. A new branch from the old acqueduct was meant to supply water to a nearby market, but the nobleman Muzio Mattei used his wealth and influence to have the fountain placed in the piazza just in front of his family’s palazzo.

The fountain was then built in the years between 1581 and 1588 on a design by Giacomo della Porta. Giacomo della Porta was a sculptor and architect, a Magister Commacinus or Maestro Comacino, that is a member of the artists’ and builders’ guild of northern Italy. In Rome, della Porta studied under the elderly Michelangelo, completing some of the great artist’s work.

The fountain consists of a square basin holding four conch shells filled with the water flowing from the mouths of four dolphins; in the centre of these is a vase supporting an upper basin surrounded by four youths in bronze, each with a foot on a dolphin and a hand on the edge of the upper basin. The name of the Turtle Fountain comes from this upper basin, where four turtles were placed, most likely during a restoration after 1658 and perhaps by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Particularly striking in the Fountain of the Turtles is the wealth of material used – each part is sculpted in a different type of stone, from African Marble to travertine to grey veined marble (“Bigio antico”) and others. The combination of these materials and their different colours make this fountain distinct from all others of the same period.



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