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Fountain of the tortoises

Museum Label:
Fountain of the tortoises
20th-century marble and bronze cast from original by Giacomo della Porta (Italian, 1537-1602) and Taddeo Landini (Italian, 1550-1596), 1585
Location: Piazza Mattei, Rome

Subject info:
Fountain of the Tortoises - marble and bronze (original 1537-1602 and late 1585) now in Piazza Mattei, Rome. This is a composite work by several sculptors. The original fountain in marble was by Giacomo della Porta 1581-88 and the bronze figures were added by Taddeo Landini. In 1658 tortoises were included in its restoration.

The Congregation for the Fountains
The list established by the diligent "Congregation for the Fountains" in 1570 of 18 new fountains to be supplied with the Aqua Vergine, made no mention of any fountain for Piazza Mattei. It therefore seems strange that on 28 June 1581 the usual "Officers for the fountains, on behalf of and in the name of the Illustrious Roman People" drew up detailed "Clauses and conditions for the work of [constructing] a fountain in Piazza Mattei" with the Florentine sculptor Taddeo Landini. Landini promised "the above-mentioned gentlemen, on behalf of the Roman People as above, to work on the completion of the said fountain in Piazza Matthei throughout the forthcoming month of April in the year 1582 in the manner and style contained in the said clauses". The decision, which ran contrary to the previous program, is however explained by an earlier document (1580), which mentions the diversion of the new conduits being constructed for the Aqua Vergine to "piazza delli Matthei, in which square the fountain is to be built that was destined for piazza Giudea, provided that Mr Mutio Matthei undertakes to have the square paved at his own expense and to keep the fountain clean". Evidently, it was that same noble Muzio who, by putting pressure on the Capitoline authorities (a bad habit that has, thank goodness, now fallen into disuse), succeeded in having the previous decision altered and ensured that the water supply would arrive right outside his front door in the form of the fountain.

The water could also be (and in fact was) routed into his residence (which still exists) and I think good old Muzio might well have had something to do with the fountain's artistic appearance as well. There is no question at all that this fountain is also the work of Jacopo della Porta because, as we shall see as we go along, all the fountains of this period were entrusted to him. Furthermore, the "clauses and conditions" just mentioned state, at one point, "that all the above measures are to be observed more or less in accordance with the judgement of Master Fountain Maker Jacomo della Porta". Landini had already carved one of the tritons and one of the "masks" for the fountain in Piazza Navona, both in accordance with Jacopo's models and, this time too, his contribution was limited to executing the designs and sketches by the City Architect, which he did superbly. At the same time, he also undertook and was paid for "cleaning the drains" of the fountain. Nevertheless, on this occasion, the presence and the assistance of such a noted Florentine fountain artist as Landini persuaded della Porta to deviate from his customary and none too varied designs for the fountains he was scattering all over Rome.

A Different Kind of Roman Fountain
Indeed, for this fountain he set aside his usual style completely and made a determined effort to introduce Rome to a different kind of fountain, a kind whose best, and best known, examples I would call "Florentine": by which I mean that more importance is placed on art than architecture. Even a cursory examination will reveal that his model was the famous statue of Neptune, created by Ammannati in the period 1563-75, in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. There is no doubt that the best features of that particular fountain - known as "il Biancone" ["the big white one"] because of the enormous and unfortunate statue of Neptune standing stiffly on top of the heavy chariot he is driving through the middle of the vast and ponderous pool - are the bronze groups surrounding the base. These are four pairs of satyrs and fauns, surmounted by another large statue, also in bronze. The inspiration for the Fountain of the Tortoises comes from the life-like positions Ammannati gave to the satyrs and fauns: two in particular, with their legs raised alternately, bear a close resemblance to the alternating sequence of arms and legs of the ephebes [young men] on the Roman fountain.

The architectural properties of the Neptune fountain and of late 16th century Florentine fountains in general are almost non-existent, or are there as part of the aesthetic sculpture, but this is not the case with della Porta's Fountain of the Tortoises. Here, although the sculpture always takes precedence, he never forgets that he is building a fountain, which requires, indeed, demands architectural features whose form is dependent upon the essential element of the whole: the water itself. Hence, in contrast with the fountain in Florence, in which the water is almost accidental, della Porta has made an attempt to justify the presence of the four youths by putting them into a plausible architectural setting. The inspiration drawn from the Florentine fountain marks an interesting stage in della Porta's career as a designer of fountains. On the one hand, he has combined two very diverse types of experience - the importance of the architectural qualities of the Roman fountain and the predominant artistic characteristics of the Florentine model - and, on the other hand, he has progressed from the custom, in both cases, of separating the artistic and architectural features from the water. In so doing, he has achieved an entirely new creation, the fountain proper, in which both container and content form a single, homogeneous and complementary whole; the water is the reason for the sculpture and the sculpture justifies the water's presence.

If asked to explain this concept by choosing one or two of the Roman fountains I would first select the beautiful fountain at the Pantheon, though I would have to discount the central super structure that was added later. Despite this fountain's graceful lines and the irony of its masks, its architectural value would prevail even if the water stopped flowing (which, in any case, happens often enough). However, if the water ceased to flow from della Porta's fountain in Piazza Ara Cœli (though his work was later altered) who could doubt that the spell cast by the fountain would vanish instantly? The reason being, that in this example, container and content were designed for each other. To return to the Tortoises (which, as fans of Rome often say perceptively, used to disappear now and then): did Jacopo succeed in his first attempt at something new with this fountain? As we saw from the corner of via de' Funari, the first impression of the little fountain is excellent, but as we draw nearer this first good impression gradually changes, and certainly not for the better. Apart from the four delicately carved bronze youths (originally intended to 54 be made of "beautiful white marble"), we are astonished by the discord and disproportion of the arrangement as a whole.

Badly Integrated Ideas and Designs?
The fountain seems to be the result of a compilation of poorly digested and therefore badly integrated ideas and designs and the effort to reconcile the significance apportioned to the two, almost competing, elements of art and architecture is very nearly tangible. The large diversity of marbles used reminds one of the Neptune Fountain in Florence. The base is in porphyry, the four large shells in portasanta and the vase in veined African marble, connected at the top to a white marble cartouche. The shells themselves are huge in proportion to the whole, and extremely heavy in relation to the four lithe and slender ephebes, which are referred to in an anonymous Roman's 18th century manuscript as "the four lads". We get the same impression of heaviness and disproportion from the enormous pedestal vase which, in the midst of the four statues, holds up a tiny basin of dull grey African marble beneath which the faces of four small cherubs struggle to survive above the water in the basin below. However, the one truly positive feature to which this fountain owes its reputation (which mistakes the part for the whole) is that of the "four lads" and these, as has been rightly said, endow an extraordinary air of elegance and liveliness to the little fountain, despite the fact that they are of a single pattern, repeated four times over. As mentioned by the unknown Roman author already quoted above, "whilst grabbing the tail of one of the four dolphins with one hand each lad has one foot holding down its head; with the other hand each holds up a tortoise to help it drink from the top of the fountain, and the dolphins, lads and tortoises are all made of bronze". As is evident from the contract with Landini and from a number of prints, the four Tortoises were not part of the original design but were added during the restoration of the fountain ordered by Alexander VII in 1658, which is recorded in four very short inscriptions on the back of the base of the fountain.

Though there is no specific documentation to bear this out, I think it is fairly certain that the inspired invention can be attributed to Bernini who, as well as being the undisputed "master" of Rome's fountains, had, long before, placed four tortoises on his fountain at Palazzo Barberini. But why would Bernini think of putting four tortoises in that exact place? If you go as close to the fountain as possible, you will see that the youths' hands, which seem to be pushing up the tortoises, in fact are several centimetres away. So, if you think of the fountain as it was before Bernini - without the tortoises - you will see that to have the hands so far from the upper basin could not have failed to astonish the onlooker; the effect would have been even more peculiar because the strange position of all four youths is identical. Do you think the "four lads" were giving a synchronised greeting to the tourists? If that's not the reason, then why have them in this strange position with all their hands the same distance from the basin of the fountain? The answer is found in the "clauses and conditions" referred to earlier, in which Jacopo dictated the precise specifications for work on the fountain. After the description of the two steps (which no longer exist) around the pool, the four shells and the pedestal for the upper water basin, we find "Eight dolphins in mixed stone". As we know, the dolphins, like the youths, were made in bronze instead of marble, but here we have eight dolphins whereas the fountain only has four, each with a young man's foot on its head. I therefore conclude, without any doubt, that although orders were given for eight "fish" and four were placed beneath the youths' feet in accordance with the plans, the other four were too heavy for the upraised hands of those same youths to push toward the basin and so, being inedible, they were used for the fountain that appears in the next section.

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