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The Turtle Fountain

The Turtle Fountain

I have noticed that many travelers wandering around Rione Sant’Angelo, more commonly referred as the Jewish Ghetto, tend to miss one of the most beautiful fountains in Rome, The small “Fontana delle Tartarughe” or “Fontana Tortoise”, better known as the Turtle Fountain.

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The fountain is a wonderful late Renaissance work and was built between 1580 and 1588 by the architect Giacomo della Porta and the sculptor Taddeo Landini. The characteristic bronzes turtles around the upper basin (usually attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini) were added in either 1658, when the fountain was restored. The Fontana delle Tatarughe, like all Renaissance fountains, was designed to supply drinking water. It was one of a group of eighteen new fountains built in Rome in the sixteenth century following the restoration of a ruined first century Roman aqueduct, the “Acqua Vergine”, by Pope Gregory XIII.

The Patron of the Fountain, Muzio Mattei

The Fontana delle Tartarughe is one of the few fountains in Rome built not for a Pope, but for a private patron. Muzio Mattei, a member of the House of Mattei, one of the most powerful families in Rome during the Renaissance and a family whose origins go back to Ancient Rome times. Though they lived in the Roman Jewish Ghetto, the Mattei were Roman Catholic. When Pope Paul IV decided to build a wall around the Ghetto in 1555 and imprison the Jewish population, the Mattei were given a key to the gate. Although the fountain was originally supposed to be built in Piazza Giudea where there was a Jewish market, in 1580 Muzio Mattei convinced the committee that selected the sites of the fountains in Rome (a committee in which was also Muzio Mattei) to move the location of the fountain to the nearby Piazza Mattei, in the block called the Isola Mattei, where his family owned all the palaces . In exchange he agreed to pave the piazza and keep the fountain clean

Original design and the problem of water supply

The original plan of the fountain was designed by famous architect Giacomo della Porta (who also designed the fountains in Piazza Navona and piazza della minerva) who commissioned young sculptor Taddeo Landini to create statues of four Ephebes (young adolescent men) and eight dolphins.

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Original design

The four bronze ephebes were placed around the vasque of fountain, each resting one foot on the head of a dolphin and reaching down one hand to hold its tail, while the other hand raising up toward the edge of the vasque to support another dolphin. Water was supposed to pour out of the mouths of the eight dolphins into the conch shells, then into the basin below. The fountain almost immediately had a problem of water supply. The fountains of Rome functioned by gravity. the source of water had to be higher than the fountain, and the height that the water could jet upwards was determined by the difference in elevation between the source and the fountain. The Acqua Vergine aqueduct had its water coming from a reservoir near piazza spagna, just a few meters above the fountain’s location. as a result the flow of water was very weak. To resolve this problem, the fountain was modified soon after it was finished. Four of the dolphins which were intended to spout water, supported by the hands of the ephebes, were removed.

The turtles

With the removal of the four dolphins due to the low water pressure, the upraised hands of the statues seemed to have no purpose. to correct this problem and balance the composition, the four turtles around the edge of the vasque were added during a restoration of the fountain between 1658 and 1659 ordered by Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi). They are attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. in 1979 one of the turtles was stolen. today all of the turtles are just copies of the originals as the other three were substituted. You can find them today at the museum on the Campidolio square, the Capitolini Museum.

Click Here to See a panoramic view of the fountain

Segway Tour

We pass by the Turtle Fountain on our following Segway Tours:

Rome Day Segway Tour

Rome Night Segway Tour All Rome Segway Tour
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