Friday, September 5, 2014

La Fontana delle Tartarughe

Today's photos:


1. You can't help falling in love with the little Fontana delle Tartarughe!

2. This close-up shows how each turtle, young man and dolphin line up vertically.

3. Another close-up shows two sets of the three figures.

4. Part of the inscription in honor of Alexander VII Chigi.

5. Do you notice anything strange about the window to the left of the entrance?

6. Here's another view of the curious window.


If I had to choose my favorite small fountain in Rome, there could be no doubt about my choice: the elegant little Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles), a real jewel of the late Renaissance (1584). It stands in the middle of Piazza Mattei near Largo Argentina and just opposite one of the former entrances into the Jewish Ghetto. The fountain itself, designed by Giacomo della Porta,  is made of beautiful grey and white marble. The decorative figures show four young men whose feet are resting on dolphins. The male figures are each holding up a turtle which appears to be climbing into a circular basin at the top. The four male figures, made of bronze, are by Taddeo Landini. The bronze turtles were added about 100 years later by Bernini.


A curiosity


The turtles placed on the fountain by Bernini eventually became the target of thieves. The first one was stolen in 1906 and recovered in 1944. Another one was taken by thieves in 1981 and has never been found. The remaining three originals were then taken down and placed in the Capitoline Museums for safekeeping. The four turtles we see on the fountain today are copies of the Bernini originals.


It was Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) who hired Bernini to restore the fountain and add the turtles. The short inscription is cleverly divided into four parts on the four sides of the fountain:






Alexander VII / in the fourth year of his pontificate / restored / and decorated (it).


A curiosity


It's interesting to note that when the fountain was built in 1584, the pope was Gregory XIII Boncompagni, yet his name does not appear anywhere. The Chigi pope who had it restored about 80 years later has taken sole credit for it. Just the opposite happened with another famous monument in Rome: the Pantheon. Hadrian had it re-built, but he put the name of the original builder on it: Agrippa.


Piazza Mattei, where the fountain is located, is named after Palazzo Mattei, just a few steps away from the fountain and opposite the entrance to the Ghetto. The Mattei family resided in this palazzo, and it is believed that Caravaggio lived here for a short time. Lending credence to this belief is the fact that the family possessed three original Caravaggio paintings, now housed in three different museums in Rome, London and Dublin.


The fountain took about four years to build, but a delightful legend has arisen over the centuries which claims it was built in one night, as the following story relates.


Before the fountain was here, a member of the wealthy Mattei family, a duke, is said to have become penniless because of his gambling debts. The man was engaged to be married, but when his future father-in-law heard about the scandal of the gambling debts, he called off the wedding, saying he would not allow his daughter to marry such a worthless person. The Duke's father, however, invited the would-be bride and her father to a dinner at his palace. The dinner dragged on for most of the night. Finally, as the father and daughter were preparing to leave, their host took them to a window overlooking the piazza. As he dramatically threw open the shutters, he exclaimed to his guests: "Now see what even a penniless Mattei can accomplish!". The man looked out, and to his amazement saw that a fountain had appeared in the piazza in one night! Mattei then had the window walled-up so that no one else would ever be able to enjoy that particular view of the fountain. The girl's father was favorably impressed and the wedding took place as scheduled!


A curiosity


Just a curious and legendary story, we would say. However, look carefully at the window on the second floor just to the left of the entrance to the palazzo (photos 5 & 6). You can clearly see that it has been walled-up and a false window has been painted over it!


To make the legend of a fountain built overnight just a tiny bit more plausible, another version of the story says that the fountain had been built previously at a nearby location, and Mattei had his men move it into the piazza that night while he was entertaining his two guests.


And while we're on the subject of legendary and curious stories (which abound in all of my books and blog posts), I am sometimes asked if there is any truth to them. The answer is that it doesn't matter whether these stories are true or not. The important thing is that the legends have been around for centuries and most of them do explain some fact or other. This one, for example, explains the walled-up window which does indeed exist! So just enjoy the legends and myths for what they are, entertaining stories!






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