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The Turtle Fountain: history and legends

In the ancient neighborhood Sant’Angelo, near the old Jewish Ghetto, one of the most intimate and elegant squares of Rome. At its core, almost inevitably, a fountain.

Which is its magic touch? It’s hard to tell about it, but who wants to discover one of the richest districts in history and stories will not remain immune to his charms.

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fontana-tartarughe-roma

Cet article est disponible en langue française.

Questo post è disponibile anche in italiano.

  • Where: piazza Mattei, in the ancient district Rione Sant’Angelo
  • When: early at morning, you can take a coffee at the lovely cafè in the square. Later, for a striking aperitivo
  • Why: there, you can appreciate the beauty and the calm, earing the water flow

The square.

Only a few dozen meters away Piazza Mattei is the hustle of Largo Argentina. A distance which seems unfillable.

In the lovely Piazza Mattei atmosphere looks like rarefied, and time suspended. In one of the most truthful districts of the city, the elegance of the square and its fountain create contrast unexpected.

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The small square is named after the Mattei family, owners of the buildings surrounding. These buildings formed a single complex, just outside the gates of the ancient Jewish Ghetto. The Mattei were in fact a wealthy Christian family of merchants, which also had the task of closing the gate of the Ghetto, every night.

Such a powerful family could also divert the course of an aqueduct to reach his palace. And this is where our story begins.

A fountain with turtles.

Facts and fictions blend to tell the story of the fountain featuring Piazza Mattei.

particolare-tartarugaSome tales grew up about to the realization of the Fountain of the Turtles must have made its success. On the other hand a fountain so different from those we are used to seeing in Roman squares could not unleash the imagination of the Roman people.

In 1570, eighteen new fountains had to be built, fed from the Aqueduct Virgin recently restored by Pope Pius V; the project was entrusted to the architect Giacomo Della Porta. In the list of new fountains Piazza Mattei was not included; there appeared, at its place, Piazza Giudia’s. The Mattei family, however, was so powerful to made possible moving the fountain in the small square near its buildings. To persuade the papal administration, Muzio Mattei offered to pave the square at his own expense, and take over the maintenance of the fountain.

The Ghetto, however, had to wait until 1591 to get its fountain (then moved to Piazza delle Cinque Scole).

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Many of the fountains that we see in this area of Rome was designed by Giacomo Della Porta. Being a unitary project for a group of fountains, these are very similar each other. The Fountain of the Turtles, however, is completely different from all those built in the Campus Martius after the restoration of the aqueduct Vergine.

fontana-tartarughe-voltoThis fountain, in fact, is not made up of simple overlapping stone basins, according to the style of Giacomo Della Porta. It is rather a more articulated work, enriched by using of bronze and colored marbles.

What’s different in this fountain is the presence of four youths figures in bronze. It is a mannerist fountain, which moves away from the scheme of the Roman fountains of end ‘500.

Why so many differences?

Surely, Mattei  must have been an economically active to embellish his square and making it better than the ones nearby.

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The decoration was done between 1581 and 1584 by the Florentine sculptor Taddeo Landini, based on Giacomo Della Porta design. The bronze youths had to keep in their hands four dolphins; these were never put in place because of the poor water pressure in this area, and moved to decorate the square of Campo de ‘Fiori (now in Piazza della Chiesa Nuova).

The turtles.

In 1658, with the restoration ordered by Alexander VII, the dolphins were replaced by the turtles, which still give the name to the fountain. Attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the turtles had to fill the void between the hands of the youths and the tub from which the water flows.

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The turtles, unusual subject for a fountain, immediately arouse the curiosity of people; as an admirated object, were stolen several times.

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In 1944, all turtles disappeared from the fountain. Found by a “stracciarolo” (rag) were immediately returned to the Municipality of Rome. Again in 1979, a turtle was again taken away and never seen again.

On the latter occasion, three remaining originals were removed and replaced with copies. The original sculptures are actually preserved in the Capitoline Museums deposits.

The tale.

This square has all needed ingredients for a genuine legend:

  • a lovely fountain
  • a charming neighborhood
  • a rich and noble family
  • a love story

Duke Giacomo Mattei was about to get married, but a few days before the wedding lost much of his fortune with gambling.

The bride’s father, enraged, decided to call off the wedding. But the Duke could not accept such a defeat; so, he decided to convince the father to retrace his steps, showing him to be still rich and powerful. The Duke invited him to the palace, and opening the window was able to amaze him: in one night, in fact, the fountain was built, exactly as now we have come to know!

So that no one could ever again enjoy that privileged view, the duke had walled up window from which he were leaning his girlfriend and her father to see the symbol of his power.

Even today, on the house facade, we can admire a painted window, as last witness of the risk run by the young Mattei to loose his girlfriend.

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