Sculpting Rome’s Waters: Barcaccia

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 1. Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Barcaccia,” 1627-1629, Rome, Piazza di Spagna (source — Artstor)

Two years after becoming Pope in 1623, Urban VIII announced a plan to restore the Acqua Vergine in order to supply more water to the growing areas toward the north of Rome, and put Bernini in charge of this restoration.[1]  After the completion of the restoration Urban commissioned a commemorative fountain from Bernini, which now stands in the center of the Piazza di Spagna.  Commissioned in 1627 and completed in 1629, the Barcaccia celebrates the completion of this restoration project while showcasing Bernini’s talent for blending urban planning with papal propaganda.[2]

Built in the center of a growing Roman suburb, the Barcaccia’s primary purpose was to supply drinking water to the people who lived nearby.  In order to accomplish this goal Bernini seamlessly incorporated drinking jets into the design of his fountain by disguising them as water-spurting gun holes, accessed by travertine platforms at either end of the fountain.[3]  The utilitarian purpose of these jets is further masked by their unity with the central jet of water forming the ship’s mast and the symmetrical streams of water that spill over the edges of the boat.

The Barcaccia also demonstrates Bernini’s ability to incorporate the technical limitations imposed by the settings of his fountains into their designs.  The Barcaccia’s location in the Piazza di Spagna meant that Bernini had little available water pressure, as the fountain was very close to the distributing tank from which it received its water.  With these conditions a strong upward spray, such as that in the Fountain of Triton Bernini would construct a few years later, was simply not possible.  Instead, the fountain was set low to the ground (although not as low as it appears today, as the street has been paved over several times), and the basin-like shape of the boat with its horizontal jets complements the gentle flow of the Acqua Vergine’s water.

[1] Howard Hibbard and Irma Jaffe, “Bernini’s Barcaccia,” The Burlington Magazine 106, no. 733 (1964): 160.

[2] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 220.

[3] Anatole Tchnikine, “Galera, Navicella, Barcaccia? Bernini’s Fountain in Piazza di Spagna Revisited,” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes: An International Quarterly 31, no. 4 (2011): 323.