Sculpting Rome’s Waters: Bernini’s First Fountain

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 7. Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Neptune and Triton,” ca. 1622-23, London, Victoria and Albert Museum (source — Artstor)

With the restoration of the aqueducts and the revival of Roman fountain building by Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana, there was an abundance of models in Rome for Bernini to study when he received his first fountain commission in 1622.  The commission came from Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto, who wanted the fountain to be the crowning feature of the large oval fishpond in the garden of the Villa Montalto.[1]

Cardinal Montalto was the nephew of Pope Sixtus V and inherited the Villa Montalto from him, as well as the Villa’s private branch line of Acqua Felice water, which Sixtus had dedicated for his garden during the aqueduct’s construction.[2]  This line supplied 596,000 liters of water a day to the garden at the Villa Montalto, meaning that creating adequate water pressure for Bernini’s fountain was no problem. [3]  Despite this abundance of water, however, Bernini seems to have been somewhat conservative with his use of water in this fountain, as the only jet of water issuing from the actual statue came from Triton’s conch, although he did incorporate several jets around the statue that “merrily soak[ed] the visitor.”[4]  Bernini designed the statue according to baroque ideals, demonstrated by the way he “heightened the effect of momentary motion… by his skillful use of flying drapery and by stressing the diagonal lines in the composition.”[5]

[1] Rudolf Wittkower, “Bernini Studies – I. The Group of Neptune and Triton,” The Burlington Magazine 94, no. 588 (1952): 75.

[2] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 121.

[3] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 183.

[4] Anna Seidel, “Neptune’s Realm: The Context of Bernini’s First Fountain Sculpture in the Light of Newly Discovered Drawings,” Sculpture Journal 19, no. 2 (2010): 167.

[5] Bertha Harris Wiles, Fountains of Florentine Sculptors and their Followers from Donatello to Bernini (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1975), 102.