Sculpting Rome’s Waters: Expanding the Aqueducts

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 3. The Acqua Vergine after its restoration and expansion by Giacomo della Porta.
The Nolli Map of Rome (source — The Interactive Nolli Map Website)

After his appointment by Pope Pius V as chief architect of the Acqua Vergine, Giacomo della Porta expanded the aqueduct north to the Piazza del Popolo and west to the Piazza Navona and beyond (fig. 3), and quickly rose to fame as “the first and principal architect of Rome.”[1]  Della Porta was primarily an architect by trade and had very little experience with fountains before beginning his Acqua Vergine work, but he quickly developed an appreciation for the interplay between water and stone.[2]  Thus della Porta’s earliest designs adhere to the traditional chalice type while his later designs feature sensuous, curving basins that appear to be “shaped by the water they contain” and ultimately serve as a precedent for Bernini’s work which would begin 50 years later.[3]

Fig. 4. An etching of a fountain by Giacomo della Porta.
Giovanni Battista Falda, “Fountain in the Piazza of the Rotunda,” ca. 1670, Hamburg (source — Artstor)

Unfortunately, Pius V never lived to see any of Giacomo della Porta’s fountains completed.[4]  Thus, while the fountains della Porta had designed for Pius V were executed (albeit with more ornamentation than had originally been planned) during the reign of his successor, Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585), no forward movement was made with the aqueducts until the papacy of Sixtus V (1585-1590).[5]  Sixtus’s primary interests lay to the east, envisioning a revitalization of the hills of Rome with an aqueduct that would run through his own property, the Villa Montalto, and terminate on top of the Quirinal Hill.[6]  Sixtus chose Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) as his architect, and the Acqua Felice was completed in 1587 (fig. 5), less than two years after construction had begun.[7]

Fig. 5. The Acqua Felice after its construction by Domenico Fontana.
The Nolli Map of Rome (source — The Interactive Nolli Map Website)

Domenico Fontana, like Giacomo della Porta, was primarily an architect, his architectural work including the grand Palazzo Montalto on the family’s estate.  Unlike della Porta, however, Fontana never strayed from his architectural background in his fountain designs.  His most important fountain, the Moses Fountain, was executed at the terminating point of the Acqua Felice and used an architectural setting resembling a triumphal arch as the backdrop for the figure of Moses, the papal insignia, and a large inscription hailing Sixtus for bringing water to “a thirsty people.”[8]  

Fig. 6. An engraving showing Domenico Fontana’s Moses Fountain.
Giovanni Battista Falda, “Fountain on Monte Viminale,” ca. 1670, Hamburg (source — Artstor)

 Fontana called this type of design a mostra fountain, from mostrare, meaning “to demonstrate or exhibit.”[9]  The Moses and the five other fountains he constructed on the Quirinal are all characterized by a dominating architectural forms with minimal figural decoration, and an emphasis on the political agenda of Sixtus V.[10]  While Gianlorenzo Bernini would reject this reliance on architectural forms, he must have appreciated Fontana’s proclivity for political imagery as this was something that would figure heavily in his own fountain designs.






[1]Rinne, Waters of Rome, 83.

[2] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 82.

[3] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 82-83.

[4] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 88.

[5] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 88.

[6] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 122.

[7] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 123.

[8] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 128.

[9] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 128.

[10] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 128.