Sculpting Rome’s Waters: The Fountain of Triton

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 8. Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Fountain of Triton,” 1643, Rome, Piazza Barberini (source — Artstor)


Bernini’s next major fountain commission came once more from Urban VIII in 1642, a little more than a decade after the unveiling of the Barcaccia.  Like the Barcaccia, this fountain was built to commemorate the completion of an aqueduct restoration project, this time the restoration of the Acqua Felice.  Unveiled in 1643, the Fountain of Triton demonstrates once again Bernini’s sensitivity to setting and the political agenda of his patron.

As the Acqua Felice was built primarily to serve the hills of Rome, where many noble families had large villas, the Fountain of Triton provided Urban with the opportunity to remind these powerful families who their gracious benefactor was.  And since the fountain was built just outside the family palace in the Piazza Barberini, it not only spoke of the reigning pope but of the Barberini family as a whole.  This is reflected in the prominent pairing of the papal crest with the Barberini coat of arms (and the unmistakable Barberini bees), which invite the audience to make several connections between the Barberini family and the powerful figure of Triton.

Most contemporary viewers of the Fountain of Triton would have been familiar with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on which the statue is based:

King Neptune

Puts down his trident, calmed the waves, and Triton,

Summoned from far down under, with his shoulders

Barnacle-strewn, loomed up above the waters,

The blue-green sea-god, whose resounding horn

Is heard from shore to shore. Wet-bearded Triton

Set lip to that great shell, as Neptune ordered,

Sounding retreat, and all the lands and waters

Heard and obeyed.[1]

For educated viewers, this would also be a reminder of the Urban’s skill in Latin poetry, as the Triton was often used as an emblem of the wisdom acquired by literary study.[2]

Fortunately, the Fountain of Triton’s location in the Piazza Barberini provided Bernini with a water supply suited to the impressive design Urban wished him to create.  The piazza is close to where the Acqua Felice enters the city, after flowing over 20 miles from its source and accumulating pressure all along the way.[3]  This pressure, combined with the sheer amount of water dedicated to the fountain, which was about 40 times what the average noble’s household received in a day, meant that Bernini had a tremendous amount of water pressure at his disposal.[4]  This enabled his Fountain of Triton to emit a forceful jet of water that was the highest in Rome at the time and would have served as a visualization of the commanding sond mentioned by Ovid, as well as creating a striking auditory effect.[5]

Previous examples of Triton fountains typically had Triton sitting on the back of a dolphin or had a dolphin swirling around the base, but Bernini gave the dolphins in his fountain a far more active role.[6]  The four dolphins are the sole support for the rest of the fountain, and the space between them creates an illusionistic effect that hides the weight of the stone.  The dolphins are also actively involved with the narrative, as they are shown reacting to the sound of Triton’s conch.[7]

[1] Avery, Genius of the Baroque, 188.

[2] Avery, Genius of the Baroque, 188.

[3] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 127.

[4] Rinne, Waters of Rome, 186-187.

[5] Marilyn Symmes, ed, Fountains: Splash and Spectacle: Water and Design from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1998), 16.

[6] Avery, Genius of the Baroque, 184.

[7] Avery, Genius of the Baroque, 187.