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The Turtle Fountain

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The Fontana delle Tartarughe (The Turtle Fountain) is a fountain of the late Italian Renaissance, located in Piazza Mattei, in the Sant’Angelo district of Rome. It was built between 1580 and 1588 by the architect Giacomo della Porta and the sculptor Taddeo Landini. The bronze turtles around the upper basin, usually attributed either to Gian Lorenzo Bernini or Andrea Sacchi, were added in either 1658 or 1659 when the fountain was restored.

The Fontana delle Tatarughe, like all Renaissance fountains, was designed to supply drinking water to the Roman population. It was one of a group of eighteen new fountains built in Rome in the sixteenth century following the restoration of a ruined first century Roman acqueduct, the Acqua Vergine, by Pope Gregory XIII.

In 1580, the authorities of Rome agreed to move the water channel for the new fountain from its original site to the Piazza Mattei. In exchange for moving the fountain to the place in front of his home, Muzio Mattei agreed to pay the cost of the maintenance of the fountain, and to pave the square.

Fontana delle Tartarughe, in Piazza Mattei, Rome

The Fontana delle Tartarughe is one of the few fountains in Rome built not for a Pope, but for a private patron. Muzio Mattei was a member of the House of Mattei; a family of bankers and politicians whose family lines went back to an early Roman family, the Papareschi, and whose ancestors included Pope Innocent II (1130–1143). In the 1350s the family moved to the Rione Sant Angelo, and they eventually built six residences in the block called the Isola Mattei.

The fountain was designed by the architect Giacomo della Porta in 1581. He used a design which he repeated in several fountains, which he adapted from earlier ancient Roman fountains. It had a single vasque, or bowl, on a pedestal, from which water spouted upwards and then poured down into polygonal basin. The fountain is composed of square basin with a circular vasque of African marble mounted on a pedestal in the center. Around the edge of the vasque are the four heads of putti which spout water into the basin below. There are four marble conch shells surrounding the base of the fountain. The four bronze ephebes are placed around the vasque of fountain, each resting one foot on the head of a bronze dolphin, reaching down to hold the tail of the dolphin, and raising up one hand toward the edge of the vasque. Water pours out of the mouths of the dolphins into the conch shells, then into the basin below.

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