The design of the fountain

Design of the fountain

  • Lucia Grijpink - Faculty of Medicine
  • Johanna Pyykkö - Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences
  • Annelotte Zwemstra - Faculty of Economics and Business Economics

1. Description of the fountain
2. Mannerism

Description of the fountain

Fountain of the Tortoises Image source.

Three different types of marble have been used in the fountain of the Tortoises. The lower basin and the foundation are made out of white marble, whereas the four shells placed on the foundation are made out of coloured marble. The central pillar is made out of pink coloured marble, whereas grey marble has been used for the upper basin. It was agreed on that the white marble would be provided by the sculptor and the coloured marble would be paid for by the community of Rome[1]. Four life-sized young boys, made out of bronze, are leaning slightly against the stem of the fountain. The boys´ physique is immature and almost feminine making the boys look rather androgynous. Their postures are similar. Each boy has one of their legs uplifted, resting their foot on a head of a dolphin, and the other leg is bent back on the stem of the fountain to maintain balance. Without the slightest sense of effort, each boy gently assists a small tortoise into the upper basin of the fountain. On the other hand, each boy is unique, as the boys´ facial expressions, hand positions and hair differ clearly.

Inscription by Alexander VII

Each side of the foundation is decorated with inscriptions which were added in 1661 during the renovations initiated by pope Alexander VII[2]. The inscriptions read: ´ALEXANDER VII ORNAVITQUE RESTAURAVIT ANNO PONTIFIC IV´ which translates to ´Alexander VII ornamented and restaurated during his fourth pontificate.´ However, it remains a mystery which ornaments he specifically added.

Unlike in most Roman fountains, the water pressure in the fountain of the tortoises is low which creates a narrow arched stream on top of the fountain instead of a bursting wide stream. Similar to the fountain Madonna dei Monti, water is pumped upwards in a narrow stream and then caught into a basin from where it is divided into several narrow streams[2]. From the mouths of four childlike faces on the upper basin the water flows down to the lower basin. Additionally, water streams down from the mouths of the dolphins into the the four shells below them. The shells are designed in a way that the water flows further down in two narrow streams. Altogether, this design creates sixteen water streams from which water could be easily drank or collected to containers.

If one walks around the fountain in counterclockwise direction, starting from the boy facing south-west, one can observe the boys growing slightly older one after another. The boy facing south-west seems the youngest as his facial features, expression and movements imply a certain youthfulness and joy. His hair is curled in the air and his torso is less matured in comparison to the other boys. He is not paying attention to the fish or the turtle and looks light-spirited.

The boy (on the right) facing south-west The boy facing south-east

The next boy, facing south-east, looks just under his arm. He seems dreamy and distant and does not connect to his audience. His torso is more lean and matured in comparison to the formerly mentioned boy.

The boy facing north-east looks startled. He stares with his eyes wide open to the audience in the direction of the Palazzo Mattei, while his mouth is closed without tension. His expression hints at the awaking awareness of his responsibilities in life.

The boy facing north-east. Image source. The boy facing north-west. Image source.

The last boy, facing north-west, differs from his brothers strikingly. His hair is straight as if it got wet. His eye gaze is directed downwards which makes him look serious and sad. He is the only boy actually touching the tortoise and he is clenching more heavily into the fish with his hand than the others.


The fountain is built in a style of mannerism which is typical for the late Renaissance. Mannerism was influenced by the great painters Michelangelo and Raphael. The aim of mannerism was not to strive for harmonious compositions but to create tension and instability. Typical aspects of mannerism are androgynous bodies, use of movement and tension, and artificial qualities instead of naturalistic ones. All these features are visible in the Fountain of the Tortoises.

Mannerism is more provocative than the early Renaissance style. It makes sense that della Porta worked in this style since he wanted to change the influence the Church had over art and civilians. Moreover, he was a student of Michelangelo before he started his own career and was probably influenced by his teacher´s style. In conclusion, mannerism was a suitable style to be used in the fountain, which functioned as a communication tool between two different religions.

Detail of the dolphin. Fountain of Madonna dei Monti. Image source.


  1. Mastrigli, Federico. Acque, acquedotti e fontane di Roma. Roma: Pinci, 1900, p.13
  2. Guidi, M. (1917) Le fontane Barocchedi Roma. Graphische Anstalt Orell Füssli: Zürich, p.61, p.62