Historical context

Development of Rione di Sant´Angelo

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

1. Rione di Sant´Angelo
2. Construction of the fountain

Rione di Sant´Angelo

Map of the Roman Ghetto
Image source.

Sant´Angelo is the 11th district of Rome, which is a small district along the river Tiber, east of Tiber Island. During the Roman Empire, Circus Flaminius stood at Sant´Angelo, but the region is mostly known for the Jewish Ghetto which has been located at Sant´Angelo since the Renaissance.

Jews inhabited Rome and Sant´Angelo already from 70 AD, but the Jewish Ghetto came into being in 1555 when Pope Paul IV instructed in his bull Cum nimis absurdum that all Jews had to live inside the Ghetto. As a result of the papal bull, walls were built around the Ghetto, thus segregating the Jews from Catholics and, most importantly, restricting the movement of the inhabitants of the Ghetto. Moreover, most of the rights of the Jewish community were ripped from them and at the same time many new restrictions were imposed on them, such as an obligation to wear yellow clothing whenever moving outside of the Ghetto[1][2].

Initially, there were two gates in the wall, but as the the Ghetto grew, more gates were added. At its peak, there were eight walls, of which one was located at the Piazza Mattei, in the end of Via Reginella. The gate, as the piazza, were named after the Mattei family, whose palaces were located at the piazza.

Construction of the fountain

Fontana su la Piazza de SS. Mattei [6]

The plan for the Fountain of the Tortoises begun in 1570 by the command of Pope Pius IV. According to the initial plan, the Turtle fountain was supposed to be located at the Piazza Giudea, inside the Jewish Ghetto, so that it could provide the Ghetto the water it so desperately needed. But Muzio Mattei, whose was a member of the fountain committee, put pressure on the committee to change the location from Piazza Giudea (inside the Ghetto) to Piazza Mattei, right in front of his new palace. Since Mattei took over the commission, he also wanted some changes to the design of the fountain and hired a young artist, Taddeo Landini, to decorate the simple fountain with four boy figures[3]. Finally, in 1581, the construction of the fountain begun and in 1584 it was complete. Landini´s four figures were supposed to be made from marble like the rest of the fountain, but during the construction Mattei decided that the four youths should be molded in bronze[4]. Since bronze was far more expensive material than marble, the alteration raised the costs of the fountain to a total of 1300 scudi, which was 300 scudi over the original budget[5]. The extra money was raised by tax on meat[4].

The fountain was simply called La Fontana delli Mattei, "the fountain belonging to the Mattei" until 1659, when the famous tortoises were added to the design by Bernini. After the little tortoises were added, the fountain got its current name[3].


  1. DiNapoli, Thomas P. The Italian Jewish Experience. Stony Brook, N.Y: Forum Italicum, 2000. Print.
  2. Stow, Kenneth. Theater of Acculturation: The Roman Ghetto in the Sixteenth Century. Seattle [etc.]: University of Washington Press, 2001.
  3. Togstad, A. K., Fontana delle Tartarughe - the iconography of a Roman fountain, University of Oslo, 2005. Accessed on 21st September 2015
  4. Morton, H.V., and Mario Carrieri. The Waters of Rome. London: The Connoisseur and Michael Joseph, 1966, pp. 73 - 74, 99 - 108
  5. Mastrigli, Federico. Acque, acquedotti e fontane di Roma. Roma: Pinci, 1900, p.131-136
  6. Falda, G.B. From Fehl, P.Schönheit, Schiklichkeit und Ikonographie: Bemerkungen zur Fontana delle Tartarughe in Rome, Munich 1984, p.131.