Fountain of the Tortoises

Fontana Della Tartarughe

Piazza Mattei, Rome

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

Fountain of the Tortoises (1588), Piazza Mattei, Rome
Image source.

A small, quiet piazza hidden next to the grand touristic attractions of Rome encases an elegant fountain, the Fountain of the Tortoises (Italian: Fontana della Tartarughe). When one first reaches this small piazza one is filled with joy and happiness which this fountain and the four youths decorating it, radiate. Despite its modest looks and size, the fountain is mesmerizing and one can be surprised by the history and drama surrounding it.

Our interpretation of the fountain is that it is a solution to three problems:

1. Communication between the Jews and the Catholics

Due to the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic faith was increasing in popularity all over the world, especially in Rome. At the time, a large Jewish community had already existed in Rome for centuries and was confronted with this exogeneous growth. Pope Paul IV (1555 - 1559) arranged an excluded neighbourhood, the so-called ghetto, for the Jewish people in order to separate the two religious communities. The Fountain of the Tortoises was located on the border of the ghetto and functioned as a communication point between the Catholics and the Jewish. Therefore, the design of the fountain had to suit both beliefs. In order to accomplish this, Muzio Mattei (birth date unknown - 1596), the patron of the fountain, hired an artist who did not serve the pope. This artist, Taddeo Landini (1561 - 1596), executed his sculptures in the style of mannerism, which was a provocative style in its time and was opposed to the influence of the church on art.

2. Water supply

The fountain also had a practical function of providing water to both religious communities. Therefore this had to be taken into account in the design of the fountain.

3. Family pride

Originally the fountain was commissioned by Pope Pius V (1566 - 1572), however Muzio Mattei took over the commision and relocated the fountain from inside the ghetto to the piazza in front of his family palace. The original design of the fountain was quite plain.[1] When Mattei took over the commission he hired Landini to decorate the fountain for two reasons: money and pride.

1. Historical background
2. Communication between the Jews and the Catholics
3. Water supply
4. Family pride

Historical background

Pope Pius V commissioned a new waterline to Rome in order to supply the thirsty Romans with fresh water from an aqueduct called Acqua Vergine. A committee led by the papal architect Giacomo della Porta (1532 - 1602) was assembled to plan and execute the new pipeline and design eighteen new fountains in Rome, one of them being the Fountain of the Tortoises.[1] The development of these eighteen fountains was an enormous project, which would bring forth not only urban growth and urban health, but also would emphasize the supremacy of Rome and the Church. This supremacy had been questioned many times during the Counter-Reformation.[2] The Acqua Vergine, the ancient water source for the pipeline, brings water to Rome from a small village Salone, situated approximately 15 km east of Rome. Still today, Vergine provides water to some of the oldest and most beloved fountains in Rome, such as the Trevi Fountain and the fountains in the Piazza del Popolo. The death of Pius V in 1574 delayed the execution of the fountains until the pontificate of Gregory XIII (1572 - 1585), who finally made the wheels turn in 1580.[3]

Giacomo della Porta was responsible for the design and he collaborated with the sculptor Taddeo Landini who executed della Porta´s plan. Finally in 1588, eighteen years after the commissioning of Pope Pius V and four years after the planned deadline, the Fountain of the Tortoises was finished.

Communication between the Jews and the Catholics

Fountain of the Four Rivers (1651), Piazza Navona Image source.

Considering its originally planned location and its design, it is likely that this fountain was built for the Jewish community, which lived in the Sant´Angelo neighbourhood. The design is quite non-Catholic as it looks very light-hearted, as opposed to the impressive themes which were commonly used in Catholic fountains. The Fountain of the Four Rivers (Italian: Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) for example is an impressive fountain which shows the expanding of the papal authorities in four continents. In comparison to the Fountain of the Tortoises, the size is greater, the figures show more emotions in both their facial expression and their pose and the themes are directly connected to the pope and the church. Moreover, the boys on the Fountain of the Tortoises are completely naked, which was not considered to be appropriate by the church. The symbolism of the fountain refers to Judaism. The Jewish faith saw a dolphin as a symbol of hope for themselves and their loved ones[4]. Considering the fact that their community was isolated from the city of Rome, a symbol of hope must have been reassuring for the Jewish community. Unfortunately, the dolphins were taken down right after the fountain was finished or they were never added due to miscalculations in the construction[5]. During the restauration by Alexander VII (1655 - 1667) four bronze tortoises were added by the famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680). Tortoises do not have a specific meaning in the Jewish faith, however they were not part of the original design and can therefore have been added for another purpose such as re-establishing the harmony in the design.

Water supply

Detail of the Fountain of the Tortoises Image source

As opposed to most fountains in Rome, the water streams are very narrow and there is a great number of them. This makes it very convenient for pouring it into a container or for drinking. The fountain was of great importance to the neighbourhood, as no money was spared to renovate it throughout the centuries. First of all the statues had to be cleaned regularly, since the water contained a high amount of chalk and stained them. Additionally, the bronze tortoises were an admirable catch for local thieves and therefore they had to be replaced time and time again. The fact that the tortoises were replaced several times stresses the importance of not only the water streams, but of the design as a whole.

Family pride

Muzio Mattei arranged for the fountain to be placed at the Piazza Mattei instead of Piazza Giudea[3]. The question is why he put so much effort and money into the transfer of this particular fountain. A possible explanation is that it gave his family the opportunity to earn more money. They were allowed to ask a fee from anyone passing the wall of the ghetto[6]. Since Muzio Mattei had moved the fountain just outside the ghetto wall, the Jewish population had to leave their neighbourhood in order to obtain drinking water. The Jewish population was hereby forced to pay the fee regularly. Another advantage was that the fountain was placed right in front of the Palazzo Mattei, as a result of which their piazza would gain the prestige and elegance that suited their Palazzo.


  1. Togstad, A. K., Fontana delle Tartarughe- the iconography of a Roman fountain, University of Oslo, 2005. Accessed on 21st September 2015:
  2. Roberts L., Shaffer S., Dear P., The Mindful Hand: inquiry and invention from the Late Renaissance to early Industrialization. Amsterdam: 2007, pp. 95
  3. Morton, H.V., and Mario Carrieri. The Waters of Rome. London: The Connoisseur and Michael Joseph, 1966, pp. 73- 74, 99- 108
  4. Haklîlî, R. (1987) Ancient Jewish art and archaeology in the land of Israel. Leiden. Page 330-332.
  5. Vianello, E. The sound of the Roman fountains.
  6. Majanlahti, Anthony. The Families Who Made Rome: A History and a Guide. London: Pimlico, 2006, p. 22