The Fountain of the Moor: a story of Popes and Tritons
by Alberto Manodori Sagredo
In 1574, the two fountains meant to be placed at the sides of Piazza Navona – where the “Virgin Water” flows – started being built: the Fountain of the Moor (at the southern end of the square) and the Fountain of Neptune (known as “Fontana dei Calderari” prior to the 19th century).
For the former, Giacomo Della Porta designed a large portasanta marble basin elevated on two steps, with four grotesque masks decorated with dolphins and shells.
In the water he placed four Tritons blowing into two shells, like a double flute, from which water flows. The statues of the Tritons were sculpted by Simone Moschino, Taddeo Landini, Egidio Della Rivera de Malines and Giacomo Silla Longhi.
At the center of the basin, a vertical jet of water spurted from a compositions of rocks. But in 1652 Pope Innocent X entrusted Gian Lorenzo Bernini with overseeing the fountains in Rome, and in particular the one in the southern side of Piazza Navona – since his family’s palace, designed by Girolamo Rainaldi a few years earlier, faced that way.
Bernini removed the steps on which the basin had been placed and added a second, larger basin in pavonazzo marble.
Then he designed a group of three dolphins – which he had Angelo Vannelli sculpt – upholding a large shell, which replaced the rocks at the center of the fountain.
However, Innocent X did not like this new marine group, and ordered it removed; he gave it as a present to his sister-in-law Donna Olimpia Maidalchini – one of the most powerful women in Rome. She had it transferred to her villa outside of the city, where in the 1700s it became the centerpiece of a fountain once again.
Having to come up with a different idea for the fountain in Piazza Navona, Bernini designed a large group of statues representing a Triton that stands on a gigantic shell, and holds a flailing dolphin between his legs, clasping his tail in his hand at the same time.
The group was sculpted by Giannatonio Mari, who successfully recreated the lively tension envisioned by Bernini in the artistic torsion of the Triton’s muscular body, his hair tousled by the wind.
The Triton’s features, however, were so similar to those of African people that the statue was soon nicknamed first “the Ethiopian” and later “the Moor” – hence the popular name of the fountain today.
In 1874, the statues of the four smaller Tritons and the grotesque masks were so worn that the City of Rome decided to replace them with copies made by Luigi Amici; the originals were moved to Villa Borghese, but left exposed to the elements. Only recently the Museo di Roma has found a better solutions for their conservation.
Finally, the Fountain of the Moor became part of the so-called “lago della piazza”, a Roman tradition in which the fountain’s drains are shut in order to let water overflow and flood the lower part of the square. It was an event that all Romans, rich and poor, were eager to attend, to cool off in the spectacular, temporary artificial lake during hot summer days.