Bernini, symbolism, and a sweet conclusion: the Turtle Fountain in Rome

by Alberto Manodori Sagredo

The beautiful Turtle Fountain (‘Fontana delle Tartarughe’, in Italian) is served by the same aqueduct, called Acqua Vergine, that reached the Trevi Fountain in 1570.

It features four ephebes, in their adolescent nudity, each one holding a dolphin: the tail in one hand, and the head under the right foot. They extend their right arm towards the edge of the basin above, made in gray African marble, as if they were to hold a second dolphin (and indeed we have documents showing plans for eight sculptures, instead of the four that were actually made).

The elegance of the ephebes’ young bodies, highlighted by the fact they were cast in bronze and not sculpted in marble, was inspired by the fluid and lithe figures of the satyrs and fauns in Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune, in Florence.

The Turtle Fountain includes four portasanta marble seashells placed on an African marble vase with a porphyry stone base, all set on a white marble stand. It was designed by Jacopo Della Porta and built in 1582, while the statues are by Taddeo Landini.

Originally meant for the nearby Piazza Giudia, where the market at the door of the Ghetto was held, the fountain was placed in Piazza Mattei by will of Duke Muzio Mattei, so it could be seen from his palace – admired for its architecture, and later noted for being the birthplace of poet Giacomo Leopardi’s mother.

According to legend, Mattei had the fountain built over a single night to impress his future father-in-law, who at the time had not yet given his consent to his daughter’s marriage. The story goes that once the wedding was arranged, the duke had the window from which the fountain had first been looked at walled up, to remember the event forever.

In 1658, during Alexander VII’s papacy, four turtles – which seem to drink from the top basin, as if upheld by the ephebes – were added at the suggestion of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Thus the square, surrounded by aristocratic palaces such as the splendid abode of the Costaguti family (now Afan de Rivera Costaguti), was further elevated by a fountain in which architecture and sculpture merge into each other, in a harmonious relationship similar to the one in Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.


Arriving from the narrow and shaded alleys of the historical center of Rome, coming up to the city’s Jewish quarter, the sight of such a beautiful monument comes as a surprise. The Turtle Fountain must have a specific meaning: what are the turtles, ephebes and dolphins supposed to represent? The young man with a dolphin is a typical image of the old stories about the Aegean Sea, and echoes a beautiful sculpture described by Aulus Gellius in his “Attic Nights”. The same iconography also resurfaced in emblems, fantastic and grotesque images during the Renaissance – and was likely part of Jacopo Della Porta’s artistic and literary historical references.

Without the second set of four dolphins, the ephebes appeared to make a pointless gesture towards the top basin. Thus Bernini – at work on the dolphins for the Triton Fountain – came up with the brilliant idea of four turtles peering beyond the edge of the basin.

Depending on the species, turtles can live on land, in fresh water or in the sea. The size and shape of those on the fountain suggest they are specimens of ‘Caretta caretta’, also known as the loggerhead sea turtle. Bernini thus meant to underscore the relationship between marine animals, man, and seawater – a theme already expressed by the seashell-shaped basins. Furthermore, turtles are a symbol of careful, prudent slowness – which, in his famous paradox, philosopher Zeno of Elea predicts would win even against the fastest of mythological heroes, Achilles – and thus contrast the four ephebes’ agile, flexible limbs. It is only one of the many examples of symbolism in Rome’s monuments: to mention another work by Bernini, for instance, the elephant in   Piazza della Minerva bearing an Egyptian obelisk covered in hieroglyphics is a representation of physical strength supporting the intellect.

We might add that the original turtles, as well as a few of the following copies, were stolen by vandals, while the ephebes were preventively moved to the Museum of Rome and replaced by replicas.

If you have the chance to visit the Turtle Fountain, follow up by taking Via della Reginella to the very heart of the old Ghetto, and stop at the small, typical pastry shop at the corner of Via del Portico d’Ottavia. Here you can taste some of the best sweets in Roman-Jewish cuisine – such as pizza made with almond paste, pine nuts, raisins, and candied fruit, or sour cherry and ricotta cake – as well as roasted pumpkin seeds and the traditional ‘mostaccioli spaccadenti’ (sweets made with must, so hard the name says they may crack your teeth!).

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Bernini, symbolism, and a sweet conclusion: the Turtle Fountain in Rome

Piazza Mattei


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