by Alberto Manodori Sagredo
In front of the grand, majestic temple of the Pantheon – converted into the church of Sancta Maria ad Martyres in the Middle Ages – there used to be a fountain with a basin made of porphyry stone (a kind of marble that in antiquity was used only for members of the emperor’s family), flanked by two basalt lions. The latter were likely brought here from the Temple of Isis – built in ancient Rome where now we can see the church of Saint Mary above Minerva, very close to the Pantheon and its square.
Pope Eugene IV, originally from Venice and born Gabriele Condulmer, had the basin and two lions adorning it placed in the so-called Piazza della Rotonda – named after the nickname the people had given the Pantheon, for the round shape of its large hall and the perfect hemisphere of its majestic dome (43×43 meters).
Leo X later wished to add his own touch to Piazza della Rotonda, and ordered the basin and lions to be elevated on pedestals, increasing their monumental effect and preventing idlers from climbing them.
Then, in 1575, Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni – the sponsor of so many new, beautiful fountains in Rome – decided to add one designed by his trusted architect, Jacopo Della Porta, in Piazza della Rotonda. The basin and two lions were deemed obsolete, especially in their composition.
Leonardo Sormani executed Jacopo Della Porta’s design for a basin in gray African marble with four travertine steps, all with the same layout – a square with semi-circles at the center of each side.
Four grotesque masks – similar to Michelangelo’s on the capitals of Palazzo dei Conservatori (Palace of the Conservators) – were added to each semi-circle. Another four, at least at first, decorated the fountain on the south-facing part of Piazza Navona, featuring two dolphins at the sides and a half seashell on the bottom.
The masks, thought to have been sculpted by various artists, are attributed to Giacomo Silla Longhi and Simone Moschino.
About a decade later, Leo X de’ Medici moved the two lions to his Fountain of Moses.
In 1711, pope Clement XI Albani ordered that Ramses II’s Egyptian obelisk be removed from Piazza San Macuto, where it had been placed in the 16th century, so it could replace the marble candleholder at the center of the fountain – which held a smaller basin from which water gushed and fell back into the larger one.
The operations were entrusted to Filippo Barigioni, who placed the obelisk on a trapezoidal dice, to which he added the due inscriptions dedicated to Clement XI, as well as the crest of the Albani family (the triple crown and Saint Peter’s two keys) on two sides. Meanwhile, Vincenzo Filippi sculpted four dolphins on the edges of the base.
The old basin was left on one side of the square, until Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini had it moved to the Papal Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, where it served as the sepulcher of his predecessor, Pope Clement XII Corsini.