Fountains of Papal Rome/Campidoglio

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The three fountains of the Campidoglio have one fundamental characteristic in common — that of being a part of Rome from a period of great antiquity. Like those families who "were there when the Conqueror came," the sculptures which adorn these fountains have been in Rome since Christian Rome began. All the statues have occupied their present positions a comparatively short time, and have passed through many vicissitudes before reaching the places they now hold. In fact, each fountain of the Campidoglio is a fountain with a past. The sculptural part of each is a survival of some artistic design or idea antedating to a remote period the time of its conversion into the fountain of to-day.

The general view of the Campidoglio comprises the stairway called "La Cordonata," the piazza at its summit crowned by the Palace of the Senators, with the Museum of the Capitol to the left and the Palace of the Conservatori on the right; and it is so impressive in its architectural majesty that the fountain which is a part of it all keeps its true place in the great composition, and is recognized only as a note in the general harmony of proportion, design, and decoration. This is, of course, as it should be — as Michelangelo meant it to be when, some three hundred and seventy-five years ago, the vision of the Campidoglio as it now stands unfolded itself in his brain. Not that every detail of the magnificent reality is as he planned it. The fatality which followed him, spoiling or changing nearly all his great designs, has been at work here; and it is the fountain which has suffered.

This fountain, which is a part of the approach to the Senate House, was to have as its central statue a figure of Jove. Vasari, who is quite carried away with Master Michelangelo's beautiful design, describes the fountain as if it were already done, Jove in the centre and the two river-gods on either side. But Michelangelo and the enthusiastic Vasari had been dead for years when Sixtus V brought the Acqua Felice to the Campidoglio and finally erected the fountain. He placed in the noble niche where a colossal and majestic Jupiter should have stood, the antique statue of a Minerva done over to represent Rome. The white marble head and arms of this statue are modern restorations, but the prophyry torso was found at Cori, and its air of undeniable antiquity is all that saves this curiously inadequate figure from utter insignificance. It is too small for the niche it occupies, and is so out of proportion to its surroundings and on so different a plane of artistic treatment that it would quite spoil any creation less triumphantly dominant than is this whole staircase and façade.

The two river-gods which also adorn this fountain are very old. Together with Marforio, now to be found in the Museum of the Capitol, they have the distinction of never having been buried since the downfall of Rome. Once they stood before "that most magnificent of all Roman temples" — Aurelian's Temple of the Sun. Later they belonged to the Mediæval Museum of Statues, a collection kept in or near the old papal palace of the Lateran, where they had been called Bacchus and Saturn. The Nile, who should have been unmistakable because of his emblem of the Sphinx, has now his proper designation; but the other statue has a curious history. It was originally the River Tigris, a river familiar to the Romans since the wars with Mithradates. When, under Paul III, Michelangelo placed these statues in their present position, some influential person suggested that the Tigris, no longer of any interest to the Romans, should be changed into the Tiber. The emblem of the Tigris — a tiger — was then altered to represent the Roman Wolf, and the Twins were added. Pirro Ligorio tells the story, and goes on to say that the fingers of one of the Twins were originally a part of the Tiger's fur.

The erection of the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the centre of the piazza was the first step in the design of the Campidoglio of to-day, for Michelangelo's admiration of the statue had been shared by Paul III, and the Pope brought it hither in 1538 when the embellishment of Rome, originally begun in honor of the visit in 1534 of Charles V, had become with both Pope and citizens a great and permanent interest. This statue also had been a part of that Mediæval Museum in the Lateran which was probably one of the places to visit when Charlemagne came to Rome to be crowned in old St. Peter's on Christmas Day, 800. The façade of the Senate House, which forms the background to the piazza and its statues, is built in great part of travertine, so the structural part of the fountain is of the same material. This consists of a huge niche, sixteen and a half feet in height, sunk into the foundation of the terrace before the main entrance to the Senate House. On either side of the niche is a pair of Doric pilasters, which support the floor of the terrace and its beautiful balustrade. A great stairway, down which the balustrade continues, connects this entrance of the Senate House with the piazza below; and the foundation of these steps, forming triangular wings to the niche, serves as a background to the river-gods. These figures lie one on either side of the semicircular basins containing the water. The simplicity of the design partakes of the inevitable. Considering it from any point of view, it is not only impossible to think of anything better, it is impossible to think of anything else. If it is not the work of Michelangelo, there must have been two Michelangelos in 1538!

In Piranesi's engraving of the Campidoglio a fine balustrade like the one on the stairway surrounds the fountain. It follows the contour of the lower basin and stands at some three or four feet distant from it. This balustrade, which has disappeared, enhanced distinctly the beauty of the fountain, bringing it more into harmony with the entire composition.

The river-god is one of the earliest sculptural personifications of natural phenomena. In these days comparatively little heed is paid to the smaller waterways, so the modern spirit fails to see the significance of these conventionalized figures. To the ancients, however, the statues personified that physical object upon which all civilized life depended — a great stream of unfailing water. The rivers of Greece were small, while the Roman Empire contained some of the largest in the world; but the ideas they represented were the same. The river, small or great, made the city. The river gave food and drink to the inhabitants, connected them with the outside world, brought trade, turned the mills, defended the city from invasion, carried away pestilence, cleansed, purified, and supported all the works of men; and therefore Father Tiber and his brothers were to be worshipped and to be honored, and statues were to be set up to them in public places, so that men should remember what they owed to their river. The river is always personified as a benign and majestic figure in the foil strength of mature manhood, with long and abundant hair and beard. The lower limbs are draped, so that the mystery of partial concealment hangs about him. On one arm he bears a horn of plenty; while with the other he reclines upon some support, which is usually the characteristic emblem of the particular stream which he represents.

Power, abundance, and calm strength are the qualities of a great river; and these qualities the ancients most adequately expressed in their own peculiar medium, which was sculpture. Men of to-day put their ideas into music, or more explicitly into prose or verse, and there are still those who appreciate the significance of the river. Washington Irving's epithet of the "lordly Hudson" proves the hold that great river had over his perception and imagination; and not any statue of a river-god can give the conception of a river which is to be found in Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum":

       "But the majestic river floated on,
   Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
   Into the frosty starlight, and there moved,
   Rejoicing, through the hush'd Chorasmian waste,
   Under the solitary moon; — he flow'd
   Right for the polar star, past Orgunjè,
   Brimming, and bright, and large; then sands begin
   To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
   And split his currents; that for many a league
   The shorn and parcell'd Oxus strains along
   Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles —
   Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
   In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
   A foil'd circuitous wanderer — till at last
   The long'd-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
   His luminous home of waters opens, bright
   And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
   Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea."


The nearest approach which the Romans have left us to such grandeur as this is to be found in their statue called Marforio. The north wing of the Campidoglio group is known as the Museum of the Capitol, and it is in the entrance court of this edifice that Marforio is now to be seen. If this most majestic of all river-gods ever represented any particular river, the name of that river was forgotten centuries ago. His title of Marforio was given him long since, because he once poured the water into a fountain which stood in a small square to the left of the Senate House, where Augustus had erected the Martis Forum. There he seems to have remained throughout the darkest days of Rome's decadence, surviving every vicissitude, and always respected by the half-barbarous Romans of that time. Gregory XIII (Boncompagni, 1572-1585) is responsible for removing Marforio from this classic position and for separating him at that time from the huge granite basin into which flowed the water from the urn on which he is leaning. Thenceforth the basin has a history of its own, while Marforio's odyssey (he wandered for some time after leaving his old home) finally brought him to the Campidoglio. Sixtus V then placed him on the left side of the piazza, facing the south wing. This south wing, known as the Palazzo dei Conservatori, was the first of the present group of buildings to be erected, Tommaso de' Cavalieri — a Roman gentleman and one of Michelangelo's few intimates — having had charge of its construction in Michelangelo's lifetime. The north wing, or the Museum of the Capitol, was not done until the architect [Girolamo] Rainaldi erected it for Innocent X (Pamphili), twelve pontificates after the reign of Paul III. During a period of one hundred and sixty years Marforio remained where Sixtus had placed him, and then Clement XII (Corsini) installed him in the court of the Capitoline Museum, and again he was given a fountain to feed and protect.

Marforio's career after he had been parted from his basin was a curious one. Bored, perhaps, by the lonely magnificence of his new surroundings, he fell into evil ways. He became the partner of Pasquino! Pasquino, the mutilated torso from an old Greek group of statuary, stands at the farthest corner of the Braschi Palace (now the Ministero dell' Interno). He had first been set up there in the reign of Alexander VI; and from that time he had become the medium for the popular and anonymous criticisms of the government. His name of Pasquino was taken from a witty tailor or barber who lived near the Palazzo Orsini and whose sallies against those in authority greatly delighted the Roman people. It became the custom to affix anonymous couplets or epigrams to the old torso, which thus obtained the name of Pasquino, and the epigrams came to be known as pasquinades; and from the days of the Borgias to the time of Napoleon, and even later, most of the current witticisms or scathing reflections upon public events or notable personages were ascribed to Pasquino. When Marforio took up his abode in the Piazza of the Campidoglio, he became to the Romans the partner of Pasquino. According to a modern authority, Marforio never originated the sally. His function was to put the question which elicited the witty retort, or to reply in kind to Pasquino's interrogatories. With Marforio's incarceration in the court of the Museum the long dialogue came to an end; and a century later the passing of papal Rome brought Pasquino's career to its final close. Modern freedom of the press leaves no place for Pasquino; and it may be said of him that, Marforio being gone,

". . . of sheer regret
 He died soon after."

This is not strictly true, for, although the statues themselves no longer have a part in the game, it still goes on. One of the most popular of the Roman newspapers still publishes questions and repartee by Marforio and Pasquino.

It is only necessary to study for a short time the various river-gods in Rome, such as those of the Tiber and the Nile, here at the Capitol, or Fontana's statue in the Quattro Fontane, or the modern work in the western fountain of the Piazza del Popolo, and then to return to Marforio, to appreciate the immense artistic superiority of the latter. Marforio is truly a river-god, a personification of all or any of the earth's rivers. The ancient and forgotten sculptor has given to the ponderous stone a fluid quality which is really wonderful. To make the hair and beard merge into the god's breast and shoulders would have been simple both in conception and execution, but only a genius could have secured to the massive and supine figure that appearance of being outstretched in powerful yet melting length along the surface of things. Artists of the Renaissance from Rome and from beyond the Alps always speak of the gran simulacro a giacere, an expression difficult to anglicize, but which is an attempt to describe this singular quality of a static position instinct with continuous and onward flowing movement. Finally, the god's face is full of genuine power and benignity and is the adequate consummation of the sculptor's ideal. It is no wonder that Marforio has become a type. Vasari, for instance, speaks of young Baccio Bandinelli making "a Marforio" out of snow, as not long before the youthful Michelangelo had made a faun from the same perishable material.

For a thousand years — and we do not know for how much longer — Marforio has been a part of the city's life. He has survived the Norman pillage in 1084, as well as the great sack of Rome in 1527. As a kindly god, dispensing water to rich and poor, he has had his part in all the triumphs and disasters, and has shared the ups and downs of life not only with the city but with her children. Roman and barbarian, patrician and plebeian, slave and citizen, Pagan and Christian — all have drunk from his fountain. What has he not seen, and not heard! It was an unerring instinct for the fitness of things which made him Pasquino's gossip, and his present honorable but unnatural seclusion from the city's busy streets and squares is commonly attributed not to Pope Clement XII's lack of imagination but, on the contrary, to his recognition of Marforio's malicious influence over the popular mind. A tablet has been set up in the house which is built over the site where history finds him, Number 49, Via Marforio. In short, Marforio belongs to that curious class of inanimate things which have developed a personality; injury to him would arouse fierce popular resentment; and were he to be destroyed, the Romans would feel that they had lost not a work of art but a personal friend.

The Lion[edit]

The third fountain in the trio of the Campidoglio is to be found in the upper garden of the Palazzo dei Conservatori — the building to the right hand in the ascent of the Cordonata. It can hardly be called a fountain, since it is merely a large basin of water surrounding some rockwork on which stands an old bit of sculpture of a character manifestly inappropriate to the sentiment of a fountain. It represents a lion tearing out the vitals of a horse which it has sprung upon and borne to the ground. This much-restored fragment is of real importance from an artistic standpoint, while as a Roman antiquity it has extraordinary interest. The marble bears distinct traces of having been subjected to the action of water, and, as a matter of fact, it was found more than a thousand years ago in the bed of the River Almo. Nothing is known of its history previous to that discovery.

The Almo is a little brook in the Campagna not far from Rome, rising in the hills between the Via Appia and Via Latina and emptying into the Tiber. Its modern name is Acquataccio. The Almo was connected with the ancient worship of the goddess Cybele, whose sacred image was ceremonially washed in it each year on the 27th of March by the priests. This religious ceremony, doubtless, preserved the channel of the stream so that it would have been quite possible to hide successfully a great piece of statuary in its depths or in some reedy pool along its banks. River-beds were not uncommon hiding-places for treasures during the Dark Ages which followed the breaking-up of the Roman Empire, and it is quite possible that this group may have been so hidden by its owner whose great villa, situated near the stream, was threatened with pillage or destruction by some barbarian incursion. The high value evidently placed upon it by its original possessor was also given to it by its discoverers. It belonged to that remote museum of antiquities kept in or near the Lateran Palace during the Middle Ages and dating back at least to the days when Charlemagne first visited Rome, in 781, bringing with him his little son Pepin, aged four, to be anointed King of Italy by Pope Hadrian I. This museum contained also the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, now standing in the centre of the piazza of the Gampidoglio, together with the two river-gods, placed later on by Michelangelo where they now lie — one on either side of the central fountain of the Campidoglio; and other marbles and bronzes of great value. Most of these art treasures were removed from the Lateran to the Capitol when Pope Sixtus IV (Riario, 1471-1484) founded the Capitoline Museum; but long before that time the Lion, as it was always called (the original portion of the horse being merely the body), had been taken from its academic seclusion and set in the midst of things. During three centuries of the turbulent life of mediæval Rome, it stood to the left hand and at the foot of the long flight of steps which, previous to Michelangelo's time, led up from the Piazza of the Ara Cœli to the Capitol. All about it was held the public market; the city officials, found guilty of misdemeanors, were made to do penance sitting astride the Lion's back with their hands tied behind them and their faces smeared with honey — the Roman version of the pillory! The ferocity of the Lion was thought to typify the punishment of crime, and the public executions were held before this old fragment. Here, on August 3i, 1354, the famous soldier of fortune, Fra Monreale, was beheaded by order of Cola di Rienzi. On October 8 of the same year, Rienzi himself was caught as he was escaping in disguise from the burning palace of the Capitol, and here he stood, during the last hour of his life, leaning against the Lion, turning his head this way and that in vain quest of succor, while the mob which was so soon to tear him to pieces held back in a strange awe, and a silence reigned over everything! That was the greatest of all the tragedies — though there were so many of them — connected with the Lion.

The old bit of sculpture continued to hold its sinister place in Roman life, until the pontificate of Paul III (Farnese, i534-i549). At that time Master Michelangelo (to use Vasari's phraseology), working for the Pope, remodelled the Capitol and decorated it with many old statues. The group of the horse and lion was then completely, though poorly, restored, and placed in the court of the Palazzo dei Conservatori — this being the first of the three buildings of the Capitol to be built after Michelangelo's designs. At the same time the place for the public executions was transferred from the piazza of the Ara Cœli to the Piazza di Ponte Sant' Angelo.

The lion was placed in its present position in 1903, and Rome of the twentieth century is responsible for the extraordinary taste which converted into a fountain this old fragment, highly interesting as an antiquity but repulsive in itself, and associated chiefly with the bloodiest and least attractive pages in Roman annals.

It is impossible to leave the Campidoglio without a heightened appreciation of the might of the constructive imagination. Only that faculty, developed to its highest power as in Michelangelo, could have produced this magnificent harmony out of the incongruous mass of classic and mediæval survivals with which he had to deal.