Honors in Rome - Summer 2006
Imagine the pope buying a Ferrari. To Pope Paul V Borghese, the Acqua Paola and its fountain was a fast, shiny car everyone notices while the driver hopes they are thinking, “wow, he must be rich.” True, aqueducts and fountains granted their patron a shade of benevolence as their water flowed generously; however, showing off factored in tremendously. Since the Romans built their very first aqueduct, the power and naming rights of such a grand endeavor motivated both emperors and popes to engineer waterways into their city. In 1608 Pope Paul V Borghese started construction on his Acqua Paola hoping to prove and proclaim his power, and the story of the first builder is hardly different. Around 312 BC, the Roman Senate assigned its two Censors the task of finding a source of water for the city. One of them, Appius Claudius Caecus, wanted the credit for this project so much he refused to step down until completing the project. As a result of his stubbornness and effort, Romans did remember his name for hundreds of years (Hamblin 2). Like Appius Claudius, 16th and 17th century popes thought beyond the practical purpose of delivering water, and capitalized upon this ancient source of prestige to establish as well as display their own nobility.
Eleven aqueducts served ancient Rome, the first built in 312 BC, the last in the early third century CE, and at one time more than 38 million gallons of water poured into the city from aqueducts each day (Koloski-Ostrow 4-5). Water usage reflected the power of the emperors who provided it; thus they piped it first to serve their needs before the public fountains, baths, and finally private citizens. 537 CE brought the end of the ancient aqueduct era when Vitiges, a Goth leader destroyed every aqueduct he could find. Only the Aqua Virgo escaped this fate, as it lay almost entirely underground. This ancient water source still services the Trevi today (Hamblin 4).
Fontana Del Mose
Throughout the centuries, popes repaired various aqueducts as necessary, but not until the Nicholas V, 1447-55, did a pope enact a plan to provide a water supply sufficient for the growing city. During his pontificate, Nicholas V began restoring the Aqua Virgo, a task carried on by other popes until Pius V completed the project on August 16, 1570 (Venturi 36-42). Next, Pope Sixtus V, whose papacy extended from 1585 to 1590, restored the Aqua Alexandriana. Surpassing the popes before him in ostentation, Sixtus V named the newly restored aqueduct “Acqua Felice” after himself, Felice Perretti. Additionally, he constructed an impressive mostra or terminal fountain, the Fontana del Mosè, for his aqueduct (Venturi 43). Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1621), originally Camillo Borghese, followed the example of his predecessor, and built his Acqua Paola with its terminal fountain, the Fontana Paola or Fontanone, the big fountain (Hamblin 6).
A renovation of the ancient Aqua Traiana built by the Emperor Trajan in 109 CE, the Acqua Paola continues to depend on much of Trajan’s original masonry (Koloski-Ostrow 5-6). Ancient springs near Lake Bracciano historically supplied the Aqua Traiana, and in 1608, Paul V bought this water from the Duke of Bracciano, Virginio Orsini (Morton 165-6). Domenico Fontana and the papal architect Flaminio Ponzio designed the Fontana Paola, which was inaugurated in 1612 (Heilmann 2). At the time, its water flowed into 5 small basins instead of the large semi-circular pool of today.
The later part of the 17th century saw updates to the aqueduct and its fountain. Due to water theft and the use of it as gifts for papal acquaintances, the city received only a fraction of the water first entering the aqueduct. Thus in 1672, Clement X accepted the offer of Flavio Orsini, then Duke of Bracciano, to supplement Acqua Paola’s water supply with water of Lake Bracciano itself (Morton 166). This, however, decreased the water’s quality such that it was not as saluberrima, “eminently health-giving,” as its inscription implied. In fact, its water served only irrigation, industry, and fountain use. In 1690, one more update changed the Fontanone’s appearance to its present state when Carlo Fontana replaced the 5 smaller basins with one larger pool (Venturi 44).
Extending out in front of the large marble façade, this semi-circular pool receives the flow from 5 spouts of water which gush from between each of 6 ionic columns. The columns and structure rest on a podium, and the water falls from the height of this podium. Five triumphal arches rise above the 5 waterspouts while directly over the arches an inscription marks the fountain’s inauguration: “In the year of our Lord, 1612, and the seventh of Paul’s pontificate.” While just above that inscription a longer one declares: “Paul V, Pontifex Maximus, collected this water, drawn from the purest of springs in the neighbourhood of Bracciano, and brought it for thirty-five miles from its source over the ancient channel of the Aqua Alsietina, which he restored, and over new ones, which he added” (Morton 170-1). An error in the inscription reveals Paul V’s mistaken assumption that he had renovated the Aqua Alsietina, Emperor Augustus’ aqueduct. 17th century scholar Raffaello Fabretti shrewdly pointed out Paul’s mistake of the Alsietina for the Traiana (Evans 90). Looking back to the fountain’s appearance, above this inscription perch eagles, representative of the Borghese family, and centered between them sits the Borghese coat of arms with its eagle and dragon. Two angels support the coat of arms, and on the very peak rests a metal cross (Heilmann 2).
Each of these symbols of the Church and the Borghese family held meaning for visitors to this fountain. The people of Rome, eager to use the water flowing from the fountain, as well as tourists, eager to see Rome’s numerous waterworks, made up the audience for Paul V’s fountain. In the late 16th century, French essayist Michel de Montaigne commented upon the interest of tourists in Italy noting, “Waterworks receive more commentary from visitors to Italy than perhaps any other garden feature” (Ehrlich 84). Though he was referring specifically to fountains in villas, 16th and 17th century tourists clearly appreciated “waterworks” in general.
The aqueduct, and especially the Fontana Paola representing it, served two of Paul V’s goals. First it fulfilled the practical function of supplying water to areas in need while second it asserted the power of both the Church and the Borghese family. By the beginning of Paul V’s papacy, the Trastevere, Borgo and Vatican districts greatly thirsted for water, and the Aqua Paola remedied that paucity (Heilmann 6). In addition to filling this practical need, the act of providing water reflected favorably upon Pope Paul V. Scholar Tracy Ehrlich points out of the time, “Secular building that embellished a city or its surroundings had long been accepted as a sign of princely virtue” (Ehrlich 37).
Paul V’s virtuous act also furthered his second goal for Acqua Paola. His good deed in addition to the grandeur of the fountain functioned as propaganda to impress the visitor with the strength of the Church and of the Pope’s family. Throughout Europe during this time, the Catholic Church was under attack. The Reformation tarnished the reputation of the Church, the English king was forcing Catholics to take an oath of state allegiance, and clashes in Germany between Catholics and Protestants were becoming serious (Hibber 181). In response to this issue, the Fontana Paola incorporated a number of Catholic symbols including the angels and cross on the peak. These visual tributes and the inscription that declared the aqueduct to be a work of the pope, associate the grandeur of the fountain, the extent of the project, and the philanthropy of providing water all with the work of the Church.
Of perhaps greater importance to Paul V Borghese, however, was the assertion of his own family’s power. A strict hierarchy divided Roman society; it ranged from the baronial aristocracy at the top, to the ecclesiastic nobility, the lower nobility, and finally everyone else. The baronial aristocracy, who held their wealth in land, consisted of families with the oldest claims to residency in Rome, and the powerful members of the Church coveted this position. Due to the non-hereditary passing of papal power, Rome’s hierarchy proved a little easier to break into than elsewhere in Italy (Ehrlich 17). However, for families not already of the baronial class, the papacy provided the only springboard into the upper echelons of society (Ehrlich 21). Before Paul V’s pontificate, the Borgheses fit into the lower nobility. Unlike the Orsini and Colonna, two of the oldest and most powerful families of Rome who immigrated to Rome in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Borghese family was relatively new. Arriving in 1537, Paul V’s father, Marcantonio, was the first Borghese to move to Rome (Ehrlich 18, 28). Thus, Paul V provided their key to social ascension. However, the status of the ecclesiastic nobility was not enough, for they sought to establish their family in the rank of baronial aristocracy. This pinnacle of nobility not only carried the greatest prestige, but also it assured lasting power to the family (Ehrlich 24). At the root of the baronial aristocracy’s nobility lay their claim to land as well as their claim to Rome—how long they had been there, and how connected they were to the area (Ehrlich 18-9).
Paul V Borghese’s Fontana Paola connected him to antiquity; thus, through it he established his family’s nobility. Due to the abundant ancient aqueduct ruins and the writings of Pliny the Younger, Romans of the time would have associated aqueducts with antiquity and seen Pope Paul V’s work as a continuation of that (Ehrlich 84-5). Therefore, Paul V’s choice of an aqueduct and its fountain as his medium served to strengthen his connection to Rome’s past. Beyond the symbolic connection, its construction on top of the ruins of the ancient Aqua Traiana physically connected Paul V’s work with the work of the ancients such that they became one (Aicher 343). Offering another physical reminder of its historical significance, the inscriptions’ lettering mimicked calligraphy of ancient Rome (Morton 170). Possibly the most striking symbol, the triumphal arch, recalls those of ancient Roman architecture. The Trophies of Marius, a fountain built by Septimius Severus in the third century particularly exemplified the triumphal arch in antiquity (Venturi 43). Additionally, the emperors build the ancient aqueducts, so in completing the Acqua Paola’s construction, Paul V directly placed himself in the role of the most ancient and powerful nobility of all (Ehrlich 86). With all these connections to antiquity, Fontana Paola functioned to firmly establish Paul V’s place in the history and culture of Rome.
To build this enormous work, Paul V already possessed a great deal of wealth and with it power from his position as pope. Thus, in addition to establishing nobility, the fountain also functioned to proclaim Paul V’s existing power. As its inscription declared his momentous and majestic deed, it clearly associated the work with his name in both the description and the date. Simultaneously, the eagles adorning the sides as well as the featured coat of arms with its dragon and eagle presented a conspicuous visual reminder of exactly who provided this water.
Paul V was certainly not the first to display his own wealth and power with a fountain. Others similarly saw in fountain patronage a means to boost and declare one’s status; in fact waterworks became a major competition among patrons, each vying to display the most spectacular show (Ehrlich 84). The Fontana Paola itself contended with Pope Sixtus V’s Fontana del Mosé (terminal fountain to his Aqua Felice) built about 20 years earlier. The Fontana Paola used the same basic design of a marble façade decorated with ionic columns and triumphal arches. However, in the spirit of competition, Paul’s fountain surpassed Sixtus’ in size and number of columns (Venturi 44).
The competition exemplified by the Fontana Paola resulted in Rome’s vast collection of fountains; this stage of the city’s history marked the beginning of its reputation as a city of fountains. Countless patrons of the era wanted to associate their names with magnificent fountains reminiscent of antiquity. For example, the Trevi fountain proclaims the name of one of its patrons, Pope Clement XIII, directly under its symbolic triumphal arch (Venturi 56). Villa owners like the Borghese and Medici packed their grounds with extravagant fountains to display their wealth (Ehrlich 108). Even centuries later the terminal fountain to the Nuovo Acquedotto Vergine Elevato (NAVE), completed in 1936-37 features an ancient motif: goddess Roma and the she-wolf who fed Romulus and Remus (Venturi 69). In myth, these men built the city of Rome in 753 BC (Steves 690). Acqua Paola, one of the major papal aqueduct renovations, remains vital to the city of Rome, which still relies on the Acqua Paola as well as the Acqua Virgo and Acqua Felice for a large amount of water (Venturi 46-7). Since the Acqua Paola used much of the masonry of 109 CE, this fact is even more impressive.
This recalls the idea of the pope buying a Ferrari. My comparison brings Paul V’s action into context of the present day, and while it seems absurd to think of Pope Benedict XVI or John Paul II cruising around in a new car paid for by papal funds, I think we need to take a step back and think about it. A fancy car is a status symbol, effectively, an establishment of a position in the upper class, or today’s “nobility.” It displays wealth thus bestowing power on the owner. Since now we expect the pope to assume a role of extreme humility, the prospect of him purchasing a pricey car is startling. While the modern day pope may not recreate Paul V’s example, we find similar cases close to home. Just look to our University of Washington campus which houses the “Paul Allen Building of Computer Science,” and the “William Gates Law Library” to name two. Like Acqua Paola’s water, both structures fulfill a philanthropic purpose: generous accommodations for classrooms and library collections. However, with the patrons’ family names directly in the titles, their benevolence only increases the positive advertisement for both Paul Allen and the Gates family. Still today wealthy people display their money in a public manner assuring them recognition in society’s upper classes. Paul V’s could feel right at home with the wealthy Americans of today.
This aqueduct’s functionality in the present-day most interested me. Yes, the city updated the piping and added filters, but the aqueduct’s basic reliance upon almost 2000-year-old masonry and engineering is unthinkable in a time where disposable plates, cameras, and contacts are the norm. Considering the aqueduct’s functionality, I almost cannot believe it came from so long ago. However, I ran into a curious story highlighting one of the practical difficulties associated with a 2000-year-old system: eels. Lake Bracciano, Acqua Paola’s source, harbors a population of eels. Thus, the city takes necessary precautions to keep its water supply free of these slippery critters. Though the aqueduct filters its water through an eel trap, occasionally one slides in and rides into town. Where, surely much to its dismay, it clogs a fountain and requires a fireman to extract it. Once free, the trapped water shoots the eel into the sky before the doomed creature falls to eager onlookers: not a happy fate (Hamblin 6). Nevertheless, the unstoppable water flows on, and Acqua Paola stands in tribute to the nation’s and the Borgheses’ eminence.
This is me as a dragon in front of the Fontana Paola (because as you now know the dragons are one of the Borghese family symbols).
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