The Turtle Fountain is a little gem and a wonderful surprise in one of the most picturesque and historic corners of Rome.
In the Sant'Angelo district, near the Jewish Ghetto, it adorns the small Piazza Mattei, named after the powerful family who owned all the palazzos in the piazza.
Like the Trevi Fountain, it is one of Rome's many famous fountains and is likewise fed by the Virgin Aqueduct that has been quenching Romans' thirst since the age of Emperor Augustus.
At its inception in the late 1500s, the fountain was originally intended for the neighbouring Piazza Giudea, where there was a market. However, Muzio Mattei insisted that it be built right in front of his palazzo.
In exchange, the family agreed to pave the piazza and to keep the fountain clean.
It was designed by Giacomo della Porta, who also created the two fountains at either end of the Piazza Navona. The fountain underwent many changes during the construction process. The ornamentations of four ephebes (youths) and eight dolphins were originally planned in marble, but in the end they were all bronze. Upon completion of the work, four of the dolphins could not be used because the low water pressure didn't provide a strong enough jet. As a result, they were "recycled" in another fountain that is now in the Piazza della Chiesa Nuova.
Admired today is a square basin with four marble shells on a pedestal, which supports another basin decorated with cherub heads. The four ephebes rest their feet on the dolphins, holding their tails and urging the little turtles to drink.
The turtles, after which the fountain is named, were actually added at the last minute, during a1658 restoration commissioned by Pope Alexander VII. It is commemorated here on a marble scroll. They may have been made by Bernini.
Those that we see here today are unfortunately copies. In 1979 one was stolen in the middle of the night, and the three surviving turtles are kept at the Capitoline Museums.
There is no shortage of stories circulating around such a unique fountain.
It is said that Duca Mattei, a young aristocrat with a passion for gambling, lost all his belongings and found himself penniless. When he learned that the duke had fallen on hard times, the father of his bride-to-be decided to break off the engagement.
To convince his prospective father-in-law to reconsider, Mattei decided to amaze him and his bride-to-be by having the fountain built in the piazza in front of the Mattei family palazzo, all in ONE NIGHT. The next day, he called his bride-to-be and her father and invited them to accompany him to a window that looked out over the piazza. They were so impressed that the father-in-law was now convinced that if the Duke could create such a wondrous thing over the course of a single night albeit on the street he could also make his daughter happy. After this event, the duke had the window bricked up work that is still visible today so that no one else could enjoy the scene. Unfortunately this is only a romantic and colourful legend. In reality, the fountain was built in the late 1500s, but the palazzo wasn't built until 30 years later!