At the entrance to this palace stand two rare and vast fountains made of granite stone and brought from the Baths of Titus.” Thus wrote John Evelyn in November, 1644. The description holds to this day, although the modern sight-seer will substitute Caracalla for Titus.
The fountains were erected by the Farnese family to add the final touch of distinction to their new palace. They owe their unique combination of original classic features and seventeenth-century taste to the genius and opportunities of Paul III and his grandson, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese II, and to a still later descendant Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. The Pope and the earlier cardinal, men of wide culture and enormous wealth, were the first to excavate and exploit the Baths of Caracalla. The treasures they there found might well have been the loot of some fabulous city, and yet the pearls and gold and rubies brought some twenty years later by Francis Drake to his royal mistress were of small significance compared to the works of art found in those great baths?baths which had been the most sumptuous pleasure – house of imperial Rome. It is the glory of Italy that she knew this at the time. Her great churchmen reverently exhumed those masterpieces of Greek and Roman art and made of them the Farnese Collection?according to a well-known authority the rarest collection ever got together by private individuals, and forming to-day the chief interest in the Museum at Naples.
When the Pope, Paul III (Farnese), began the erection of the great new palace which was to bear his name and fitly domicile the princely family he was founding, he, and his descendants after him, used for its decoration the rare marbles and minor artistic trophies from the baths. No doubt, it seemed to them a happy inspiration to turn these gigantic granite tubs into a pair of fountains; for these notable fountains are, in the last analysis, simply huge bathtubs, rendered imposing by their size, and magnificent by the material out of which they are made. They are seventeen feet long and about three feet deep, and are absolutely devoid of decoration except for the lion’s head carved in relief, low down in the middle of each side – and this is merely an ornamental outlet for the water, quite as necessary to the original purpose for which these tubs were made as are the handles carved high up on either side under the curved rim, simulating metal rings through which the bronze staves had been inserted whenever it was found necessary to move the tubs.