La Barcaccia

At the foot of the great stone stairway, known in Italian as La Scalinata and in English as the Spanish Steps, which leads down from the Church of the Trinita de’ Monti to the Piazza di Spagna lies the singular fountain called La Barcaccia. The design of this fountain is that of a quaintly conventionalized boat, fast sinking under the water which is pouring into it. To this effect it owes its name; for “barca,” being the Italian for boat, and ” accia” a termination of opprobrium, Barcaccia means a worthless boat. The boat is supposed to
commemorate an event which occurred during the great flood of 1598. On Christmas Day of that year the Tiber rose to its highest recorded level. All this part of the city was submerged to a depth of from seventeen to twenty-five feet; and here in the Piazza di Spagna a boat drifted ashore, grounding on that slope of the Pincian Hill, which is now covered by the Spanish Steps. For a long time the design of this fountain was supposed to commemorate this event, and it is quite possible that this may have been the case. Still there are other fountains of this design, the work of Carlo Maderno, and as one is in the Villa d’Este at Tivoli and the other in the Villa Aldobrandini, it is also quite possible that Carlo Maderno and the creator of the Barcaccia may have had yet another idea when they constructed their stone boats with a fountain amidships and lying in basins not much larger than the boats themselves. For the Romans of this time knew much and surmised still more about the mysterious boats lying at the bottom of Lake Nemi, in the Alban Hills, not more than seventeen miles distant from Rome. These boats had been discovered first during the pontificate of Pope Eugenius IV, and had been rediscovered in Paul Ill’s time, in 1535, or about a hundred years before Carlo Maderno employed this design for a fountain. At each date an attempt had been made to raise the boats, but these efforts as well as all subsequent attempts proved unsuccessful. However, in 1535 measurements had been computed and many objects belonging to the vessels had been brought to the surface to excite the wonder and admiration of the Roman world. It was discovered that the boats when once raised and floated would all but fill the tiny lake.

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