It occupies the place where Valadier had intended in the first instance to construct a vast fountain, which was to rise in various jets on the summit of the hill now bordered by the esplanade and balustrade, and descend in cascades from terrace to terrace until it gained the level of the piazza.
The scheme was abandoned for lack of water. Only the aqueducts of imperial Rome could have furnished the amount required for such a fountain. The design was most imposing, but it is possible that Valadier himself may have relinquished it willingly. He was keenly alive to the beauty of proportion, and the monument to ” II Re Galantuomo” shows how incongruous a Niagara would have been amid such circumscribed and highly finished surroundings.
When the time came to carry out Valadier’s design for the fountains about the obelisk, Domenico Fontana’s massive old basin was removed from its position on the south side of that monument and placed in the gardens of San Pietro in Montorio, now the public gardens on the Janiculum. Then the low stone terrace with its five steps was built around the base of the obelisk, and the four corners of this terrace were marked by miniature pyramids of seven steps, the top of each pyramid supporting an Egyptian lioness couchant carved of Carrara. The water gushes in a copious fan-shaped stream from the mouths of these beasts and falls into four massive travertine basins, each basin set so close against the base of its pyramid that the lower steps of the pyramid project well over a portion of the basin’s rim. The task of providing a modern architectural setting to an Egyptian obelisk is probably an impossible one. It must be conceded, however, that Valadier, while not achieving the impossible, did succeed in producing a design which enhances the dignity and importance of the obelisk, considered as the central architectural feature in a Roman square. More than this could not be expected, and as much as this has not been achieved by any other architect. The obelisk on Monte Cavallo is in no way affected by the objects grouped about it. It is as utterly detached from the Roman fountain and the Greek statues at its base as though it stood by itself at Alexandria. Bernini’s extravaganzas, in which the Egyptian symbol of the mystery of life becomes the meaningless centrepiece for a banal fountain, have long ceased to give pleasure. It is doubtful whether the obelisk was altogether pleasing to the ancient Romans. They could not fail to admire its austere dignity and strength, and they regarded it as the insignia of supreme power, human or divine.