The Lateran Fountain

Modern photographs can still be found of the original fountain of the Lateran. It was the work of Fontana and was placed in this spot after he had erected the obelisk for Sixtus V. The present fountain is quite new and most inadequately replaces the old one which had stood there for over three hundred years. By the close of the nineteenth century the upper basin of Fontana’s fountain was badly broken, while the lower one had been held together for some time by iron clamps. The carving was so worn and defaced that the dolphins and eagle were quite shapeless, and the figure of St. John writing in a scroll upon his knee and looking to Heaven for inspiration had long since disappeared. Maggi’s engraving of this fountain made in 1618
shows it to have been one of the richest ever designed by Fontana. A curious feature in this old fountain was the blending of the insignia of three popes. The pears of Sixtus V were carved in heavy festoons under the huge supporting scrolls of the mostra (which was a screen made low so as to bring the figure of St. John in simple and high relief against one of the square sides of the pedestal), the Borghese eagle poured the water into the shell-shaped upper basin; and finally the Aldobrandini bar of continuous Maltese crosses was used as frieze.

The obelisk of the Lateran was set in its present place by Fontana only two years before the death of Sixtus V, and it is quite probable the fountain was not erected until some years later. Sixtus V rushed the work on the Lateran at top speed; and this obelisk was no sooner in place than Fontana was commissioned to transport its companion to the Piazza del Popolo. The Lateran obelisk was erected in 1588. In August, 1590, Sixtus V died. Four popes followed him in rapid succession-Urban VII, Gregory XIV, and Innocent IX, all dying so soon that by January 20, 1592, Clement VIII (Aldobrandini) had become Pope; and Fontana may have finished this fountain during the first years of Clement’s pontificate, before he fell under that pontiff’s displeasure. The frieze on the fountain must have been originally the Montalto or Peretti frieze, which forms so beautiful a finish to the Lateran Palace; but Fontana, while keeping the star of Montalto (one of Sixtus V’s emblems) in
the corners under the cornice of the screen, changed the design of the intervening space into the Aldobrandini bar.

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