Fountain of Turtles & Piazza Mattei

The charming Piazza Mattei sits hidden in the heart of Rome Jewish Ghetto, one of the oldest parts of the city and home to the oldest Jewish Community in all Europe! Central to this lovely piazza is the Fountain of Turtles, or “Fontana delle Tartarughe” in Italian, a little gem linked to incredible legends and popular tales. If you are strolling through this thriving neighborhood, take your time to stop in Piazza Mattei and have a close look at the charming fountain.

Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder
Location: Piazza Mattei 00186 Rome, in Jewish Ghetto Area
Tickets: Not Needed
Accessibility: Accessible

The Story of Giacomo Mattei

Piazza Mattei bears the name of Duke Giacomo Mattei, a hardened gambler and owner of the white building located at number 19 that overlooks the little square. The most interesting fact about this building is certainly the walled up window, a pretty strange detail, linked to a popular legend about Mattei’s life.

Story has it that Giacomo was in love with a woman and wanted to marry her. However, one night he lost a lot of money gambling. Hence, the father of the woman refused to give him his daughter’s hand. Eager to redeem his name, Duke Mattei invited his future father in law to his palace and organized a great party that lasted until morning. Surprisingly, he had the Fountain of Turtles built over night. The morning after he asked his father in law to look outside the window to show him the stunning fountain, stating “This is what a penniless man like me can achieve in just a few hours!”. His father in law to be allowed their marriage, but the Duke Mattei had the window walled up as a reminder of what had happened.

Piazza Mattei in Rome Jewish Ghetto
Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder

The Fountain of the Turtles

Linked to the popular tale about Duke Mattei, the Fountain of Turtles has actually stayed a mystery for a very long time. In 1570 the Congregation of Waters, a body of the Roman Curia, spread news about 18 new fountains, works of Jacopo della Porta, drawing water from the Aqueduct of Aqua Virgin. However, the Fountain of Piazza Mattei was not in that list! It was only in 1581 that authorities in Rome acknowledged in an official document the existence of a fountain in Piazza Mattei, attributing it to Taddeo Landini who built the fountain between 1581 and 1584 following a project by Jacopo della Porta.

Features of the Fountain of Turtles

The project included four bronze youths rising from four African-marble seashells. The seashells lay on bronze dolphins. The turtles on the basin were added later in 1685 by Bernini, during renovation works ordered by Pope Alexander VII.

Fountain of the turtles details
Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder

You probably won’t believe it, but the turtles have disappeared several times over the years.

First in 1906, then 1944 and again in 1981. Luckily they were always found eventually, but the turtles you see today are copies. The original ones are housed in the Musei Capitolini.

Meaning of the fountain

This late Renaissance masterpiece is actually full of meaning and symbols that are almost completely imperceptible to modern men, but that were completely clear to the ones of the 15th century.
The bronze youths are organized in a perfectly symmetrical position. Their feet lay on the two dolphins. In their hands the tales. From the dolphins’ mouths the water flows into the seashells. With the other arms the youths gently support the little turtles on the edge of the basins.

Detail of Turtles on the Fountain of Turtles in Rome

The perfect balance of all these elements actually reveal a statement a famous Latin motto attributed to Emperor Augustus that reads “Festina Lente” and translates into “make haste slowly” or “more haste, less speed”, which can be red in the contrasting the speed of the dolphins and the slowness of the turtles.

This symbolical meaning aimed at highlighting the virtue of the patron of the fountain, because it stresses the wiseness of the mature man who takes the necessary time to think before coming to a final decision, but that once he has decided acts promptly!