One of my favorite fountains in Rome is Fontana delle Tartarughe — the Turtle Fountain. It stands in Piazza Mattei, a typical little piazza named for a prominent family that lived there and paid for the fountain.
The piazza is a 2 minute walk south (toward the Tiber) of Largo Argentina.
It wasn’t always the Turtle Fountain, though. Indeed, originally the fountain was utterly without a turtle, as depicted in this engraving:
The original fountain was designed by the prominent architect Giacomo della Porta and built between 1580 and 1588. It consisted of a single basin, supported by four bronze, young nude men.
The human figures are based on the classical Greek sculptures of youths, known as ephebes, and were made by the sculptor Taddeo Landini. The youths stand on somewhat weird, stylized dolphins (a favorite figure on many Roman fountains).
The dolphins spit water into oversized conch shells below, and the water finally flows into a polygonal basin at the bottom.
It was, even as originally executed, a lovely fountain. The figures of the youths are beautiful, elegant, energized, and engaging — you can almost feel them moving, and hear them laughing.
Then in either 1658 or 1659, the fountain was restored — and the turtles that today give the fountain its name were added. It’s debated who crafted the turtles: possibly Andrea Sacchi, or even the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Frankly, who cares who made them: they transform the fountain into something that’s simultaneously charismatic and whimsical. Now, the four youths are boosting some squirming bronze turtles into the top basin. You can picture the turtles’ back legs moving as they try to push themselves up, and the hands of the youths giving the turtles a much-appreciated push.
If you exercise your imagination, perhaps you can hear the splashes as the little turtles land in the top basin while the youths laugh and play. Just another wonderful little fountain, in the Eternal City.