The Fountain of Moses was the first of the many monumental fountains that were installed in the city of Rome after the Middle Ages. The fountain is named for the large statue of Moses that stands at its center.
The fountain was installed on request of pope Sixtus V to mark the completion of the Acquedotto Felice, the old Marcian Aqueduct that had been restored in 1587 to provide the neighborhood with fresh water.
The fountain is officially named Fontana dell’Acqua Felice, after the pope, whose real name was Felice Peretti. The pope was instrumental in beautifying Rome with many public works, but in doing so he damaged many ancient monuments including the Diocletian Thermal Bath, Colosseum and temples at the Forum Romanum, from which he obtained materials for the construction of the Moses Fountain, but although St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Fountain of Moses was built in 1587-1588 by Domenico and Giovanni Fontana, who designed a blind triumphal arch with three large niches. In the central niche stands a large statue of Moses, flanked on either side by reliefs depicting biblical scenes.
In front of the large classical columns that frame the niches stand four water spouting lions. They are copies of Egyptian lion statues; the originals can be found in the Vatican Museums.
Above the niches is a large entablature with a Latin inscription that praises the achievement of restoring the ancient aqueduct. The monument is crowned with a swan’s-neck pediment with at the center the papal coat of arms of Sixtus V flanked by two angels. Within each of the three arches were sculptures on Old Testament subjects. The central arch featured a large statue of Moses, made in 1588. To the left is Aaron, sculpted by Giovanni Battista della Porta and to the right is Joshua sculpted by Flaminio Vacca and Pietro Paolo Olivieri.
The central figure of Moses lends its name to the monumental fountain. The imposing statue was created by Prospero Antichi (also known as Prospero Bresciano).
According to local lore the sculptor tried to measure up to Michelangelo, who created a statue of Moses in the nearby San Pietro in Vincoli church. But the sculptor made the mistake of not creating a model and he carved the statue out of a block of marble that was lying on the ground instead of standing upright. As a result its proportions where not correct. When the statue was revealed to the public it was ridiculed and Prospero Antichi is said to have committed suicide out of sorrow.
The story is probably exaggerating the events. It is however certain that the statue was ridiculed; the locals even called it ‘Il Mosè ridicolo’ – the ridiculous Moses. But historians now know that Antichi did not create the statue on his own, most of the work was likely done by Leonardo Sormani, who also finished the statue.
The hills of Rome, no water after the end of the Roman Empire
For a surprisingly long period, Roman building had been confined to the valley of the Tiber: on the hills there was a constant shortage of water. The huge supply from the old water courses was drying up. At the beginning the reign of Pope Sixtus V (born Felice Peretti) in 1585, only one of the ancient Roman aqueducts which brought water to the city, the Aqua Vergine, was still being maintained and working. Everyone in Rome who wanted clean drinking water had to go to the single fountain near the site of today’s Trevi Fountain. It was Pope Sixtus V who constructed a new conduit, the Acqua Felice, to provide water for the hills of Quirinale, Viminale and Esquilino. The choice was not casual. In this part of the city, the Franciscan friar Felice Peretti, Cardinale Montalto at the beginning of the works, Pope Sixtus V at the end, had started to build the Villa Montalto in a grand style. The gardens extended over a vast area forming an open-air museum with works of ancient art. The Romans fabulated of its size and splendor. But suddenly he was compelled to give up building his villa. One reason must have been the deplorable want of water in this part of the city, and the first order given by the Pope on the very day he ascended the papal chair, was to undertake the construction of the water conduit, Acqua Felice. The old Marcian Aqueduct furnished the materials for the Acquedotto Felice, and the water was brought all the way from Zagarolla in the Agra Colonna, near Frascati, twenty miles distant from Rome. The initial effort by architect Matteo Bartolani, was a failure: Bartolani miscalculated the incline of the channel, so the flow of water was much less than needed to reach the Quirinal Hill, the intended site of its terminal fountain. Giovanni Fontana, brother of the more famous architect Domenico took over the building of the aqueduct, which was completed by June 1587. A fountain was constructed by architect engineer Domenico Fontana in the form of an ancient Roman triumphal arch. It featured, as ancient Roman fountains did, an inscription honoring its builder, Pope Sixtus. beneath angels holding the papal coat of arms. Thus did, he inaugurate a work that, as Ranke says, “brought more honor and glory to him in the town than was paid to any other Pope.” It was a gigantic work and the costs were extraordinary. All Rome took part in the jubilation, when it was inaugurated, and Torquato Tasso wrote a pompous poem in its praise, following the water on its path below the earth till gleefully it greets the sun which once shone upon the mighty Augustus. It was felt that now something had been made worthy of antique glory, and so it should be celebrated in an antique style. The Pope had one arm of the conduit taken through his garden and thence to the Quirinal, the other was to pour forth its streams at the Moses fountain at the Thermæ of Diocletian. I
The splendid stream carried over these arches was thus distributed throughout the desolation and sterility of the Viminal, Esquiline, and Quirinal Hills. With this water at his command, Sixtus V began laying out what might be called to-day Sixtine Rome the Rome which lies between the terraces of the Trinita de’ Monti and that portion of the Aurelian wall pierced by the six gates Porta Pinciana, Porta Salaria, Porta Pia, Porta San Lorenzo, Porta Maggiore, and Porta San Giovanni. It was an enormous space to cover, and the frescoes in the Vatican Library show how desolate and how wild it was. The two great basilicas of the Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore , the Baths of Diocletian, the Villa Montalto with its rows of famous cypresses, and in one panel the Moses fountain and the Porta Pia these constitute the main features of the wild landscape with its hilly background and its foreground of rough, bare earth and shaggy vegetation- The Pope offered special privileges to all who would build on these hills, and he himself began the work. In 1587 Sixtus himself bought the beautiful Piazza of Monte Cavallo from the heirs of the Caraffa family, and the Quirinal Palace, already begun by Gregory XIII, was finished by him with great magnificence.
The Villa Montalto which only a few decades ago stood “ beautiful and dignified in wild surroundings “ is now completely swamped in a sea of houses, stretching from the Esquilino and Viminale between the church of S. Maria Maggiore and the Thermæ of Diocletian.
The invaluable stimulant of the “master’s eye” was always to be felt about the neighborhood, for Sixtus V often took his Sunday walk after mass along these streets, examining, criticizing, and commanding everything. He was ” always in a hurry/* It was as if he felt the time was short. No modern methods surpass the rush of his undertakings; but unlike the modern building, that which he built remained, and remains until this day. The feeble body which so successfully deceived the Conclave at his election and yet survived for those five titanic years of his pontificate lies in Santa Maria Maggiore, in the great chapel built for him by his Fontana. There, as Stendhal truly says: “Amid all the marble magnificence, what one really cares to see is the sculptured physiognomy of the Pope himself.”