CAUGHT IN THE MAGICAL LOOPS OF ROME’S HISTORY
The famous Turtles Fountain (Fontana delle Tartarughe), half-way between history and legend, is one of the most beautiful fountains that remain from Italy’s renaissance: it is made of marble and bronze, and sits at Piazza Mattei in Rome’s Jewish quarters, at the very heart of the city’s historical downtown.
The Turtles Fountain is flanked by two quite prestigious buildings: Palazzo Costaguti, where Paolina Borghese used to live in the early XVII century, and legend has it that she would play the piano in front of windows open to the fountain, harmoniously interweaving her music to the chanting flow of the fountain; even today, the fountain’s water falling serves as the soundtrack of Piazza Mattei. The second building is Palazzo Mattei, which belonged to Muzio Mattei who, around 1570 arranged with Rome’s road-building superintendent to have the fountain built in front of his Palazzo, in exchange for covering the costs of paving the piazza and taking care of its maintenance.
In 1884 the Petochi goldsmith company was founded in Rome, specializing in silverware and jewelry, greatly favored by Rome’s nobility. Also, by the final years of the 1800s the Bottega Mortet offered the services of highly specialized engravers and sculptors and was often engaged by the Vatican.
Surely based on these relationships, the Petochi company was commissioned in 1906 to create a replica of the great Turtles Fountain in solid silver by Vittorio Emanuele III, then King of Italy, who gifted it to Tommaso Alberto, Duke of Genova, and Duchess Isabella Luisa di Baviera, in occasion of their wedding anniversary on April the 14th 1883.
Centuries have gone by. That replica of the Turtles Fountain is currently property of the Danilo Piaggesi family –a seven generations Roman– who lives in Rome’s prestigious Aventino neighborhood. Unbeknownst to either of them, Mr. Piaggesi contacted Mr. Giuseppe Petochi — of the same Petochi company still active in Rome– to have the fountain restored. Mr. Petochi, fifth generation goldsmith who carries along the family tradition in his store at Via Margutta in downtown Rome, immediately thought of requesting the Bottega Mortet –also still active— to perform the restoration and maintenance of the fountain under commission from Mr. Piaggesi.
While taking apart the fountain for restoration, the replica produced its first surprise: the replica does not have a single welding or bolt; a unique design and manufacture by which all its pieces fit tightly with each other making any other mechanism unnecessary. To their great surprise and wonder, the replica had a second surprise in store: as the company continued carefully taking apart and numbering each piece of the fountain, with great stupor they discovered that on the white marble slab that sits in the center of the fountain’s malachite base, the following words had been inscribed: “Mortet per Petochi” (Mortet for Petochi), written in pencil or chalk and still clearly legible. The replica had mysteriously made its way over the centuries back to the companies who created it. It was a remarkable coincidence.
The restoration of the replica of the Turtles Fountain was indeed undertaken by the brothers Mortet, under supervision of Mr. Giuseppe Petochi; it took around two months to complete, but the result was excellent. The replica of the Turtles Fountain is a great example of Italy’s enduring craftmanship at its best, and the story of its re-encountering its makers is an apt reminder of the magic that surrounds Italy, its history, and its art.
Also remarkable is the longevity of the partnership established over a century ago between the Mortet and Petochi families, two among the most prestigious historic enterprises in the city of Rome, who showcase the great quality of Roman silversmith to the world. Such partnership has produced several versions of the fountains of Rome in different sizes and materials. Among them, as Mr. Petochi and the brothers Mortet remember, the most representative is perhaps a replica of the group of the three fountains that sit in Piazza Navona, made under commission from John and Harry Mariani in 1978; at that time, the Mariani brothers had recently bought Villa Banfi Winery in Montalcino –now Castello Banfi— a transaction unprecedented in terms of investment and marketing efforts.
The three fountains group included the Moor, the Neptune, and the Four Rivers, and at its center had a 3 ft high obelisk with lateral accoutrements in proportion. The three fountains group was proudly presented at the entrance of the Mariani’s office in Long Island, NY; it sat over a chiseled bronze table, its surface made to look like Rome’s “sanpietrini”, the typical cubic basalt tiles that cover a good deal of the streets in Rome. This art object, suggested to the Mariani by Mr. Giuseppe Petochi while in his branch office in New York City, became a symbol of the Mariani’s expansion in Italy.
Rome’s fountains do not cease to surprise, enchant, and delight. These are just some of the many wonderful stories that could be told about them. And Mr. Piaggesi, the proud owner of the Turtles Fountain replica is happy to have a story very interesting to tell.
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Featured image: Turtles Fountain, Rome (detail). credit: Damian Byrne
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