I called it a monstrosity not only because, by unanimous agreement, it's pretty ugly, but also because it was originally the centerpiece of the "Mostra dell' Aqua Pia Marcia". The Italian word "mostra" is derived from the Latin, "monstra," which meant an exhibition or demonstration of something. When applied to fountains, it meant an exhibition of the waters of an aqueduct and, more importantly, a demonstration of the generosity of the person who had built the aqueduct. (A "monster" was originally just something, perhaps a grotesque or monstrous something, that was suitable for public exhibition.) At any rate, the ridiculous (another Latin word, of course = much ridiculed) Fritto Misto was relegated to its present position within ten years of its grand unveiling. It was replaced with a new bronze, "Gruppo Glauco", the by the same noted Sicilian sculptor, Mario Rutelli, the father of the former Mayor of Rome. The Gruppo Glauco, almost five meters high, was unveiled in 1912.
But the most notable features of the fountain, and what brought Rutelli first notoriety and then fame as a sculptor "before his time" are the bronze naiads, for which the fountain is now named. The four bronzes represent the mythological sprites believed by the ancients to have inhabited all waters: the ocean nymph riding a wild "sea horse" (a normal looking horse with wing-like fins and fishy tail), the lake nymph with a swan, the river nymph riding a river monster, and the nymph of the underground waters (wells and underground lakes and springs) lying on the back of a dragon.
Even Rome's jaded population was "scandalized" (more likely titillated) by the realism and sensuality of Rutelli's naiads when they were installed in 1901 to replace the four temporary lions installed by the fountain's original designer, Allessandro Guerrieri. The naked young ladies just seemed to be having too much fun with their animal consorts. Carriage drivers were reportedly circling the fountain repeatedly and several collisions occurred. Local Puritans objected, but nobody seriously considered removing them.
The fountain was only a part of one of the major projects in the long term -- more than thirty years -- urban development program that followed the transfer of infant Italy's capital to Rome after the 1870 reunification. Construction of what later was officially named "Piazza della Republica" was an important part of Rome's "grandissimento" (aggrandizement): the Piazza was designed to be the monumental official entrance to the city, a place where foreign royalty and other VIPs would be greeted and be suitably impressed after arriving at the nearby Termini rail station. Twin porticoed palazzi, designed by Gaetano Koch, were constructed on the ancient semi-circular foundations of the exedra of Diocletian's baths to form the backdrop for welcoming ceremonies. There was plenty of room around the fountain to muster a royal parade and space for the adulating crowds around the fringes.
The welcoming procession would then exit the Piazza through the gap between the two buildings and head down the redeveloped Via Nazionale toward the Victor Emanuel monument, which was also under construction. In fact, original plans called for the construction of the Victor Emanuel monument right in the Piazza della Republica, but those plans were abandoned, and the even larger "Vittoriano" was built at the other end of Via Nazionale, overhanging Piazza Venezia. Plans for the Via Nazionale to descend directly to the spot where the Vittoriano now stands were also dropped for archeological reasons.
But what was in the Piazza della Republica before the stage-set monuments were built? The Church of St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs had, of course, been there since 1566, when builders working for Pope Pius IV and following plans drawn by Michelangelo, nestled the very large church into a very small part of the huge Thermae Diocletiani. These were the largest and most sumptuous of ancient Rome's baths (three thousand bathers at a time), which Diocletian built at the beginning of the fourth century to outshine those built by Caracalla a century earlier. There was a smaller fountain a little to the south of where Guerrieri's was built, and it too was fed by the new Aqua Pia Marcia aqueduct, still Rome's most recent but paralleling the ancient Aqua Marcia from its source, that was donated by Pope Pius X in 1870, just before reunification).
But the most important function of the square, then called Piazza Dell'Esedra, was the Thursday/Friday meat market (cut and on-the-hoof) which had been transferred there in the 17th century from the "Campo Vaccino", the "cow field", which was in the center of the debris- and earth-filled Roman Forum. As part of an annual fair, horses and donkeys were blessed in the Piazza dell'Esedra in May of every year, a ceremony which has since been rolled into the "Blessing of the Animals" on October 2nd.
The fountain and Koch's two palaces fell into major disrepair over the years, and layers of soot accumulated from passing traffic and from the dozens of tour busses that sat with engines idling before taking of on their daily trips to outlying areas. By 1995 the whole Piazza had achieved a uniform grey-black grunge complexion.
All of that is changed now, thanks to Jubilee and Post Jubilee repairs. The newly cleaned and re-piped fountain was unveiled late in 1999 and waters, for the first time in decades, sprang to their planned heights through new nozzles that replaced the calcium encrusted originals. The northernmost of Koch's two Palazzi had a complete external and internal makeover, and it is once again resplendent. The other Palazzo is almost finished with only some internal remodeling to be completed.
The National Museum has reopened two sections on the Piazza, the Aula Ottagana to the north west and the Museo Nazionale Romano nelle Terme ("in the baths") to the east of the church. A third museum section is in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme one block further east.
The major attraction in the church is the building itself with its vast central hall nearly big enough to hold a football match (100 by 27 meters). There are few paintings and frescoes, but inside the church you can see, inlayed on the marble floor, the vast sundial built by Francesco Bianchini in the first years of the 18th century for Pope Clement XIII. The Clementine meridian line is 45.8 meters long and runes exactly north to south cutting diagonally across the east wing of the transept. (Information and pix at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/2001/page10E.htm). In the west wing is the big (5,400 pipes) new (1999) console organ built by Bartolomeo Formentelli, one of the world's great master organ builders. (Music, pix, and information available on-line at http://www.chsinet.via.t-online.de/organs.htm).
There are big English and other
language bookstores on Via Orlando just where it enters the northwest quadrant
of the Piazza. The Metro B line has a stop at Piazza della Republica and
both A and B lines have a stop at the Termini Station two blocks east.
The station is also a place to find clean restrooms.
More Internet links:
Short description and pix are at: http://www.italycyberguide.com/Geography/cities/rome2000/F11.htm
Italian Language description and pictures: http://www.romainweb.com/gennaio2001.vision.esedra.htm and http://www.underome.com/fontane/f47.html
More pix, description in English
and Italian: http://www.thais.it/citta_italiane/roma/fontane/piazze/piazza_repubblica/pag_01.htm