22 January 1419 was a defining moment for the urban history of Siena: on this day, Renaissance sculptor Jacopo della Quercia was requested to draft and publicly display his final project for the Fonte Gaia, the monumental fountain in the city’s landmark square, Piazza del Campo.
Located opposite the Palazzo Pubblico, seat of government of the medieval Republic, the Fonte Gaia was both a necessary public service, and a symbol of civic independence and pride. It was first built in 1342, when advances in hydraulic engineering enabled spring water to be channeled from the countryside to the city through 25 kilometers of underground passages, known as Bottini on account of their barrel vaults. The successful completion of this hydraulic network was cause of great celebration in the city, hence the name “Fonte Gaia,” meaning “Joyful Fountain.”
Later in December 1408, the civic government commissioned Jacopo della Quercia to rebuild the fountain. Born in Siena around 1374, Jacopo was already a well-respected and successful artist: in 1400-01, he was invited to participate in the prestigious competition for the bronze doors of the Baptistery in Florence; five years later, he designed the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca, a key work in the development of Renaissance funerary monuments.
As described in the contract signed in December 1408, Jacopo’s first design for the new Fonte Gaia emphasized the role of the Virgin, traditionally considered the city’s protectress, and explored the theme of Good Government, evoking the famous fresco painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Council Room of the Palazzo Pubblico in the late 1330s.
This first contract was modified in January 1409 to include a larger number of figures, as shown by its accompanying drawing, now divided between New York and London. The new project included statues of the twins Romulus and Remus, together with their biological and adoptive mothers Rhea Silvia and Acca Laurentia. Thus, the fountain celebrated Siena’s founding myth, which connected the origins of the city to Romulus’ son Senus.
This scheme was altered yet again in 1415, when it was decided to build a rectangular basin, surrounded by low walls on three sides, and decorated with multiple spouts and shallow niches containing large-scale figures in high relief.
This design was finally confirmed on 22 January 1419, when Jacopo was required to realize a new drawing of the whole structure, and to display it on the wall of the Palazzo Pubblico. This suggests that very little of the fountain had been built by this time. Indeed, Jacopo had been engaged in commissions elsewhere in Italy, and especially in the decoration of the Trenta Chapel in S. Frediano, Lucca. Nevertheless, the pace of construction picked up during 1419, and Jacopo received his final payment for the fountain towards the end of the year.
Unfortunately, Jacopo’s lively high-reliefs were carved in a soft and porous stone which was quickly damaged by water. In the mid-19th century, the fountain was replaced with a copy, sculpted by Tito Sarrocchi in 1858-1869. What remains of the original fountain by Jacopo della Quercia is kept in the museum of Santa Maria della Scala.
Reference: Elinor M. Richter. “Jacopo della Quercia.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T043135.
Tito Sarrocchi after Jacopo della Quercia, Fonte Gaia fountain, marble, 1858–1869. Piazza del Campo, Siena
View of Piazza del Campo, Siena
Jacopo della Quercia, Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, 1406-1408, marble. Cattedrale di San Martino, Lucca
Design for the left side of the Fonte Gaia, 1415-16, pen and brown ink on parchment. Metropolitan Museum, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1949.
Design for the right side of the Fonte Gaia, 1415-16, pen and brown ink on parchment. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Dyce Bequest.
Virgin and Child from the Fonte Gaia, 1414-1419, Montagnola Sense marble. Museum of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.
Rhea Silvia with Romulus and Remus from the Fonte Gaia, 1414-1419, Montagnola Sense marble. Museum of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.
Acca Laurentia with Romulus and Remus from the Fonte Gaia, 1414-1419, Montagnola Sense marble. Museum of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.
Trenta Altar, 1422, marble. San Frediano, Lucca.