The secrets of the Fonte Gaia of Siena: on the original 15th century fountain’s trail

Fonte Gaia of Siena: a Renaissance fountain in a medieval square

Siena is a city known for its architectural beauties and for the Palio of the Contrade which is held every year in a square known as Piazza del Campo. The latter is a place of great suggestion, praised by visitors from all over the world; it’s thanks to its slightly concave shape and its contour line reminiscent of a trapezoid that the square has become a real icon of the city in the world. The so-called Palazzo Pubblico completes the elegant environment of the square; the building dates to  Middle Ages and it was the old Siena government headquarter. In this day the palace houses the Civic museum, one of the most important in the town.

Although together with Palazzo Pubblico Piazza del Campo forms one of the most interesting Middle Ages urban examples, a few people note that in this place is where there is a fountain that is an interesting example of early Renaissance sculpture, as well as an admirable work of street furniture. This fountain is called “Fonte Gaia” and is located opposite the Palazzo Pubblico. Commissioned by the Officiali di Balia and by the Capitano del Popolo of the Republic of Siena to replace a previous fountain dating back to the mid-14th century, the work was created by the sculptor Jacopo della Quercia who completed it in 1419. The artist represented in the reliefs of this fountain the Virgin and Child flanked by the theological and cardinal Virtues. The mere fact to find an iconography such as the Virtues’ in a public fountain suggests that here we are not faced with a simple street furniture work rather with a complex of images that hides a particular symbolism that escapes at first sight.

Virgin and child of the Loggia dei Nove, 1340,  Ambrogio Lorenzetti

In search of the secrets of the Fonte

Let’s start discovering some of the secrets of the Fonte Gaia in Piazza del Campo by observing its shape: some scholars have stressed that this fountain does not resemble in shape – as well as in iconography – to the others built until then, rather it is reminiscent of the ancient furnishings of the Palazzo Pubblico halls, where the city government members once met. Fonte Gaia would, therefore, look like a large seat, a reminder that is motivated by the fact the arrangement of the figures in the Fonte Gaia was drew inspiration from work with the same subject painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti for the Loggia dei Nove in Palazzo Pubblico, a picture that, in all probability, is the same one mentioned in a 1340 chronicle by Agnolo di Tura who described it as Madonna with the cardinal virtues. Although today there is no longer any way to appreciate the fresco in its entirety, since it is mutilated of the Virtues that were to be depicted under the Madonna, the similarity of the sculptures of the Fonte Gaia with the Lorenzetti’s painting is evident, precisely because of the large seat on which Virgo She is sitting.

fonte gaia of siena

Detail of the Fonte Gaia in Piazza del Campo, Siena

The great importance that at that time was given to the Virtues’ theme in such context as that of Siena finds its reasons in the intention to emphazise the noblest values ​​to which government administrators were to be inspired. Already in the 14th century, the Virtues had been taken as a model for the frescoes of the Good Government by Lorenzetti and later, at the turn of the 15th century and always in the Palazzo Pubblico, the series of Men of Antiquity painted by Taddeo di Bartolo. Together with the figures sculpted by Jacopo for Fonte Gaia, the three commissions that are located a few meters from each other make an “ideal path based on the concept of the ‘common good'” which opposed the internal struggles and the discord that threatened peace and stability of the Republic. The various references and allusions to high political and ethical values ​​show how the Fonte Gaia in Siena is one of those spokesman commissions in a particular cultural and political season in the history of Siena and which, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was enriched with ‘humanistic’ suggestions that then went on to build the myth of the ‘noble’ origins of the city.

The ancient Fonte Gaia

It is surprising to know that, among the suggestions of the humanistic culture of the early 15th century, some are hidden in the iconography of the Fonte Gaia. To discover them, it is necessary to trace the original fountain, the one dating back to the 15th century. Well, yes, almost nobody, in fact, knows that the fountain that in this day can be seen in Piazza del Campo is not the original by Jacopo della Quercia but a faithful 19th-century copy made by Tito Sarrocchi to replace the original. The importance of seeing Jacopo della Quercia’s original marbles lies not only in admiring sculptures of extraordinary charm and evocative power – although they have not been preserved in an excellent state –, but also because in the 15th-century version some of the secrets of Fonte Gaia can be uncovered, a thing that is not otherwise appreciable in the 19th-century copy.

fonte gaia of siena

Rea Silvia, original Fonte Gaia, 1419, Jacopo della Quercia

It’s the case, for example, of two statues featuring female figures not reproduced in Tito Sarrocchi’s version. What do the two statues represent? A comparison with the contemporary and previous literary testimonies to the Fonte Gaia’s execution allowed to identify the two sculptures with Rea Silvia and Acca Larenzia. The two figures belong to the Roman mythology’s world and are particularly linked to the birth of Romulus and Remus, the two twins who traditionally were the Rome’s founders and were fed by a she-wolf. According to tradition, Romulus and Remus were born from Rea Silvia, a priestess who had dedicated her life to the goddess Vesta’s cult; punished for breaking the vow of chastity by lying with Mars, Rea Silvia was buried alive after giving birth to the twins who were entrusted to the care of the prostitute Acca Larenzia. The fragmentary state of conservation of the original marbles does not allow us to see the work by Jacopo della Quercia in its entirety.

Nevertheless, a careful study has highlighted an interesting comparison with two drawings preserved one at the Metropolitan Museum in NewYork and the other at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in which sketches of a project for Fonte Gaia are recognized. 

The original Fonte Gaia pieces by Jacopo della Quercia. On the left: Rea Silvia and Acca Larenzia’s statues

In the New York drawing, the figure of Acca Larenzia is accompanied by a monkey, an animal that in medieval symbology alluded to the sin of lust, while Rea Silvia is accompanied by a dog as can be seen in the London drawing; in this context, the animal would symbolize the domestic sphere of which the goddess Vesta was the protectress – and Rea Silvia was precisely a priestess of Vesta.

Why “Fonte Gaia”?

At this point, the question that spontaneously arises is what would such iconography of Rea Silvia and Acca Larenzia have to do with the mythical origins of Siena? To get closer to another one of the secrets of the “Fonte Gaia”, it must be considered another element that has not been analyzed yet: the name of the fountain. Contrary to popular belief, “Gaia” would not simply be a reference to the gaiety – or joy –  that in the mid-14th century, after about ten years of work, the Sienese people felt for seeing the water flowing in Piazza del Campo. It seems that,  instead, the name given to the fountain is symptomatic of the ‘humanistic’ suggestions of those first decades of the 15th century, when the cultural environment of Siena was animated by personalities such as Enea Silvio Piccolomini (the Pious II to be) or Francesco Patrizi, the latter author of an epigram in which he nostalgically evoked the image of Siena by describing one of the figures of the Fonte Gaia (Acca Larenzia) whom he calls Ilia, mother of the Quirini twins.

Detail of an Angel of the original Fonte Gaia

And it is always on the basis of this typical propensity of the humanist period – the era in which it was attempted to trace the mythical origins of Siena and to combine them with those of Rome – that it can be understood how the name of Gaia was given to the fountain in analogy with the mythical Roman world. According to the ancient authors Pliny and Gellio, a girl named Gaia Taracia or Fuferzia was who donated the Campo Marzio to the Romans.

Saying this, the suggestive connection between Gaia and “Campo” obviously becomes immediate. The term “Campo” with which it has begun to be called the square where the fountain is located; then it must be reminded that it is always in the humanistic era when the idea the current Piazza del Campo was the ancient forum of the city in Roman times began to be asserted. Another account related to the name of Gaia – probably known by the ancient Romans – was taken up in a poem by Giovanni Marrasio, a writer from Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s circle who put the heroine Tanaquilla, later also called Gaia, in relation with the Fonte Gaia.

According to information that would have come to the poet from the muse Talia, thanks to the fact that he had ‘tasted’ the “Gaie” waters, Tanaquilla would have become a more honest girl. The knowledge of this story among the Sienese intellectuals of the 15th century is of no secondary importance since it helps to understand the role given to literary sources for artistic commissions. Proof of this is the fact that Marrasio’s version of Tanaquilla / Gaia not only could contribute to giving a new name to the fountain in Piazza del Campo but it was also the iconographic subject for a decoration created in 1519 by Domenico Beccafumi for the chamber of Francesco Petrucci, the Magnificent Pandolfo Petrucci’s grandson.

Biblical and profane themes of the Fonte Gaia

Another of the secrets of the Fonte Gaia is that, in addition to the representation of the Virtues which already found its ideological precedents in the Palazzo Pubblico, Creation of Adam and Eve and the Banishment of the Progenitors from the earthly Paradise are among the Jacopo della Quercia’s reliefs.

These two scenes, that in their meaning seem apparently disconnected from the rest of the iconographic program, would actually find a connection with the other figures thanks to their ‘humanistic’ reinterpretation which would see the theme of Creation as a reference to the origins of Rome: as well as the origins of humanity, even the origins of Rome were ‘generated by sin’; the sin was that committed by the vestal Rea Silvia who broke the vow of chastity and by Acca Larenzia who “prostituted herself”. 

fonte gaia of siena

Virgin and Child of the original Fonte Gaia

But spiritual salvation was made possible through the redemption made concrete by the Virgin with Christ; in the civic context, this redemption was symbolized by the Virtues and it was perpetuated in earthly life through religious and intellectual practice, as for example with the exercise of the ‘public good’. This was a perspective that combined positive and negative values, in a way similar to how Ambrogio Lorenzetti had done in the Good Government in the Palazzo Pubblico. In the case of Fonte Gaia, the combination of sacred and ‘profane’ figures was part of that Christian humanism in which the virtues of the ancients – represented for example in the Men of antiquity painted by Taddeo di Bartolo – are embodied by the principles of the Man-God come to redeem humankind.

Where is the original Fonte Gaia?

Even only through these brief references to the iconography of the Fonte Gaia of Siena, it cannot fail to be fascinated by the many suggestions of this fountain whose copy in Piazza del Campo helps to perceive the arrangement of the original in space – albeit the original was arranged slightly differently from the current one – though not to grasp the elegance and grace of the details that were not reproduced in the 19th version, owing to of the influence of academism in the 19the century art that tended to reinterpreting the medieval and Renaissance models into more ‘courtly’ but also more icy tones. Although in some cases they are fragmentary, the original fountain marbles have a might and an elegance that are typical of Jacopo della Quercia’s manner, an artist who created an original dialogue in sculpture between late Gothic and Renaissance novelties. But where is it possible to admire the original reliefs of Fonte Gaia?

To find out it, book a guided tour of Siena where, besides to see the great attractions of the town such as Piazza del Campo and the Cathedral of Siena, you will discover where the original Fonte Gaia is kept. During the tour, you will be able to see both where the ‘pink marbles’ of Jacopo della Quercia are kept and know the symbolism of the fountain which, in addition to what has been said so far, has many other hidden messages awaiting to be revealed: for example, another one curious thing about the iconography of this fountain is the presence of an eighth Virtue in addition to the canonical sects. What is this eighth Virtue and what would be its symbolism in the context of the other figures featured by Jacopo della Quercia? This is another of the Fonte Gaia secrets ⟣


M.Caciorgna, R.Guerrini, Alma Sena: percorsi iconografici nell’arte e nella cultura senese, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Gruppo MPS, Siena, 2007, pp. 130-145 (Italian edition)