Fontana della Barcaccia Gian Lorenzo Bernini Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Fontana della Barcaccia, or The Fountain of an Old Boat, is situated in the popular Piazza di Spagna at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

This piece of work was commissioned by Pope Urban VII in 1623 as part of a project to have a centrepiece in each of the major piazzas of Rome. The work was completed by Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1627 and 1629.

The Fontana della Barcaccia was inspired by the great flood of 1598 when the River Tiber burst its banks and all of Rome was under water. During this time it was only possible to get around the city by boat, and when the water level later subsided, an old boat was left in the Piazza di Spagna. This was the inspiration for the fountain - a diversion from the more common religious or political themes of the day. Bernini enjoyed exploring natural and free-form work as an alternative subject.

Bernini was famous for working in a Baroque style, one that is usually highly ornate and decorated, but the Fontana della Barcaccia, built in a pale-coloured travertine, is fairly restrained in comparison to some of the artist’s other work. Decoration on this particular sculpture has been kept to a minimal, although there is the papal crest carved into the front of the vessel, but the overall feel of the fountain is quite simple and understated.

The boat has an overladen, fat quality to it mainly due to the wideness of structure and the way it sits low, half-sunken in the surrounding water. This could be a reflection of the wealth of Rome and sumptuous way of life to be enjoyed there. Water spills from several places on the boat into the surrounding basin making it appear over indulged and stuffed to the brim. Water cascades from the centre, from middle of a sun face, and over the curved sides of the vessel. There is a general lazy and sleepy quality to the work.

This fountain has been vandalised on at least two separate occasions. In 2007, four intoxicated individuals damaged the papal coat of arms with a screwdriver before being arrested. It was restored in 2014 thanks to hefty private investment, but shortly after several Dutch football hooligans caused more damage by throwing rubbish at the fountain in a clash with police in 2015.

Bernini's other fountains of note include the Triton Fountain, an elaborate piece of work that is located in Rome’s Piazza Barberini. Also in the same square is Bernini's Fontana delle Api, or Bee Fountain, which is a more simple structure depicting the beloved insects. Arguably the artist’s most-loved fountain is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi with depictions of The Ganges, The Rio de la Plata, The Danube and The Nile within this highly decorated work. In the centre is a tall obelisk creating a striking sculpture that is hard to miss in the Piazza Navona.