Perugia: Fontana Maggiore

Fontana Maggiore.

Perhaps the most beautiful monument in all of Perugia can be found out in the open, on the Piazza IV Novembre between the cathedral of the city and the Palazzo dei Priori. The Fontana Maggiore dates from the end of the thirteenth century. Although its bronze parts have probably been replaced with copies, I have a strong feeling that the marble decorations are still original. That would in any case explain why the fountain is surrounded by a fence. Several craftsmen were involved in the construction of the Fontana Maggiore between 1275 and 1278:

  • The design is attributed to Fra Bevignate. He was a Benedictine monk who later also worked on the Duomo of Orvieto and then returned to Perugia to work on the (old) cathedral of that city.
  • The engineer Boninsegna Veneziano was responsible for the water supply system. He had also built a new aqueduct that provided Perugia with fresh water.
  • The bronze decorations are the work of Rosso Padellaio, an otherwise unknown bronze caster. They consist of a bronze basin with a sculpture group that probably represents water nymphs. Behind the fountain one sees a griffin and a lion, the symbols of Perugia, affixed to the façade of the Palazzo dei Priori. Here the originals have certainly been replaced with replicas, and it seems quite likely that the same happened to the bronze parts of the fountain.
  • The marble statues and reliefs are the work of Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220-1284) and his son Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1250-1315). Both sculptors and their works have been discussed on this website many times. Nicola for instance made the pulpits for the Baptistery of Pisa and the cathedral of Siena, while Giovanni was responsible for, among other things, a pulpit in the cathedral of Pisa, a pulpit in the church of Sant’Andrea in Pistoia and statues for the tomb of Enrico Scrovegni in Padova.

The Fontana Maggiore on the Piazza IV Novembre.

The fountain is composed of three parts: a large polygonal marble basin at the bottom, a smaller polygonal marble basin above it and a copper basin at the top. There is a layer of water in the top two basins, which reaches the lower basin through bronze gargoyles. The lower basin is decorated with 25 sculpted reliefs. On these the twelve months of the year have been depicted, but also the liberal arts, Biblical scenes and stories from Roman mythology. In this post I have included images of the months of October, November and December. On the reliefs we see several activities associated with these specific months. In October, people made and filled casks, in November they ploughed and sowed, and in December they killed a pig for the winter. The details of the reliefs are beautiful. Note for instance the emaciated dog that tries to get a piece of pork. What is interesting, is that in other Italian cities the killing of animals for the winter apparently took place in a different month. In Parma, for instance, the killing of a pig was associated with the month of November.

October (with the sign of Scorpio) and November (with the sign of Sagittarius).

December (with the sign of Capricorn) and the symbols of Perugia, a lion and griffin.

The months are always accompanied by the relevant signs of the zodiac, in this case Scorpio, Sagittarius and Capricorn. To the right of December the lion and griffin have been depicted, the symbols of the city of Perugia (see above). Also included in this post is an image featuring six of the eight liberal arts: rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy and philosophy. The next reliefs feature Biblical scenes about the expulsion from Paradise, Samson and Delilah, and David and Goliath. Lastly, there are the reliefs with mythological stories about Romulus and Remus and fables of the Greek poet Aesop.

Liberal arts (below) and statues of saints and other figures (above).

The second basin is adorned by 24 statues of saints, personifications, Biblical figures and historical celebrities. In the image below we for instance see Saint Peter (left), the Church of Rome (eclesia Romana; centre) and Rome as capital of the world (Roma capud mundi; right). The figures in the image above are, from left to right, king David[1], Moses, Matteo da Correggio, Saint Michael the Archangel, Eulistes, Melchizedek and lastly Ermanno da Sassoferrato. Some of these figures probably need further introduction. Matteo III da Correggio (ca. 1230-1290) was podestà (potentate) of Perugia when the statues were made. Eulistes is the legendary founder of Perugia, presumably based on an Etruscan leader named Aulestes who is named in Vergilius’ Aeneis (Book 10.207). Ermanno da Sassoferrato, lastly, was capitano del Popolo of Perugia when the fountain was built.

Saint Peter, the Church of Rome and Rome as capital of the world.


[1] My travel guide claims the figure represents Salome, but the figure actually has a beard and harp, so he must be king David. Salome holding the head of Saint John the Baptist can be found elsewhere.

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