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Term Paper: Mostre

Mostra: a Celebration of Water

Water, a necessity for life, has always determined where civilizations grow up. Consequently, Rome grew up around the banks of the Tiber and in the hills and valleys surrounding it. “For four hundred and forty-one years from the foundation of the city, the Romans were satisfied with the use of such waters as they drew from the Tiber, from wells, or from springs.”[i] As the population grew and health held a new importance in the form of bathing and the desire for cleaner water increased, these methods of obtaining water soon became inefficient, fueling the invention of the aqueduct to carry water from cleaner sources around the area, into the city of Rome.  Sextus Julius Frontinus dated the first aqueduct back to the year 313 BC. From there the number of aqueducts gradually increase partly at the public expense and partly at the expense of individuals. By the time of Procopius, there were 14 aqueducts. The effort and time put into these structures is unimaginable but the results were and still are celebrated with beautiful displays of water, as well as drinking fountains that continuously flow throughout the city.

“If any one will carefully calculate the quantity of the public supply of water, for baths, reservoirs, houses, trenches, gardens, and suburban villas; and, along the distance which it traverses, the arches built, the mountains perforated, the valleys leveled; he will confess that there never was any thing more wonderful in the whole world.”[ii]

Today the aqueducts are marked with a fountain at their end that celebrates the completion and wealth represented by the water carried to Rome by the aqueduct behind it. These fountains have been given the title of Mostre. But when the aqueducts were first built, a roman bath was built at the end celebrating the completion of the aqueduct and the gift of fresh water. Could these baths in fact be the origin of the fountain as a mostra? And if the baths were in fact the origin of the Celebratory fountains, are the fountains a good translation?

So what makes a fountain a mostra?

This term is connected to the post-classical fountains that were built to commemorate the restoration or extension of an aqueduct. When directly translated mostra means shows or exhibition, giving these fountains the job of showing off the water or creating some sort of water show as a celebration and way of honoring to the aqueduct. According to Acher,

What makes a fountain a mostra is not essentially its size or splendor, but its specific designation as the fountain that is a public memorial to the whole achievement of the aqueduct. Sometimes inscription and decoration support this designation and elaborate the achievement with information and allusion to the builder and of the benefits of the aqueduct’s water. In other cases a fountain is a mostra simply by virtue of an inaugural ceremony and its accepted designation as a particular aqueduct’s display.[iii]

Historically, rulers, popes, cardinals and other men of power began to refurbish and fix public buildings in order to give themselves a better name with the general public. The period during and after the Baroque and Renaissance resulted in the celebration of six of the seven existing aqueducts that still bring water into Rome today, in the form of mostre.

Today we have the fountain at the foot of Monte Mario in the Piazzale degli Eroi, which was inaugurated to celebrate the completion of a major branch of the Acqua Peschiere in 1949. A fountain on the slope of the Pincian Hill above Piazza del Popolo, marks the Acqua Vergine Nuovo completed in the 1930’s. The fountain of the Naiads in Piazza della Repubblia is the mostra for the Acqua Marcia Pia, inaugurated in 1901. These three relatively modern fountains continued the tradition began in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The Trevi Fountain was rebuilt as the mostra of the Aqua Virgo in 1735. The Fontana Paola on the Janiculum hill was inaugurated in 1612 as the mostra of the Aqua Paola. And the first new post-classical mostra is the Fountain of Moses on Largo S. Susanna marking the end of the Acqua Felice.

The Trevi Fountain is the most famous of these mostre but the fountain we see today came after a fountain that was constructed during the Renaissance to provide water to the surrounding areas. During the Renaissance, the Aqua Virgo was the only aqueduct still functioning, and while most of the population was forced to move towards the river, the area around the end site of the aqueduct was able to remain populated as a result of the fountain’s presence. Maintenance of the aqueduct became very important to the neighborhoods surrounding it and the fountain was built for use rather then show or celebration. The original fountain actually faced west and was a simple rectangle with three spouts that drained in a linear fashion. The first was for drinking water and it drained into the second, which was for the animals drinking water and the third for industry such as laundry. Although the exact date of this fountain is uncertain, it is known to have existed prior to 1414 when Taddeo di Bartolo depicted it in a map of Rome in a fresco located in the Palazzo Comunale di Siena.[iv] In 1453 this fountain was replaced by one large basin and given a dedicatory inscription naming the patron, Nicolo V, and the name of the aqueduct that filled it, the Aqua Virgo. This is one possibility for the origin of the tradition of the mostra, although its original intention was not the same as the mostra fountains that succeeded it.

In the early 17th century, Pope Urban VIII asked Pietro da Cortona and Alberto Bernini to make a design for the existing fountain. Part of their plan was to move the fountain’s location in order for it to face south rather then west. This was the only part of their design that survived after the Pope died and both construction and planning for the new fountain stopped. One hundred years later, Pope Clement XIII held a competition for an updated design of the fountain, with a more dramatic and celebratory purpose in mind. Nicola Salvi, a little known poet and architect, won the competition and along with nine sculptors and a number of stonecutters, completed the fountain in 1762. Salvi’s design incorporated the Neo-Classical façade of Palazzo Poli, in the location designated by Bernini. The fountain is now a good example of a mostra, because its design includes not only a dedicatory inscription which consists the coat of arms of the patron, as well as extensive sculptural representations of the celebration and benefits of the water provided by the Aqua Virgo, but also contains sculptures that tell the legend of the source of the Aqua Virgo.

According to legend, as told by Frontinus, Agrippa’s soldiers searched the countryside for the source of the new aqueduct that was to be built to supply water for Agrippa’s baths. The soldiers came upon a young girl who pointed out a spring and when the soldiers dug deeper they discovered a huge supply of water. Batista Grossi and Andrea Bergondi sculpted images from this story on the reliefs above the niches on both sides of he statue of Oceanus in the center.[v] These reliefs help define the Trevi as a mostra.

Although the idea and term Mostre is relatively new, the celebration of water in Rome is not. Aicher comments that,

Rome’s water found a much more elaborate and popular display in the great baths, where all of a mostra’s ornament of statuary, colorful stone, running water, and rhetoric would be present, but on a vaster scale and coupled in addition with recreation.[vi]

Most of the ancient aqueducts were constructed in order to provide water for public or private baths as well as fountains and drinking water for the people. The Aqua Alexandrina ended at the Baths of Nero, the branch of the Aqua Antoniniana supplied water for the Baths of Caracalla and the waters of the aqua Virgo filled the Agripa baths. Trajan built the Aqua Triana to supply his baths as well. The aqua Appia and the Acqua Marcia fed many baths including the Baths of Diocletian as well as those built on the Aventine hill including the Baths of Decius and the smaller Baths of Sura.

When Popes Sixtus V and Paul V, revived the water system of Rome, rather then recreating the baths as the mostre for the restored or new branches of aqueducts, they created the fountains as monuments leaving them with little other use besides being a destination point or something spectacular to look at.

So, were the baths created with similar ideas to that of  mostra in mind? The fountains as well as the baths celebrate the source of water from which it is provided and both types of mostre are magnificent displays of wealth and power. The baths were filled with sculptures, frescos, fountains, mosaics and colorful marble. In addition, the construction of both the fountains and baths were fueled by the desire to better the political image of the patron.

So what is the difference? The ritual of bathing has been lost. Not Bathing in the sense of cleaning one’s self but in the activities that used to occur around the ritual of bathing and the idea of bathing being a social activity verses a private activity now done in the comfort of one’s home.

Before the Baths, Romans only washed their arms and legs after a days work and would wash their entire bodies every nine days. Once the custom of daily bathing in hot baths caught on, Romans started building baths. Men went to the baths after their workday was over and before dinner. Bathing became a ritual beginning with light exercise and then beginning the bathing process of going through rooms that alternated in temperature. This ritual of going from room to room was a long process and therefore became a place to socialize and meet or make friends. As a result, the baths were lively but crowded and noisy. After Bathing, Romans would return home for a long dinner.[vii]

The idea of Mostra, is a celebration of water and the aqueduct that provides it. Lavish decoration and ornamentation often accompanies these grand monuments as well as dedicatory inscriptions displaying the names of the aqueduct and the patron. The Roman Baths contained all of these things while allowing the people to physically celebrate the water by using it. The rooms of the baths were rich with sculpture, colorful marble and mosaics on all surfaces of the rooms. These sculptures and paintings and mosaics would tell stories of the celebration water just like the fountains. The people would also recognize the benefits of the aqueduct every time they stepped into the baths and engaged in the ritual of bathing.

The Baths brought many different atmospheres and rituals together. It was a place for exercise, socializing, cleaning, gathering, and gossiping and in some cases reading and smoking. Today these rituals and atmospheres are created in many different places rather then one specific place. One such atmosphere is created at the Trevi but around a different ritual. Now the people who gather at the fountain are mostly tourists and they gather to take pictures and throw coins into the fountain hoping it will bring them back to Rome or make their wishes for love come true. What is lost, is the local factor as well as the idea of celebration and commemoration in terms of function and use. On a local level, the tradition of apertivo has developed for groups to meet before dinner the way groups would meet at the baths before a dinner party and chat. Bathing is still present in Roman’s everyday life but not on a public level. In fact exercising, another common aspect of the roman baths, is also hidden away at certain parks around the outside of the historical center. It is rare to see a roman exercising on the streets of Rome.

If the roman baths were in fact the origin of the Celebratory fountains, are they a good translation?

This question involves a translation through time, which involves a change of customs and traditions while trying to keep the same initial intention or achieve the same result. For instance the car has come a long way since the Model T Ford. When you compare the original prototype to a current Mercedes sedan you can see that they had similar intentions and achieve the desired result: provide a quicker and comfortable way to get from one point to another. Yet the ritual of driving has changed contributing to the translation of the Model T Ford into the current Mercedes sedan. Both are still modes of transportation as well as markers of wealth, but a car is now used to entertain through movies and radio along with drive through meals. Cars now have trunks and hidden compartments to store things from your sunglasses to your surfboard and has pull down mirrors to do your hair or apply make up. Cars are now built for speed and efficiency and have more gadgets then a swiss army knife, but in the end both cars get you from point A to point B quicker then walking. Does that make the Mercedes sedan a good translation of the Model T Ford?

The roman baths and the celebratory fountains may have had similar intentions of creating lavish displays of water surrounded by ornamentation and decoration commemorating the patron and the newly founded or restored aqueduct, but the roman baths were inspired for use, the fountains were not. The ritual of bathing has changed but the activities that surrounded it have not. These activities however are not necessarily encouraged around the fountains. Perhaps it is not the ritual of bathing that should be analyzed here, but the ritual behind the idea of mostra, or of celebration. Both the baths and fountains are great shows of wealth through their design and appearance, except water in the public realm is now used differently. Although the typical Roman Bath facility could still be used today but rather then being a complex for physical cleansing and socializing, a place for relaxation and emotional cleansing, much like the way the Thermal Baths of Peter Zumthor function today. But instead the bath facilites that still remain today, are used as a tourist point of interest rather then being translated and given a more modern use for today. The bath facilities have become off limits leaving the fountains as mostre one solution to the question of how to translate the Roman Baths as a celebration of water.

[i] Sextus Julius Frontinus, “The Aqueducts of Rome,” trans. Bill Thayer, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/home.html (18 October 2010): 4.

[ii] Pliny the Elder, “The Natural History,” trans. William Smith, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/home.html (18 October 2010): 36.123.

[iii] Peter J. Aicher, “Terminal Display Fountains (“Mostre”) and the Aqueducts of Ancient Rome,” Phoenix 47, no. 4 (1993): 339.

[iv] K. W. Rinne, “Fontana di trevi,” Aqua urbis romae: The Waters of the City of Rome, http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/waters/first.html ( 20 October 2010).

[v] Sara Flood “Aqueducts and the Trevi Fountain,” September 2004, http://honorsaharchive.blogspot.com (19 November 2010).

[vi] Peter J. Aicher, “Terminal Display Fountains (“Mostre”) and the Aqueducts of Ancient Rome,” Phoenix 47, no. 4 (1993): 351.

[vii] For a further description of this ritual see: Kristin Wiederholt, “Baths & Bathing as an Ancient Roman,” September 2004, http://honorsaharchive.blogspot.com (19 November 2010). Garrett G. Fagan, “The Genesis of the Roman Public Bath: Recent approaches and Future Directions,” American Journal of Archaeology 105, no. 3 (2001): 403-426.