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Giulio Castelli's Fountain

[image ALT: A wall of neatly squared stone blocks somewhat irregularly disposed, consisting of a base about the height of a single-story house, topped by a central portion a further story in height, rising in a curved line from disks or volutes at the ends, to a sort of pediment at the top at either end of which stands a small thin obelisk, and in the center a human figure appearing to rise from waves. About half the upper story is occupied in its center by a square plaque, bearing an inscription, surmounted by an elaborate coat of arms. At ground level, a statue of a male river deity reclines on a plinth; to either side, thin streams of water flow from lion-faced spouts into stone basins. In front of this fountain, several large pots of flowers profusely blooming. It is the Fontana Castelli in Polino, Umbria (central Italy).]

The main square of Polino is dominated by this early‑17c fountain which its little crowning obelisks and especially the large ungainly volutes mark as a production of the Mannerist/Baroque transitional style. The monumental limestone structure overshadows the little building on the right, which the coat of arms identifies as the town hall; and even more so the church, offscreen left and modestly tucked away on its own tiny piazzetta. It is meant to impress, and, in a village of two hundred inhabitants, succeeds; but even elsewhere it would not pass unnoticed.

[image ALT: Against a distant backdrop of a forested hill, a stone statue of a human figure, probably female, crowned and wearing a cape, looking medieval. She stands facing us, her arms open and thus spreading her cape behind her; her hands are now missing. We don't see her legs: she appears to rise from a mass of water. More information is given in the caption on this webpage.]

While at the base of the fountain we have a reclining male river deity patterned on the famous Marforio in Rome, here at the top of the monument a crowned figure of less definite gender is shown emerging from what appears to be a mass of water: male or female is hard to tell, bearing in mind medieval dress. Printed sources seem to claim the figure as that of Queen Joan I of Naples, in commemoration of her benefactions to Polino. I don't know whether to be convinced or not — in part because when the fountain was built, the town was in the papal realms and the Kingdom of Naples was on the other side of the mountain — but then I haven't read the literature.

A large squarish inscription is surmounted by Polino's surprisingly complex coat of arms.

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The true ancient arms of Polino were merely a version of what we see in the central inescutcheon: a three-towered castle surmounted by a fleur‑de‑lis. Here we have what came to supplant them, the arms of the Castelli family (for which see the blazoning and clear color redrawing at Araldica Italiana). The first quarter accounts most of the complexity, being in turn quartered per pale of the arms of Aragon, Hungary, Anjou, and Jerusalem; the second quarter in its way is no more bashful than the first, if in a different way: it gives us a lion and a wolf each devouring a baby.

Curiously, the nine-pointed crown marks the arms as those merely of a count, whereas as we shall see, Polino was erected a marquisate, a higher rank.

(You can get a closer look at the arms here.)

The handsome inscription, carved in hard-wearing travertine, that occupies the center of the monument, is well worth reading:

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Fontem vivv̅ · salientis · aqvae · pvritate

Apvd · oppidanos · celeberrimvm

Ivlivs · II · Castellvs · de · Sto · Evstachio

ab · Nahartivm · Principibvs

Marchionis · Io: Fran[s]ci · fils

Marchionis · Io: Bapte · nep

Baro · Romanvs

Castri · Fortis · Marchio · V

Castri · M · Comes

Pvlinentivm · Regvlvs · pets

Pvblice · commoditati

hic · dvci · exornariqve

M ·

A · D · M · D · C · XV ·


Deo Optimo Maximo

Fontem vivum salientis aquae puritate apud oppidanos celeberrimum

Julius II Castellus de Sancto Eustachio ab Nahartium principibus, Marchionis Iohannis Francisci filius, Marchionis Iohannis Baptistae nepos, Baro Romanus, Castri Fortis Marchio V, Castri Melacii Comes,

Pulinentium Regulus perpetuus publice commoditati hic duci exornarique mandavit



The live spring, held most famous by the inhabitants of this fortified town for the purity of its rushing water

Giulio II Castelli di Sant' Eustachio, from among the leading citizens of Terni, son of Marchese Gianfrancesco, grandson of Marchese Giambattista, Roman baron, Marchese of Castel Forte, Count of Castel Melace,

Perpetual Governor of the people of Polino, ordered that for the general convenience it be brought here and adorned.


Elsewhere online, and apparently in print, the fountain is said to be dated 1625, but that's a mistake due to misreading a fancy interpunct: M · D · C · XV · was read by someone as M · D · CXXV · A larger copy of the photo makes it quite clear.

At first blush, this inscription is straightforward: a nobleman, governor for life of a little town, channels the waters of a mountain spring and brings them to a convenient fountain to benefit the inhabitants.

But since people who spend good money on beautifully carved long inscriptions mean for us to read them, let's parse this one out.

The most striking feature of the inscription is that fully half of it is taken up by Giulio's titulature and ancestry.

A bit of that is par for the period. The most famous example in the world, in fact, is dated just three years earlier, the inscription on the façade of St. Peter's in the Vatican, following much the same pattern: "In honor of the Prince of the Apostles, Paul V Borghese of Rome, Pope, in the year 1612 and of his pontificate the seventh"; with Bvrghesivs in the center, smack over the main door. (Keep that Pope in mind, we'll come to him again.)

But the inscription in Polino seems to be overkill, and my initial gut reaction was that there's more than a whiff of insecurity when you tout yourself so much; whereupon immediately my own caution flag went up: was I reading too much into it?

Well, no, even if I was somewhat surprised to see my instinct confirmed: the titles listed are not from time immemorial, but had been granted just five years earlier by Pope Paul V to his father, and — most unusually — to his grandfather posthumously; whence their appearance here, by name.

Giulio's insecurity was justified. A few years later, in 1640, we see a pamphlet the title of which starts to tell us the story: Risposta in difesa delli Signori Marchesi Castelli di Terni Data ad un foglio stampato in Ronciglione (Rome, printed by Lodovico Grignani, 1640, 32pp), "Reply in defense of the Lords Marquesses Castelli of Terni Given to a pamphlet (or broadsheet) printed in Ronciglione" — to the effect that the Castelli family was like everybody else, and entitled to no particular precedence or nobility; which of course the Risposta proceeds to demolish, detailing their prominence in Terni, and genealogies and high honors over nine generations.

These particular titles of the Castelli family were much more recent, however. On pp13‑14 of the Risposta we have a transcription of Pope Paul's grant of them dated July 10, 1610, in which it appears that the mysterious Castrum Forte, in Italian Castel Forte, is Polino itself, sort of — the Pope deciding to rename the place. That too is mysterious: until we read in Angeloni's Storia di Terni (1646) that the hamlet of Pietraforte, now part of the comune of Pozzaglia Sabina near Rieti, had been bought by Giulio's father who then flipped it quickly, reselling it in 1612 to Marcantonio II Borghese, nephew of . . . Pope Paul; Angelini goes on to say (p192 of the editio princeps p295 f. in the 1878 edition in which spelling, vocabulary, and punctuation are modernized, in one spot erroneously):

Comperò ne' seguenti anni Gio: Battista sudetto la Giurisdittione di Pietraforte, vicino a Rieti: ma poscia rivendutola, prese in più fiate, da vari Spoletini, che n'erano Padroni, l altra del Castello di Polino, posto sù le Montagne, di verso Leonessa; e per Chirografo di Papa Paolo V. ne spedì il titolo di Conte di Melace Castello diruto, & di Marchese della Rocca mentovata Castelforte,º posseduta hoggi da Giulio di lui Nepote, e di Gio: Francesco figliuolo: come anche Gio: Battista, e PierFrancesco di esso Giulio fratelli, ornati furono, l'uno della Croce di S. Stefano, e l'altro, di quella di Malta. . .

In the years following, the abovementioned Giovanni Battista bought the jurisdiction of Pietraforte, near Rieti: but having sold it after that, took charge, by piecemeal transactions from several people of Spoleto that were lords of it, of the castle of Polino, situated on the mountains toward Leonessa; and by a formal note of Pope Paul V acquired the title of Count of Melace, a ruined castle, and of Marchese of said fortress Castelforte, which today is owned by Giulio his grandson and Giovanni Francesco his son: and also Giovanni Battista and Pierfrancesco, brothers of that same Giulio, were decorated, one with the Cross of S. Stefano, and the other with that of Malta. . .

(my translation)

In sum, Giulio, of a family not safe from pamphlets rightly or wrongly impugning its nobility, coming into control of the little town of Polino just five years earlier as part of a series of real estate transactions which favored the upward mobility of the Pope's family, was setting his seal on the place by a benefaction and a bit of propaganda.


The injection of Giulio's noble pedigree has an odd effect on the inscription. Latinists reading it are given the first word in the accusative, and have to wait eleven lines! to read the verb it goes with: and then! the principal verb of the sentence only appears in the line after that, as the initial letter .

This puzzled me for thirty-six hours solid: why, after the fulsome self-glorification, would this particular word be so modest? until I actually looked at the inscription. It pays to look, to pay attention: and sure enough, we can see that in the last section, itself maybe added as an afterthought, to judge by the fact that it's on a separate block of stone, lines 1‑3 and 5 are beautifully spaced: but line 4, with our , is not. I think the line was originally blank, just a space to set off the date, as we commonly see elsewhere; until someone realized that there was no principal verb! So  was added, the anomalous spacing barely noticeable; but if they'd crammed in mandavit, the result would have been very ugly. There's no arcane meaning to the abbreviation, especially none that runs counter to the tone established in the thirteen preceding lines. The word immediately before it explains it best: he ordered that the work be beautified: exornari.

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Site updated: 17 Apr 18