This unique Fountain, almost a symbol of the town of L'Aquila, is certainly one of the best-known monuments in Abruzzi. Historically, the number 99 seems to have been associated to the city and the Fountain some time after the construction.
The Fountain is situated a few hundred yards from the railway station, in the Piazza San Vito, immediately inside the Porta della Rivera in the XIV-century city walls, opposite the small Romanesque Church of St. Vito. Just like with the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the sound of flowing water is really impressive and can already be heard from afar.
The fountain is an irregular trapezoidal figure, with the four corners placed in the directions of the four compass points, the left-side corner being North.
The walls surrounding the fountain were built with red and white stones which were probably taken from nearby Genzano di Sassa and closely resemble the stones of the facade of St. Mary of Collemaggio, which was completed about the same time. The square stones are placed in 13 rows, alternating a red and a white stone, creating a kind of chessboard pattern.
All along the perimeter are 93 spouts jutting out of stone faces, placed at man's height, so that an average-height adult would be face-to-face with the stone figures, and about one metre from each other, separated by red stone square tiles (but 6 of these separating stones are white) all having a flower in relief but one, and along the right side, which is longer than the left, also by a further small rectangular tile with a diamond figure in relief; 6 more spouts possibly added later are situated in a lower position to the right corner of the entrance. In a 1578 renovation lower basins were added, to make it easier for women to wash their laundry.
A Latin inscription with an eagle at the top is engraved in an ancient stone on the front wall of the fountain.
The inscription gives 1272 as the year when the fountain was probably completed, which date, if accepted, would mean possibly a 5-10 years work. The project was by Tancredi from Pentima (present day Corfinio, the ancient pre-Roman town where the name Italia was first used) and Valva was a monastery of the Cistercensian order, which means Tancredi may have been a monk himself.
In 1578 the lowest basins were added to allow women to do their washing there; the clothes were rubbed with soap and left on the fountain stairways under the sun in order to obtain a thoroughly white washing, and as a consequence the stairways were always slippery. In 1657, at the time of the great plague which killed four Aquilans out of ten, four big boilers were placed in the fountain courtyard to sterilize the clothes of the whole city. Under happier occasions, banquets used to be held in the honour of some very important persons.
The name "99 spouts" started to be used only decades after the foundation, probably when Buccio da Ranallo wrote his poem in vernacular on the origin of the town; the inscription in the fountain does not mention the number 99, and the fountain was known originally as the Fontana della Rivera, Rivera being the quarter placed at lower altitude in the town, bordering the river Aterno.
Buccio wrote that the fountain was a kind of "memorial monument" for the founders, 99 castles (actually no more than 80) in the Aquilan Valley which joined to build the new town (the "urbs nova" of the inscription), each building a square with a church and a fountain surrounded by houses, and moving the population from the village of the original castle to the newly-founded city.
The monument is therefore closely connected to the origins of L'Aquila, and marked the importance of the area near the river for the newborn community, not only as a source of water but also because it allowed leather and wool crafts to flourish. The Rivera quarter had a spring of clear, perennial waters, which were channeled during the construction of the fountain. The actual location of the spring is lost and no more traceable, being the area all built up in the following centuries.
Another legend says that under a stone much bigger than the others the architect Tancredi was buried, after being executed because (different versions are given) either he refused to reveal the location of the spring, or in order that he would never reveal the location of the spring, or because, being asked whether he would be able to build another similar fountain, he said sure, he would.
How many are the 99 spouts?
In 1742 Antonio Ludovico Antinori, who wrote a commentary to the Cronaca by Aquilan poet Buccio di Ranallo, wrote that the spouts were 93, all jutting out of as many stone faces (representing mythological figures, friars, male and female characters, satyres, warriors, animals) all different from one another. Actually the number 99 for the spouts (but not for the stone faces), can be obtained only adding 6 spouts jutting directly from a stone placed in a lower position to the right corner of the entrance, and it is not sure these 6 spouts existed in origin.
The mysteries of the fountain
Many questions rise from the fountain, and scholars and historians have given interesting and impressive theories to explain.
- What do the stone faces represent, and is there a logical sequence in them or are they just casually placed?
- Why are 6 of the separating stones white, and is there a logic in their position?
- Why only one of the 6 stones has no flower in relief, but a motif that looks like a sun or an eye?
- What is the symbolic meaning of the "corner stone" placed in the south corner, so much different from the others, representing a fish with a human face?
- What is the meaning of the numbers underlying the construction project - 93, 6, 13, and of course the legendary 99?
Among the most interesting theories that try to offer solutions to the mysteries is a chapter "La Fontana Battesimale dei Templari" included in the book "La Rivelazione dell'Aquila" by P.Cautilli and L.Ceccarelli, which gives a fascinating scenario of the fountain as the location for the investiture of Templar knights and connected to Whitsuntide rites, astrology, astronomy and mythology, and embedding the knowledge of mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci and astrologer Michael Scotus, 2 scientists at the court of Frederick II of Swabia, the founder of Aquila, the "urbs nova" that in the emperor's plans was to become a counterpart to the "corrupt" Rome.
La Rivelazione dell'Aquila, published by di Luca Ceccarelli and Paolo Cautilli in 2009
The mysteries of L'Aquila (in Italian), seminal studies on the foundation and historical background to the monuments of the town, below a the YouTube trailer of the documentary -movie based on the book.