Food, Wine, Nymphs and Saints. Perugia’s Coolest Fountain

on May 12, 2017

The Fontana Maggiore sits smack dab in the middle of Perugia’s main square—Piazza IV Novembre and is surrounded on all sides by the mother lode of ancient buildings and crossroads. A quick stop to admire the fountain puts visitors to Perugia within easy striking distance of some of the city’s main historical sights and museums like the National Gallery of Umbria (Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria), The Etruscan Well (Pozzo Etrusco) and La Casa Museo di Palazzo Sorbello (a house museum) to name just a few.

Designed by the architect and Benedictine monk Fra Bevignate, the Fontana Maggiore was built between 1275 and 1278 by a father and son team of sculptors, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. Its original purpose was to transport water from nearby Monte Pacciano via a newly completed aqueduct. This fountain is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of medieval Italian sculpture. So let me take a brief moment to describe its intricate design, beautifully sculpted in earthy tones of pink and cream-colored marble.

Two, concentrically stacked, polygonal marble basins contain 50 bas-reliefs and 24 statues with depictions of the agrarian calendar (hooray for food and wine), the signs of the zodiac, representations of the liberal arts plus an all-star cast of saints and allegorical figures. Detailed, bronze faucets fashioned into various animal heads eject continuous streams of water into the lower marble basin. The fountain’s crowning glory is a bronze basin on top supporting a trio of nymphs—because, let’s be honest folks, every medieval fountain needs some strategically placed nymphs! Representing the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, I’m sorry to disappoint but our nymphs are fully clothed in flowing bronze gowns.

Over the centuries, however the aqueduct failed so often in its mission to feed the fountain that one of Perugia’s mayors famously said it brought more expenses than water. Thanks to modern plumbing, nowadays when the weather permits you can sit on the steps of San Lorenzo cathedral and as the water splashes freely down, relax and enjoy some of the best people watching in Umbria.

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