Historical Valletta Fountains: Exploring How It All Started With The Wignacourt Aqueduct
by Tiziana Micallef
Malta and Gozo may very well be famous for their picturesque beaches, megalithic temples and ancient monuments of the past world. But, as you roam deeper around the streets of the fortified capital city of Valletta you'll be able to appreciate more. It's not just about witnessing stunning architecture, but also about discovering a set of iconic fountains that add a magical sparkle to Valletta's historic streets. With their ancient connection to the Wignacourt Aqueduct and meticulous designs, the fountains of Valletta are an artistic journey to take on to discover the fascinating story behind – making them more than just the traditional water points they once were.
The Fountains' Early Days
Although there might have already been places around Malta and Gozo from where underwater gushed out for locals to use as washhouses or to quench their thirst, it was mainly during the Renaissance times that fountains got their status elevated. After the Great Siege, the population in Valletta and nearby was growing, and yet the water supply was short. Thus, Grand Master Wignacourt ordered the construction of an aqueduct to carry fresh water from natural springs in Dingli and Rabat all the way to the City.
The Wignacourt Aqueduct
This is an important kick-off to learning about many of the fountains found particularly in Valletta and nearby. Wignacourt Aqueduct was a 17th-century masterpiece partially financed by Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt and engineered by Bontadino de Bontadini, Giovanni Attard, Natale Tomasucci and other professionals. The main aim was to carry freshwater supply from the natural springs in Rabat and Dingli all the way to the Capital City of Valletta via underground pipes and over-arched viaducts. Through the aqueduct's network, the evergrowing population in Valletta, Floriana and the surrounding areas could finally have a steady water supply to various buildings, to ships in Marsamxett and the Grand Harbours, and ultimately to beautiful fountains. Fountains weren't simple troughs anymore, but truly prestigious works-of-art paving the way for other fountains within Valletta and in other towns and villages, especially along the route of the aqueduct.
The Wignacourt Aqueduct was completed in 1614 and inaugurated on 21 April 1615 as water flowed for the first time into Valletta. The aqueduct included three water inspection towers which can still be seen standing today. The first one is the Tower of St Joseph in Santa Venera, known as it-Turretta. Moving further down the route, the second water inspection tower can be found on the hill of St Nicholas in Hamrun, and it's referred to as il-Monument tat-Tromba. The third water inspection tower is found in Floriana, and it's known as Wignacourt Water Tower.
This third water tower is located near the Argotti Botanical Gardens and the Sarria Church. What makes it different from the other two water towers is certainly its fountain that completes the journey of water along the entire aqueduct. After looking at the tower's round structure supported by pilasters, you can see a fountain featuring a sculpted lion relief pouring water and a horse trough at the bottom.
The Wignacourt Fountain
The completion of the Wignacourt Aqueduct paved the way for the erection of many fountains in Valletta. The first one that was connected to the aqueduct is said to be the Wignacourt Fountain which was located in St George's Square, facing the Grandmaster's Palace. This fountain had a Fleur-des-Lis on top and symbolised the arrival of water in Valletta.
There are different interpretations of the history of this Baroque-style fountain. Whereas one says that it was ordered to demolish the fountain on 2 January 1745 and rebuild it as 'Pinto Fountain' a year later, the second interpretation says that Pinto didn't destroy the fountain, but renovated it. Whichever thought might be true, the fountain had two basins originally, but along the stages of time, the fountain had a third basin added to it.
Today, one can admire this artistic fountain, minus its fleur-de-lys, in St Philip's Garden, Floriana. Some theories say that the fountain was removed from St George's Square by the British to use the square for military parades. On the other hand, architect Edward Said believes this is not true, as there are paintings of the square during the Knights' period in which the fountain does not feature.
The Ombinus Idem Fountain
Sometimes also referred to as the Wignacourt Fountain, this fountain includes a lion's head pouring out water into a stone basin and Wignacourt's coat of arms on top, together with that of the Order surrounded by a garland of flowers and interlocking seashells. Built on the wall close to Porta Reale, more commonly known as City Gate or Bieb il-Belt, this fountain also features a radiating sun at the bottom, with a Latin inscription 'Omnibus Idem.'
Omnibus Idem means 'the same to all'. Thus, indicating that water was available for free, to everyone. This fountain was built in 1615 and was among those first to be connected to Wignacourt's Aqueduct with the aim to receive the water in Valletta. Throughout history, this fountain was relocated quite a few times which unfortunately led to losing its original Baroque features. First, in 1874, due to the building near which the fountain was located was demolished to replace it with Palazzo Ferreria. Then in the 1960s, when City Gate was rebuilt, in 2000 when Saint James Cavalier was renovated and lastly in the early 2010s during the City Gate Project by Renzo Piano. Since then, this wandering fountain which was last restored by Din l-Art Helwa in 1998 has had a place on a wall at the top end of the Royal Opera House, at the side of Parliament's building.
The Neptune Fountain
As mentioned earlier, with Wignacourt's Aqueduct, fountains gained a higher status and more significance. They weren't a simple source of quenching one's thirst anymore but gained a connotation of greatness and artistry that embellished different parts of Valletta. In fact, another baroque marvel that showcased the finery of the Renaissance was the bronze Neptune.
This fountain was built near Porta Marina and despite being attributed to Giambologna by some sources, others attribute it to one of his assistants, Pietro Tacca. Ultimately, this fountain was another symbol ordered by Grandmaster Wignacourt to commemorate the aqueduct. With a large bronze Neptune figure in full splendour at the centre of a basin looking at the Valletta harbour, this fountain was a representation of a proud welcome to visitors putting their foot on the City of great resistance. The marble cannon-shaped spout at the base of the fountain supplied water to the various sea vessels stopping by while sailing. Unfortunately, this majestic fountain no longer embellishes the Valletta harbour. After being damaged by strong waves in 1686, and eventually renovated by maritime echelon Grand Master Gregorio Carafa, the fountain remained a remarkable landmark for further years.
But, in 1858, Governor Gaspard Le Marchant ordered the Neptune statue's relocation into one of the Grand Master's Palace courtyards. The fountain basin was also removed from its original place and was relocated to Argotti Gardens in Floriana, where it's located to this day.
The Perellos Fountain
One after the other, grand masters kept on embellishing the streets of the City with beautifully engineered fountains. And the Perellos Fountain was another landmark added to embellish Valletta with its marine-themed features. In 1713, Grand Master Ramon Perellos ordered the building of a range of warehouses on the Marina waterfront as part of the growing trade activity in the city. It consisted of an array of baroque facades to shelter stores. While the centre of these facades was taken by a highly-raised chapel of Our Savior for those in quarantine on board ships in the harbour to listen to Mass, the ends of this warehouse array were also marked by other structures. The project's designer, Romano Carapecchia, designed Il-Barriera to the far right to be used as a quarantine building. At the Marina's left end, Carapecchia designed the Perellos Fountain.
This fountain in marble stood exactly in the shadow of the bronze Neptune fountain and portrayed two mythical sea creatures on the left and a nereid on the right, with Perello's coat of arms showcased in the middle. Just like the Neptune Fountain, the Perellos Fountain was also removed from the Marina eventually as part of major infrastructural changes carried out basically during the British period. Nowadays, the Neptune sculpture and the Perellos Fountain comfort each other in the Grand Master Palace's courtyard. But, despite gracefully enhancing the garden, their background does not compare to the original scenographic panorama they once formed part of.
The Lion Fountain
This famous fountain in St Anne Square was built in 1728 by Grand Master Antonio Manuel de Vilhena after declaring Floriana a suburb of Valletta. Thus, it's also referred to as the Vilhena Fountain, and it's another Baroque fountain that was supplied by water from the Wignacourt Aqueduct. The Vilhena Fountain was to be the main source of water for those living in the area.
In taking a close look at the Vilhena Fountain, one can observe a basin containing a plinth, topped with a sculpture of a seated lion holding an escutcheon on which there is Vilhena's coat of arms. The lion symbolised Vilhena's period at the Order's helm and eventually became a symbol attributed to Floriana and the town's coat of arms.
As World War II hit, the lion sculpture was relocated to a nearby arcade and encased in stone so as to remain safe from possible aerial bombardments. When the war was over, the fountain was stored in a garage nearby for some time. When in 1956, St Anne Square was being realigned the fountain was removed completely from its original location and was reconstructed a few metres away in 1958. On the night between 31 December 1958 and 1 January 1959, the lion was reinstalled.
The De Rohan Fountains
The two De Rohan Fountains are located in St George's Square, Valletta, they are almost identical in design and are located against the facade of the Order's Conservatorio, which was later named the Main Guard by the British.
As these fountains were ordered by Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan de Polduc, who served in the role from 1775-1797, they feature his coat of arms. Apart from this, the fountains feature the head of a bearded male made of local stone with a lead eagle on top of it with spread wings and an upturned head. Water spouts from both the mouth of the bearded male's head and the eagle's into a stone basin.
Looking at both fountains, the eagles' heads are turned away from each of the side streets in order to create symmetry between them. Above the eagles and between the columns there is a drapery form that might have been intended for an inscription. Among other features, one cannot overlook the scroll-like ornaments holding de Rohan's coat of arms, crowning the two fountains.
As centuries rolled, Valletta was being embellished with more fountains, and Tas-Seffud Fountain was one of them. Located in front of the Law Courts in Pjazza l-Assedju l-Kbir, this fountain project was carried out in 1900 by the Public Works Department. Initially, the main project was about addressing properly the flushing of drainage since seawater could be pumped from the Electric Light Station onto Valletta via a 9-inch pipe.
Since there would be 40,000 gallons of water pumped daily, the Superintendent of the Public Works, Lorenzo Gatt, on 7th August 1900, proposed that a fountain be erected in the square. Thus, the fountain formed big jets and cascades that decorated what was also referred to as Piazza Fontana. Over the years, as the seawater was causing damage to the walls of St John's Cathedral located behind the fountain, it was decided to remove the fountain which was replaced with the Great Siege monument by Antonio Sciortino, inaugurated in 1927.
The Tritons' Fountain
During British rule, in the 19th century, Valletta's fortifications saw various modifications, among which was the proposal of building a citadel on the site of the Valletta Land Front and its surroundings. However, in the end, the fortifications were left largely intact and only St Madeleine's Lunette part was demolished. This lunette protected Porta Reale Curtain and the entrance to the City, and its site is where today there is the Tritons' Fountain.
Designed and constructed between 1952 and 1959, you cannot miss this rather recent (compared to others) and iconic Valletta fountain at the main entrance. The Tritons' Fountain is a joint work of art by sculptor Chevalier Vincent Apap and his collaborator draughtsman Victor Anastasi. Consisting of three bronze Tritons in different positions and holding up a platter, this fountain is a symbol of strength and spiral movement. Inspired by the Fontana delle Tartarughe in Rome, this fountain represents Malta's close links with the sea and was designed in a way to avoid contrast with the bastions nearby while blending with the Victorian-era Kingsgate (demolished in 1964). On 16 May 1959, the fountain became unofficially operational and for many years it has been serving as a main stage for National Celebrations. Particularly, following major plans of restorations in 2011 and the start of its dismantling in 2017 to bring it back to its original splendour after years of deterioration.
This undoubtedly grand fountain synonymous with Valletta was officially inaugurated on 12 January 2018 and to this day is a main landmark to take photos with for both tourists and locals when visiting the Capital City.
Whether alone or with friends, Valletta surely offers exciting spots that make it unique and extraordinary. From its early fountains, including those that do not exist anymore, to those more modern ones which still embellish it, Malta's Capital City is truly a gem.
Check out more articles in the Culture section to uncover more of Malta and Gozo's history.