Although it may seem from afar to be an ancient work, once you get closer, you realize that the Fontana dei Libri is a modern work, but perfectly integrated into the fabric of the city of Rome. Located on Via degli Staderari, in the Rione Sant’Eustachio, it was designed by the Roman architect and sculptor Pietro Lombardi and inaugurated in 1927, as part of a project by the Rome City Council to beautify the city and commemorate the ancient districts, known as rioni.

The Fontana dei Libri stands in the Palace of Sapienza, which was the seat of the University of Rome until 1935. The choice of Lombardi’s design was not random: it reflected the character and history of the rione, with four books clearly referring to the Sapienza, from whose bookmarks water flows symbolizing the constant flow of knowledge, emanating from the greatness of books. It also commemorates the old name of the street where it is located, Via dell’Università.

Among the books is a stag’s head with a cross between its antlers, which is the emblem of the Rione Sant’Eustachio and alludes to the legend of this saint, a Roman soldier of the second century. According to tradition, Eustachio, originally named Placidus (perhaps the victor of the Parthians), was a soldier who persecuted Christians in the time of Emperor Trajan, and during a hunt saw a shining cross in the antlers of the stag he was about to hunt.

Side view of the Fontana dei Libri in Rome
Side view of the Fontana dei Libri in Rome. Credit: Kett~commonswiki / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

He immediately converted to Christianity and was baptized with the name Eustachio (from the Greek Eustáchios, meaning fruitful). The image of the stag against a red background became a symbol of the identity of the rione.

In the upper third of the fountain, there are five stone spheres referencing the coat of arms of Pope Leo X, who reorganized the University of Rome. These spheres are also associated with the Medici family, as their palace, the Palazzo Madama, is near the fountain. Thus, the Fontana dei Libri, through its sculptural elements, weaves a rich narrative of local history, mixing academic, religious, and aristocratic references.

The fountain not only stands out for its design and symbolism but also for a curious error. Among the branches of the stag’s antlers, you can read vertically the name of the rione, Sant’Eustachio, and horizontally its number. However, in a historical oversight, the carved number was VIII instead of the correct IV for this rione (something that was corrected in the last restoration).

Frontal detail of the Fontana dei Libri
Frontal detail of the Fontana dei Libri. Credit: Castro Pretorio / Wikimedia Commons

The structure of the fountain also bears the letters SPQR, an abbreviation of Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and the Roman People), an emblem found on many properties in the city of Rome and evoking the grandeur of the ancient Roman Republic.

Via degli Staderari, where the fountain is located, extends from Piazza Navona to the Pantheon, two of Rome’s most iconic sites, thus establishing another connection with different periods of Roman history and culture.

The construction of this fountain was part of a larger initiative by the Rome City Council in the 1920s to replace the old iron fountains, known as nasoni, which at that time were considered unsightly.

Detail of the upper part of the fountain
Detail of the upper part of the fountain. Credit: ermakov / Flickr

Instead, it was decided to create new fountains that reflected the history and character of Rome’s rioni. Pietro Lombardi was the architect commissioned to design these fountains, and in each of them, he was inspired by distinctive elements of the corresponding district.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 11, 2024: Fontana dei Libri, la fuente de Roma cargada de simbolismo

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