Everyone knows that the imagination of the artists who worked in Rome by far exceeded an already astonishing reality. Stone animals live in the city’s palaces and churches, making for an unusual itinerary that is captivating even for children.
Let’s begin with cats, typical animals of Rome and also sacred to Isis, Egyptian divinity worshipped by the Romans as well. On the cornice of Palazzo Grazioli, located on the corner of Via della Gatta and Piazza Grazioli, there is a small cat brought here from the Iseo Campense.
Not far from here is the Jewish quarter, where the Fontana delle Tartarughe (the Fountain of the Turtles) can be seen in Piazza Mattei. Four bronze ephebi in symmetrical poses have one foot resting on a dolphin. They are holding the dolphin’s tail with one hand while the other is raised to the edge of the upper basin. The water coming out of the mouth of the four dolphins is collected in the shells below. The turtles, which the ephebi seem to push to drink from the upper basin, are attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. They were commissioned by Pope Alexander VII and added in 1658.
On your way to the Pantheon you will notice a deer on top of the Church of Sant’Eustachio. Legend has it that it was placed there to honour an officer of the Emperor by the name of Placido, who had a vision while hunting. He saw a cross shining bright between the horns of a deer. After this vision, the officer embraced the Christian faith and took the name of Eustachius. He was later martyred along with his wife and children. According to the legend, the church was built on the site of his house.
A little further ahead stands the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, known for its magnificent Caravaggio paintings. Here you should try looking for a salamander on the church facade under the statues of Charlesmagne and Louis IX. The salamander was the emblem of Francis I King of France.
In Via della Scrofa look carefully at the former Augustinian Convent to spot the relief of a sow recessed into its wall. It was once part of a small fountain commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII at the end of 1500. Originally, water flowed out of the mouth of the sow and was collected in a small tub.
Continue your walk until you arrive at Piazza Colonna, where you will see a fountain with dolphins with intertwined tails. The basin is supported by vertical bands ending with lion heads, which give the idea of legs.
Take Via del Tritone to get to Piazza Barberini, where you can see the Fontana del Tritone (the Fountain of the Triton) with dolphins carved by Bernini, as well as another Bernini fountain, the Fontana delle Api (the Fountain of the Bees), where the Via Veneto enters the piazza. The bees recall the Barberini coat-of-arms and can be seen here serving as water spouts at the base of a bi-valve shell.
Piazza San Bernardo with its Fontana del Mosè (the Fountain of Moses) is within easy walking distance from here. This time the animals are lions. There are four and water flows from their mouth into three rectangular basins.
Just a few steps away, in Piazza del Quirinale, stands an obelisk with a fountain. It is flanked by two horses with gigantic Dioscuri (5.6 metres tall), Castor and Pollux. According to Greek mythology, the twins were sons of Zeus. The former was a horseman and the latter a great boxer. Pollux was immortal and Castor was not. When Castor was about to die, his brother shared his immortality with him. Since then, they spent one day in the realm of the dead and the other among the gods of Olympus.
Coming down from the Quirinale you will come across the Trevi Fountain. The statue of Oceanus stands in the centre of the monumental complex. He is depicted on a shell-shaped chariot driven by winged horses. The other statues include tritons and mythological as well as real sea creatures.
Standing in Piazza di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, behind the Pantheon, is one of the thirteen ancient obelisks of Rome – it too once part of the Iseo Campense – which Bernini placed on the back of a small marble elephant. The story goes that, out of spite of a Dominican priest of the nearby convent, the artist had the animal placed with its hind towards the convent, its trunk marking its disrespectful position and its tail to one side, making its offensive intent quite clear.
When you get to Piazza Navona, you will see many stone animals. The Moor Fountain represents an Ethiopian struggling with a dolphin. The Fontana dei Fiumi (The Fountain of the Four Rivers) shows at its base a horse, a long-tailed dolphin, a large fish, a monster with the skin of an armadillo, a sea serpent and a lion. The symbols of the Pamphilj coat-of-arms, the lilly and the dove, are visible on the upper part. Lastly, the Fountain of Neptune, which features in a central position a man struggling with a giant octopus. He is Neptune, ruler of the seas, and he is surrounded by nymphs, cupids and sea horses.
A short distance from Piazza Navona is the Via dell’Orso. Its name apparently derives from a marble relief now attached to the wall on the corner of the Vicolo del Soldato. It depicts what appears to be a bear but is actually a lion attaching a wild boar. It seems that the lion was so ugly and awkward that it was mistaken for a bear.
This animal can also be seen on the majestic entrance of Palazzo Orsini in the Via Monte Giordano, where there are two bears.
Dating from a more recent period is the magnificent Fontana di Valle Giulia also known as the Fountain of the Turtles. Installed inside Villa Borghese, in front of the Modern Arts National Gallery, it has a very large round basin at which eight turtles arranged all around can be seen drinking.
Your last stop should be at the Coppedè quarter, where you can see the Fontana delle Rane (the Fountain of the Frogs) in the centre of Piazza Mincio. There are four human figures on the four corners of the fountain with their backs to each other. They are supporting a shell filled with the water flowing out of a large frog. At the base there are eight small crouching frogs which feed the basin with water ejected towards the centre.