- Place of origin:
ca. 1520 (made)
da Rovezzano, Benedetto, born 1474 - died 1554 (sculptor)
- Materials and Techniques:
Grey sandstone carved
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 50a, The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery, case WN 
The Acquaio was a common feature of Florentine palaces in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Although supplied with running water the acquaio is not a true fountain as the flow of water is not constant, being controlled by taps. The water ran only when needed and was not utilised for continuous display. The basin of an acquaio is raised above that of a normal fountain reflecting the purpose of the object in a domestic interior, supplying water and allowing washing of hands.
In the centre of the acquaio's frieze is an enigmatic beast tearing off it's testicles. According to a tradition going back to Plinny, beavers saved their lives through self castration, because they were hunted for their testicles, prized for their medicinal properties.
A water fountain or Acquaio. An elliptical basin on a baluster shaped pedestal is framed on each side by two pilasters carved with candelabra, foliage, birds and grotesques, terminating in two foliated capitals. Above is a moulding and a frieze, the latter carved with foliated ornament, in the centre of which is a ribbed shell containing an animal; thought by Pope-Hennessy to be a hind standing on a label, but subsequently identified as a beaver by Brenda Preyer. The frieze is surmounted by a projecting cornice. The central recess is further framed by two narrow inner pilasters with ears of wheat, poppy heads and other naturalistic ornament rising from vases. These narrow pilasters meet an inner cornice, above which the ornament continues on an arch. The spandrels to either side of the arch house two elaborately framed circular apertures. The back of the central recess is formed by a panelled wall. Above the basin, the wall is carved with two urns, with holes in the centre which would have housed taps. The urn on the left is decorated with two birds, a snail and a shell. The urn on the right is decorated with two feeding cranes and five shells. The surfaces to either side of the basin are also panelled, the lower panels are carved with two children, represented standing on the sea, one on a dolphin and shells; the other on a turtle and turtle and urinating into the basin. Above the child on the left, is a pierced circular medallion.
Place of Origin
ca. 1520 (made)
da Rovezzano, Benedetto, born 1474 - died 1554 (sculptor)
Materials and Techniques
Grey sandstone carved
Height: 421 cm, Width: 299 cm, Depth: 91 cm
Object history note
The Acquaio is mentioned by Cicognara (v,p.199) in the house of the Molini family in the Via degli Archibusieri in Florence: "Un acquajo e un cammino di questo genere vedesi nella casa ora abitata dai signori Molini librai di Firenze". This provenance is recorded in the registered file by J.C. Robinson's Notice of Work of Medieval and Renaissance Sculpture, decorative Furniture etc acquired in Italy in the early part of the year 1859 for the South Kensington Museum, London, 1860, p.6 where it states that the acquaio "formerly stood in a dark anteroom of the house, where it was only possible to see it by candle light". According to Robinson, it was believed on purchase to be "the work mentioned by Vasari as having been executed by Benedetto da Rovezzano for bindo Altoviti". A later account by Robinson (pp. 78-80) questions this identification on the grounds that "the general style...appears to be more in accordance with that of Benedetto da Maiano, to whom it was ascribed in Florence. Its date is probably towards the end of the fifteenth century; and it has apparently an earlier and more pronounced Quattro-cento character than the joint work alluded to may be supposed to have exhibited." Wiles suggests that "The style of the classicizing bas-reliefs, and the resemblance of the putti to those of Antonio Reosellino place this work either in the closing years of the Quattrocento or the opening years of the Cinquecento". Pope-Hennessy proposes a date in the first quarter of the sixteenth-century.
An old photograph of the acquaio in the V&A (Wiles fig.7) shows small marble heads of a girl and a youth in the two spandrel apertures; these were removed at some uncertain date, and were stated by Pope-Hennessy in 1964 to have been lost or destroyed. They were close but not identical to two pieces published by R. Naldi in Andrea Ferruci , marmi gentili tra la Toscana (Naples, 2002) pp218-219.
Historical significance: This imposing example of an acquaio is a sculptural tour-de-force and an exceptional survival. Acquae were sometimes installed in courtyards and camere, as well as in kitchens, however the elaborate decoration on this piece indicates that it was intended for a sala.
Historical context note
The Acquaio was a common feature of Florentine palaces in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Investigation into the Corsi-Horne palace and the Gaddi houses have placed the acquaio on the long inner wall of the sala. An acquaio was often paired with a fireplace - documentary evidence from Vasari and nineteenth-century descriptions suggests that both pieces were often designed by the same artist. Both of these major architectural embellishments were customarily executed in pietra serena, with elaborate and varied decoration covering their frames. In the centre of the acquaio's frieze is an enigmatic beast tearing off it's testicles. Pope-Hennessy thought the creature a hind, however Brenda Pryer cites Prof. Elizabeth McGrath of the Warburg institute identifying the beast as a beaver. According to a tradition going back to Pliny, beavers saved their lives through self castration, because they were hunted for their testicles, prized for their medicinal properties. A fireplace now in a private collection in America also features this animal and may have come from the same palace. Nothing has come to light to explain the relevance of the emblem to the owner of the palace Francesco di Zanobi Girolammi, who was a prominent banker in Florence and in Rome.
Although supplied with running water the acquaio is not a true fountain as the flow of water is not constant, being controlled by taps. The water ran only when needed and was not utilised for continuous display. The basin of an acquaio is raised above that of a normal fountain reflecting the purpose of the object in a domestic interior, supplying water and allowing washing of hands. Structures of similar form, known as lavabos, abound in Florentine churches and monasteries. They were used by the celebrant to wash his hands before consecrating the host.
This acquaio once had a shelf at the second level above the basin: the supports' metal stubs remain on the sides. The back panels were left blank in anticipation of being screened by objects resting on the shelf. A drawing by the architect Antonio Averlino, known as Filarete, shows such a shelf, and documents indicate that they were common on acquai. The shelves and basin of the acquaio were used to display a variety of vessels of copper and brass, and of terracotta, maioloica and glass. There were also towels and candlesticks. Sculptures, often heads, mentioned occasionally in inventories all'acquaio were probably placed above the cornice.
A water fountain or Acquaio. An elliptical basin on a baluster shaped pedestal is framed on each side by two pilasters, above is a moulding and a frieze.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Pope-Hennessy, John. Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Volume II: Text. Sixteenth to Twentieth Century. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1964, pp. 405, 406
Preyer, B. At Home in Renaissance Italy (V&A Publications, London 2006) pp 284-286
Cocognara, L. Storia della scultura dal suo risorgimento in Italia sino al secolo di Napolene (Venice, 1813-1818) II p 299
Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1859. In: Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, Arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol I. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 18
Wainwright, Clive. "Shopping for South Kensington. Fortnum and Henry Cole in Florence 1858-1859". Journal of the History of Collections. 11, no. 2, 1999, p. 175, fig. 3 on p. 176
Roth, Nancy. "Now is the time. Felicity Powell's tribute to John Charles Robinson". In: The Medal, no. 42, spring 2003, pp. 75-82, see fig. 5 on p. 79+p. 80.
Labels and date
WALL FOUNTAIN or ACQUAIO
Grey sandstone (pietra serena)
Style of BENEDETTO DA ROVEZZANO (1474-about 1554)
ITALIAN (Florence); 1500-1525
The fountain was purchased in Florence, where it is said to have stood in a dark anteroom of the house of the Molini family in the Via degli Archibusieri. This elaborate structure is carved in the style of the florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano, whose bronze fountain from Cowdray can be seen nearby. The fountain is appropriately decorated, including representations of birds drinking and eating fish from two urns. Water would have poured into the basin from the two holes formed by the mouths of the masks on the urns. The boys on the side recesses stand on the surface of the sea, supported on a dolphin and shells (right) and a turtle (left); the penis of the child on the left may also have been piped. The soft sandstone around the basin has been worn away by the water. Piped water sources were generally situated on the ground floor adjacent to or in the kitchen. 
WALL FOUNTAIN FROM PALAZZO GIROLAMI, FLORENCE
Wall fountains brought water directly into the Sala, where it could be used for washing hands or filling vessels. They were sometimes plumbed with running water, a rare luxury at the time, and fitted with drainage. This imposing example is a sculptural tour-de-force and an exceptional survival. Although its shelves have gone, their metal supports remain. 
Style of Benedetto da Rovezzano
Snail; Birds; Deer; Shells; Children; Fish; Poppy; Turtle; Vases; Wheat