Chiara Bianchi

Piazza Mattei: Everything You Need to Know

Discover the charm and history of Piazza Mattei, a hidden gem in the heart of Rome.

Piazza Mattei with its iconic fountain in Rome


Did you know that one of the most charming fountains in Rome was built overnight to impress a father-in-law? This is one of the legends that surrounds the Fountain of Turtles, or Fontana delle Tartarughe, in Piazza Mattei, a lovely square hidden in the Jewish Ghetto, one of the oldest parts of the city and home to the oldest Jewish community in Europe. In this article, we will explore the origins, historical significance, lesser-known stories, intriguing facts and dark histories of this fascinating piazza and its fountain.

Historical Context

Piazza Mattei bears the name of Duke Giacomo Mattei, a hardened gambler and owner of the white building located at number 19 that overlooks the little square. The most interesting fact about this building is certainly the walled up window, a pretty strange detail, linked to a popular legend about Mattei's life. Story has it that Giacomo was in love with a woman and wanted to marry her. However, one night he lost a lot of money gambling. Hence, the father of the woman refused to give him his daughter's hand. Eager to redeem his name, Duke Mattei invited his future father in law to his palace and organized a great party that lasted until morning. Surprisingly, he had the Fountain of Turtles built over night. The morning after he asked his father in law to look outside the window to show him the stunning fountain, stating "This is what a penniless man like me can achieve in just a few hours!". His father in law to be allowed their marriage, but the Duke Mattei had the window walled up as a reminder of what had happened .

Linked to the popular tale about Duke Mattei, the Fountain of Turtles has actually stayed a mystery for a very long time. In 1570 the Congregation of Waters, a body of the Roman Curia, spread news about 18 new fountains, works of Jacopo della Porta, drawing water from the Aqueduct of Aqua Virgin. However, the Fountain of Piazza Mattei was not in that list! It was only in 1581 that authorities in Rome acknowledged in an official document the existence of a fountain in Piazza Mattei, attributing it to Taddeo Landini who built the fountain between 1581 and 1584 following a project by Jacopo della Porta . The project included four bronze youths rising from four African-marble seashells. The seashells lay on bronze dolphins. The turtles on the basin were added later in 1685 by Bernini, during renovation works ordered by Pope Alexander VII .

You probably won't believe it, but the turtles have disappeared several times over the years. First in 1906, then 1944 and again in 1981. Luckily they were always found eventually, but the turtles you see today are copies. The original ones are housed in the Musei Capitolini .

Piazza Mattei is located in the Jewish Ghetto, an area that has been inhabited by Jews since ancient times. The Roman Jewish community has had a presence in the city for over 2,000 years, making it the oldest Jewish community in Europe ! However, their history is also marked by persecution and discrimination. In 1555, Pope Paul IV issued a papal bull that confined all Jews to live within a walled area near the Tiber river. The area was chosen because it was prone to flooding and disease. The Jews had to pay rent for their houses and were subjected to many restrictions and humiliations. They could only work as ragmen, fishmongers or moneylenders. They had to wear yellow hats or veils to identify themselves. They had to listen to compulsory sermons every week at San Gregorio della Divina Pietà church. They were not allowed to own property or practice any profession outside the ghetto . The ghetto was abolished only in 1870 when Rome became part of Italy .

Despite the hardships and oppression, the Jewish community managed to preserve their culture and traditions over the centuries. They developed their own dialect, cuisine and customs that enriched the Roman heritage. Today, the Jewish Ghetto is a lively and thriving neighborhood, where you can find synagogues, museums, kosher restaurants and bakeries, and experience the unique atmosphere of this ancient and resilient community .

Architectural Features

Piazza Mattei is a charming square in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto, one of the oldest parts of Rome and home to the oldest Jewish community in Europe. The square is named after Duke Giacomo Mattei, a nobleman who owned the white building at number 19 that overlooks the square. The most striking feature of this building is the walled up window, which is linked to a popular legend about Mattei's life and his gambling habits.

The main attraction of Piazza Mattei is the Fountain of Turtles, or Fontana delle Tartarughe in Italian, a little gem that dates back to the late 16th century. The fountain was designed by Jacopo della Porta and sculpted by Taddeo Landini. It consists of four bronze youths rising from four marble seashells, each holding a dolphin that spouts water into the upper basin. The turtles on the edge of the basin were added later by Bernini in 1685, during a renovation ordered by Pope Alexander VII.

The fountain is linked to incredible legends and popular tales, such as the one that says that Duke Mattei had it built overnight to impress his future father-in-law and win his daughter's hand. Another story says that the turtles were stolen several times over the years, but they were always found eventually. The original turtles are now kept in the Musei Capitolini, while the ones you see today are copies.

The fountain is considered one of the most beautiful and elegant in Rome, and it has inspired many artists and writers over the centuries. It is also a symbol of the Jewish Ghetto, as it was built with the money collected from a tax imposed on the Jews by Pope Sixtus V.

Tips and Recommendations

If you want to visit Piazza Mattei and admire its fountain, here are some tips and recommendations for your trip:


Piazza Mattei is a hidden treasure in Rome that deserves your attention. It is a place where history, art, and legend meet, creating a unique charm. The Fountain of Turtles is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture that will enchant you with its grace and elegance. Piazza Mattei is also a gateway to the Jewish Ghetto, one of the most authentic and lively neighborhoods in Rome. Don't miss this opportunity to discover a different side of the Eternal City!