Were some of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings directly influenced by the four sculpted figures on Rome’s Fontana delle Tartarughe? The photographer Toby Glanville thinks so, and presents the evidence to Jonathan Bastable
The Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) in Rome is one
of the city’s many strange gems. As a work of art it is hard
to parse: four lean youths are depicted in the act of climbing
down from the backs of dolphins, as if they had been riding
them like surfboards. Each boy is simultaneously nudging
a turtle into the broad marble bowl above their heads: one
arm raised, the opposing leg crooked at an acute angle, like
a kind of synchronised 16th-century t’ai chi.
Who are they, these bronze boys? Some authorities believe they
represent sons of the sea god Poseidon. Others say that they
are the four winds personified. Or they might be exactly
what they appear to be: lively portraits of idle, idealised
young men on the cusp of manhood — ephebi, in classical parlance.
As for the turtles, they are known to be a later addition to
the ensemble, which may help explain why the fountain is
slightly disorienting and mysterious: it is possible that
the sculptor of the figures, Taddeo Landini, did not intend
the finished piece to look quite like this.
So there’s a puzzle here for any observer. But for portrait
photographer Toby Glanville, the fountain is something more
than an art-historical curiosity. He has come to believe
that it tells a story about one of the most contradictory
and controversial painters of the late Renaissance — Caravaggio.
‘I first happened upon the fountain more than 30 years ago,’
says Glanville. ‘It was an early spring day, beautiful sunshine,
and when I saw the Fontana delle Tartarughe, I had a feeling
that I was stepping into the presence of living creatures,
‘I think that impression came partly from the light and the
movement of the water, but it also had something to do with
the sculptures themselves. What struck me initially was the
boys’ faces. These figures are not quite of our world; they
are visitations. Every time I have been to Rome since, I
have gone back and taken pictures of the fountain, and on
each occasion I see something new in it.’
That long-held affection might have been the end of it — most
of us have works of art that we visit like old friends —
but, last year, Glanville decided to do some research into
the fountain. ‘I was in the British Library when the penny
dropped,’ he says.
‘The fountain stands outside the Palazzo Mattei, close to the
Tiber. The Matteis were an aristocratic family, hugely wealthy,
erudite and influential. Caravaggio went to live in their
palace — on loan, so to speak, from the great connoisseur,
Cardinal del Monte. His new patron, Ciriaco Mattei, was the
nephew of Muzio Mattei, who had commissioned the fountain
just a few years before. Caravaggio must have seen it every
day while he worked for Ciriaco — maybe it was the view out
of his window.
‘There must be a connection, because no one was making the human figure like this before Caravaggio. No one but Landini’ — Toby Glanville
‘Then it occurred to me: if you look at the paintings that
Caravaggio did while he lived in the palace — Cupid as Victor,
John the Baptist — you see an uncanny resemblance
between the boys on the fountain and the model for those
painted works. There must be a connection, because no one
was making the human figure like this before Caravaggio.
No one but Landini.’
The flesh-and-blood model for both Cupid as Victor and
John the Baptist was a youth known to art history
as Cecco. He seems to have posed as the winged Cupid first,
the New Testament prophet a year or two later. But Caravaggio’s
Baptist is still a stripling, a naked adolescent with a mischievous
grin and a contrapposto pose that seems to echo the odd,
contorted stance of the fountain boys. The creasing of John’s
stomach is exactly what we see in the Landini sculptures.
Cecco is fleshier than his bronze cousins; he does not have
the same physique as the lithe quadruplets on the fountain.
But he shares their demeanour, an air of something Dionysian.
There is a sense that he is capable of dangerous fun. ‘And
what is striking,’ says Glanville, ‘quite apart from their
kinetic energy, is the closeness in physiognomy between the
figures in the paintings and fountain. Their faun-like faces
express joy and life and sexuality and seem unequivocally
It is known, of course, that Caravaggio lived at the Palazzo
Mattei. Glanville’s theory is not a biographical novelty,
but a leap of imagination. No one has previously wondered
about the effect that the Turtle Fountain might have had
on the artist’s imagination.
‘I am not an academic or an art historian,’ says Glanville,
‘and this could all be preposterous. But bear in mind that
the fountain was brand new at the time, and would have been
gleaming, not covered in calcium deposits. It would have
Perhaps it takes the mindset of a portraitist to know how a
face leaves its imprint on the artistic consciousness, or
to grasp that an artist such as Caravaggio would instinctively
take note of the way limbs and bodies combine to make a composition.
Conversely, one can see the appeal of Caravaggio to a present-day
Many of his paintings — The Supper at Emmaus, The Conversion of St Paul,
Christ Taken in the Garden — function like dramatic
snapshots, depicting the very instant of revelation or reversal.
These biblical scenes are decisive moments in the full Cartier-Bresson
sense of the term, only rendered in oils on canvas rather
than captured on 35mm film.
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‘Very little is known about Caravaggio apart from what’s come down to us in police reports of the time,’ says Glanville.
‘We are told that he was a habitual brawler, and we know that
he fled Rome after killing a man. Those bare facts belie
the beauty and the poetry of the work, which is so moving
— and visceral, like my reaction to the fountain. The great
thing about his paintings, and about photographs in rare
instances, is that they allow people to live on centuries
after they have died.’