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The Robba Fountain (Ljubljana, Slovenia)

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Famous fountain in centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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      07.03.2012 06:52
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      Not the most impressive fountain in the world but the most notable one in Ljubljana

      Unlike, say, Rome's Trevi Fountain that tourists make a point of going to see, Ljubljana's Robba Fountain is something visits to the Slovenian capital stumble upon as they explore the city's old town. The Robba Fountain is on Mestni trg which roughly translates as 'Town Square' though 'place' is probably a better description for many of Slovenia's so-called squares because it's really a widening of the main street passing through the old town rather than a grand square.
      Here on Mestni trg you'll find the old town hall ('Magistrat' - now home to a gallery) and numerous houses that are officially declared historically significant either because they are architecturally noteworthy or because some worthy person or other lived in the house at one time.

      The official name of the fountain is 'The Fountain of the Three Rivers of Carniola', in Slovene 'Vodnjak treh kranjskih rek', but most people refer to it as the Robba Fountain or Robba's Fountain, Robba being the Italian sculptor who designed it between 1743 and 1751.

      The first time I visited Ljubljana in February 2004 the fountain was wearing its winter cladding, a Perspex veil which protected it from the elements. It was possible to get an idea of the design but not very easy to appreciate the detail. In 2006, the fountain was renovated and moved into the National Gallery, while a replica was placed in its previous site on the Town Square. In January of 2012 the monument was not wearing its winter coat, whether this is because the renovations have enabled the fountain to remain uncovered during the winter, or because the replica is still on outdoor display I don't know though I suspect the latter.

      Francesco Robba got the idea for the design from seeing Bernini's 'Fountain of the Four Rivers' on Piazza Navona in Rome. Thus inspired he decided to represent the three rivers of Carniola: Ljubljanica, Sava and Krka. Carniola is the mountainous north eastern part of Slovenia. The popular skiing resort of Kranjska gora (literally Carniola Mountain) takes its name from this region and food stuffs from this region are always described as 'Carniolan'. The steps leading up to the fountain represent the Carniolan mountains, and a simple obelisk stands in the middle of the fountain. Only the sculptures are made of marble. The basin is made of a grey limestone, while the obelisk is cut from limestone that has a slightly reddish tone. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the replica does not quite capture the nuances in colour.

      My favourite element of the design of Robba's Fountain is that the 'pool' is in the shape of a three leaf clover. Around the base of the obelisk is a ring of three personified sculptures and other decorations. Each male figure (they are known as tritons), representing one of the three rivers, holds a barrel shaped vase from which the water pours (or rather 'should' pour because in seven years of visiting Slovenia I've yet to see this fountain in operation). Dolphins curl around the base of the tritons. There was an earlier fountain in which four rivers became amalgamated in the persona of Neptune but this sculpture was considered second rate and clumsy in execution so the good people of Ljubljana demanded that another fountain be commissioned.

      The fountain is quite notable because it was a public fountain that was made from some of the best quality marble (Carrara marble) available at the time. In fact the marble was so expensive that for some years a guard was employed to guard it during the night. The marble was doubly expensive because the ship that was bringing the marble sank near Trieste and the marble had to be brought up from the sea bed. The story continues that the sculptor was never paid for the job because there was no money left to pay him although it is believed that he was paid a small sum a number of years later. At the time though, Robba was practically made bankrupt by the affair and he took himself off to Zagreb.

      The first time I saw this fountain I didn't understand the symbolism. Unless you see it during a guided tour or you have a very detailed guidebook, why would you know what it represents? I do think it says a great deal about the Slovenian people, though; in my experience Slovenians talk about the geography of their country in landmarks and regions rather than referring to the towns and cities. 'Pomurje' doesn't officially exist, it's just what Slovenians call the part of the country to the east of the River Mura. In Britain a county might well be named for its county town (Hertfordshire, Walrwickshire, for example), but Slovenian regions are more likely to be named after the chief river that runs through it, or some other natural feature of the landscape. The badge on the national flag depicts Mount Triglav (the name means 'three heads') and the rivers Drava (the one I love most as it passed through my adopted town of Maribor) and the Sava. So to celebrate three of the country's rivers in this way is a very Slovenian thing to do.

      The Ljubljanica, as the name suggests, runs through the capital although it is quite narrow at the point at which it passes through the city. It's the most modest of the three rivers represented in the fountain design, measuring just 41 kilometres in length, only slightly shorter than the miniscule Slovenian coastline. It's brevity notwithstanding, the Ljubljanica is a very important river because it is full (perhaps not so much any more) of treasures, so many in fact that in 2003 the Slovenian government issues a law that banned diving in the Ljubljanica without a permit. It is thought that tens of thousands of historic items have been removed from the river bed and sold privately. The oldest is a preserved spearhead made of yew that is believed to be date from the twelfth or thirteenth century BC, a find which has helped historians learn more about the inhabitants of the Ljubljana swamplands.
      The Ljubljanica is the continuation of several 'karst rivers' (karst being name given to the limestone terrain of this part of Slovenia) that flow from Prezidsko Poljetu near Vrhnika. Some are on the surface, others run through caves. As a result the Ljubljanica actually has seven names and the section that runs through the famous show-caves at Postojna is known as the Pivka.

      The might Sava is a tributary of the Danube at Belgrade. It rises in the Julian Alps near Kranjska gora and it passes through Slovenia and Croatia, skimming the northern border of Bosnia and Herzegovina before entering Serbia. It's the 16th longest river in Europe and the second longest European river that does directly empty into a sea. The Sava is approximately 947 kilometres long.
      The Krka runs through lower Carniola and is a tributary of the Sava, meeting the bigger river near the Croatian border. At 94 kilometres, it is the second longest river flowing in its entirety through Slovenia.

      I've always had a soft spot for this monument; I think that's down to seeing it for the first time wrapped up against the harsh winter elements. When I was back in Ljubljana in October of the same year I had to go back to see it undressed. I was not disappointed. Robba's figures are a splendid piece of Baroque sculpture and, in particular, I love the way he's captured the lively movements of the dolphins. In a city dominated by the work of Joze Plecnik, some of the other statues and buildings get overlooked but this one is one to look out for as you pass through the old town.

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