Of all the substances that humans need for survival, water is the most important. As we developed as a species, our relationship with water moved from one of survival to one where we could use fountains as decorative pieces. The history of how we manage to capture and display this precious resource using fountains is a fascinating one.
Back when water was a precious resource, the original purpose of fountains was to hold drinking water. A stone basin dating back as far 2000 B.C. was found the Sumerian city of Lagash. Some examples of how ancient peoples used them include connecting systems that connected rivers like the Nile to a series of basins with channels where the water could flow.
In ancient Greece, many fountains were built around shrines, and aqueducts were also popular. Gravity was used to distribute water and there were also embellishments such as porticoes for shade. These marble or stone fountains also had bronze pipes and often the water would emerge from a sculpted mask. The Greeks were some of the first people to use siphons to make water spouts. The Romans were also known for their aqueducts, and through the Roman empire, their technology spread throughout the world.
Fountains in The Islamic World
As early as the Middle Ages, Persian society had complex fountains and systems to distribute water. Fountains found in the palaces of the rulers of the kingdom were especially lavish. Ancient Islamic gardens came from the Middle East in the Arab and Persian world and were meant to represent paradise on Earth. Often surrounded by walls, they followed a pattern where they were split by four channels representing the four parts of the world.
Europe’s Early Fountains
During the Renaissance, there was renewed interest in traditional Roman architecture that led to many new fountains being built. Pope Nicholas V was responsible for reviving the tradition of marking the entry point of an aqueduct with a large fountain, called a “mostra”. The Medicis, a powerful Italian family, used fountains as a way to show power, so the design of many fountains built in city squares became much grander than before. Multiple jets and cascades showered the marble forms of the gods, animals, and mythological creatures of these new water features.
This would mark the beginning of the Baroque age. Rome’s Trevi Fountain is one of the most iconic and visually stunning of all the fountains from this time. At its peak is the papal crest, which is fitting as it was built to glorify three different popes.
The Baroque age also affected France. The fountains would be a central part of the formal gardens introduced by King Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles. The two centerpiece fountains in the palace gardens are based on myths about Apollo and also include the sun god. The fountains also serve to glorify the king, with his emblem being a central part of the design.