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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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(Late Lat. fontana, from Eons, a spring), a term applied in a restricted sense to such outlets of water as, whether fed by natural or artificial means, have contrivances of human art at a point where the water emerges. A very early existing example is preserved in the carved Babylonian basin (about 3000 s.c.) found at Tello, the ancient Lagash, and Layard mentions an Assyrian fountain, found by him in a gorge of the river Gomel, which consists of a series of basins cut in the solid rock and descending in steps to the stream. The water had been originally led from one to the other by small conduits, the lowest of which was ornamented by two rampant lions in relief. The term is applied equally to the simpler arrangements for letting water gush into an ornamental basin or to the more elaborate ones by which water is mechanically forced into high jets; and a "fountain" may be either the ornamental receptacle or the jet of water itself. In modern times the examples of ornamental or useful fountains are legion, and it will suffice here to mention some of the more important facts of historical interest.

Among the Greeks fountains were very common in the cities. Springs being very plentiful in Greece, little engineering skill was required to convey the water from place to place. Receptacles of sufficient size were made for it at the springs; and to maintain its purity, structures were raised enclosing and covering the receptacle. In Greece they were dedicated to gods and goddesses, nymphs and heroes, and were frequently placed in or near temples. That of Pirene at Corinth (mentioned also by Herodotus) was formed of white stone, and contained a number of cells from which the pleasant water flowed into an open basin. Legend connects it with the nymph Pirene, who shed such copious tears, when bewailing her son who had been slain by Diana, that she was changed into a fountain. The city of Corinth possessed many fountains. In one near the statues of Diana and Bellerophon the water flowed through the hoofs of the horse Pegasus. The fountain of Glauce, enclosed in the Odeum, was dedicated to Glauce, because she was said to have thrown herself into it believing that its waters could counteract the poisons of Medea. Another Corinthian fountain had a bronze statue of Poseidon standing on a dolphin from which the water flowed. The fountain constructed by Theagenes at Megara was remarkable for its size and decorations, and for the number of its columns. One at Lerna was surrounded with pillars, and the structure contained a number of seats affording a cool summer retreat. Near Pharae was a grove dedicated to Apollo, and in it a fountain of water. Pausanias gives a definite architectural detail when he says that a fountain at Patrae was reached from without by descending steps. Mystical, medicinal, surgical and other qualities, as well as supernatural origin, were ascribed to fountains. One at Cyane in Lycia was said to possess the quality of endowing all persons descending into it with power to see whatever they desired to see; while the legends of fountains and other waters with strange powers to heal are numerous in many lands. The fountain Enneacrunus at Athens was called Callirrhoe before the time the water was drawn from it by the nine pipes from which it took its later name. Two temples were above it, according to Pausanias, one dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, and the other to Triptolemus. The fountain in the temple of Erechtheus at Athens was supplied by a spring of salt water, and a similar spring supplied that in the temple of Poseidon Hippios at Mantinea.

The water-supply of Rome and the works auxiliary to it were on a scale to be expected from a people of such great practical power. The remains of the aqueducts which stretched from the city across the Campagna are amongst the most striking monuments of Italy. Vitruvius (book viii.) gives minute particulars concerning the methods to be employed for the discovery, testing and distribution of water, and describes the properties of different waters with great care, proving the importance which was attached to these matters by the Romans. The aqueducts supplied the baths and the public fountains, from which last all the populace, except such as could afford to pay for a separate pipe to their houses, obtained their water. These fountains were therefore of large size and numerous. They were formed at many of the castella of the aqueducts. According to Vitruvius, each castellum should have three pipes, - one for public fountains, one for baths and the third for private houses. Considerable revenue was drawn from the possessors of private water-pipes. The Roman fountains were generally decorated with figures and heads. Fountains were often also the ornament of Roman villas and country houses; in those so situated the water gener ally fell from above into a large marble basin, with at times second fall into a still lower receptacle. Two adjacent houses in Pompeii had very remarkable fountains. One, says Gell, "is covered with a sort of mosaic consisting of vitrified tesserae of different colours, but in which blue predominates. These are sometimes arranged in not inelegant patterns, and the grand divisions as well as the borders are entirely formed and ornamented with real sea-shells, neither calcined by the heat of the eruption nor changed by the lapse of so many centuries" (Pompeian¢, i. 196). Another of large size was similarly decorated with marine shells, and is supposed to have borne two sculptured figures, one of which, a bronze, is in the museum at Naples. This fountain projects 5 ft. 7 in. from the wall against which it is placed, and is 7 ft. wide in front, while the height of the structure up to the eaves of the pediment is 7 ft. 7 in. On a central column in the piscina was a statue of Cupid, with a dove, from the mouth of which water issued. Cicero had, at his villa at Formiae, a fountain which was decorated with marine shells.

Fountains were very common in the open spaces and at the crossways in Pompeii. They were supplied by leaden pipes from the reservoirs, and had little ornament except a human or animal head, from the mouth of which it was arranged that the water should issue. Not only did simple running fountains exist, but the remains of jets d'eau have been found; and a drawing exists representing a vase with a double jet of water, standing on a pedestal placed in what is supposed to have been the impluvium of a house. There was also a jet d'eau at the eastern end of the peristyle of the Fullonica at Pompeii.

As among the Greeks, so with the early Celts, traces of superstitious beliefs and usages with relation to fountains can be traced in monumental and legendary remains. Near the village of Primaleon in Brittany was a very remarkable monument, - one possibly unique, as giving distinct proof of the existence of an ancient cult of fountains. Here is a dolmen composed of a horizontal table supported by two stones only, one at each end. All the space beneath this altar is occupied by a long square basin formed of large flat stones, which receives a fountain of water. At Lochrist is another vestige of the Celtic cult of fountains. Beneath the church, and at the foot of the hill upon which it is built, is a sacred fountain, near which is erected an ancient chapel, which with its ivy-covered walls has a most romantic appearance. A Gothic vault protects this fountain. Miraculous virtues are still attributed to its water, and on certain days the country people still come with offerings to draw it (see La Poix de Freminville, Antiquites de la Bretagne, i. p. 1 c I). In the enchanted forest of Brochelande, so famous from its connexion with Merlin, was the fountain of Baranton, which was said to possess strange characteristics. Whoever drew water from it, and sprinkled the steps therewith, produced a tremendous storm of thunder and hail, accompanied with thick darkness.

Christianity transferred to its own uses the ancient religious feeling concerning fountains. Statues of the Virgin or of saints were erected upon the rude structures that collected the water and preserved its purity. There is some uniformity in the architectural characteristics of these structures during the middle ages. A very common form in rural districts was that in which the fountain was reached by descending steps (fontaine grotte) . A large basin received the water, sometimes from a spout, but often from the spring itself. This basin was covered by a sort of porch or vault, with at times moulded arches and sculptured figures and escutcheons. On the bank of the Clain at Poitiers is a fountain of this kind, the Fontaine Joubert, which though restored in 1597 was originally a structure of the 14th century. This kind of fountain is frequently decorated with figures of the Virgin or of saints, or with the family arms of its founder; often, too, the water is the only ornament of the structure, which bears a simple inscription. A large number of these fountains are to be found in Brittany and indeed throughout France, and the great antiquity of some of them is proved by the superstitions regarding them which still exist amongst the peasantry. A form more common in populous districts was that of a large open basin, round, square, polygonal, or lobed in form, with a columnar structure at the centre, from the lower part of which it was arranged that spouts should issue, playing into an open basin, and supplying vessels brought for the purpose in the cleanest and quickest manner. The columns take very various forms, from that of a simple regular geometrical solid, with only grotesque masks at the spouts, to that of an elaborate and ornate Gothic structure, with figures of virgins, saints and warriors, with mouldings, arches, crockets and finials. At Provins there is a fountain said to be of the 12th century, which is in form an hexagonal vase with a large column in the centre, the capital of which is pierced by three mouths, which are furnished with heads of bronze projecting far enough to cast the water into the basin. In the public market-place at Brunswick is a fountain of the 15th century, of which the central structure is made of bronze. Many fountains are still existing in France and Germany which, though their actual present structure may date no earlier than the 15th or 16th century, have been found on the place of, and perhaps may almost be considered as restorations of, pre-existing fountains. Except in Italy few fountains are of earlier date than the 14th century. Two of that date are at the abbey of Fontaine Daniel, near Mayenne, and another, of granite, is at Limoges. Some of these middle-age fountains are simple, open reservoirs enclosed in structures which, however plain, still carry the charm that belongs to the stone-work of those times. There is one of this kind at Cully, Calvados, walled on three sides, and fed from the spring by two circular openings. Its only ornamentation is a small empty niche with mouldings. At Lincoln is a fountain of the time of Henry VIII., in front of the church of St Mary Wickford. At Durham is one of octangular plan, which bears a statue of Neptune.

The decay of architectural taste in the later centuries is shown by the fountain of Limoges. It is in form a rock representing Mount Parnassus, upon which are carved in relief Apollo, the horse Pegasus, Philosophy and the Nine Muses. At the top Apollo, in the 16th-century costume, plays a harp. Rocks, grass and sheep fill up the scene.

Purely ornamental fountains and jets d'eau are found in or near many large cities, royal palaces and private seats. The celebrated Fontana di Trevi, at Rome, was erected early in the 18th century under Pope Clement XII., and has all the characteristics of decadence. La Fontana Paolina and those in the piazza of St Peter's are perhaps next in celebrity to that of Trevi, and are certainly in better taste. At Paris the Fontaine des Innocens (the earliest) and those of the Place Royal, of the Champs Elysees and of the Place de la Concorde are the most noticeable. The fountain of the lions and other fountains in the Alhambra palace are, with their surroundings, a very magnificent sight. The largest jets d'eau are those at Versailles, at the Sydenham Crystal Palace and at San Ildefonso.

About the earliest drawing of any drinking fountain in England occurs in Moxon's Tutor to Astronomic and Geographic (1659) it is "surmounted by a diall, which was made by Mr John Leak, and set upon a composite column at Leadenhall corner, in the majoralty of Sir John Dethick, Knight." The water springs from the top and base of the column, which stands upon a square pedestal and bears four female figures, one at least of which represents the costume of the period.

In the East the public drinking fountains are a very important institution. In Cairo alone there are three hundred. These "sebeels" are not only to be seen in the cities, but are plentiful in the fields and villages.

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association (1859) has done much to provide facilities in London for both man and beast to get water to drink in the streets. And in the United States liberal provision has also been made by private and public enterprise.

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Fountain'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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