Water gardens not only add garden artwork to a yard, but they also provide many functions, from adding a calming ambiance to providing water for wildlife. Knowing a little bit about the history of water gardens may help you decide if you want to include a water feature in your garden.
Fountains and Water Features from the Middle ages to the Early Renaissance
After the fall of the Roman Empire, monasteries kept alive utilitarian gardening until the beginning of the Renaissance in the late fourteenth century. They led the way in the management of land and control of water, using wells, local rivers and streams for domestic use and for fishponds. Simple cisterns could be found in cloister gardens and in many monasteries a wall fountain was placed within the cloister or, later on, at the meeting point of traversing paths, perhaps as part of the religious symbolism of the cross or the Garden of Eden. One of the influences on fountain design came from early church decoration on fonts and holy water basins. The design of receiving basins, which took the overflow from a fountain, was inspired by the iconography and numerical significance of the number of sides of a font. Six was important in the writings of St Augustine, as it was associated with the sixth day of the Passion, the day of Crucifixion, which St Augustine took as a symbol of the destruction of the body of sin. Octagonal basins also had their origins in Christian doctrine, where eight sides represented the eighth day, signifying the resurrection of Christ, which became the first day or the beginning of another world for the newly baptized. In the Middle Ages the public display of notable religious water features such as carved fonts and water stoops was to be found only in major church buildings. Decoration on church fonts often adopted Bible stories associated with water such as the baptisms of Christ and John the Baptist, and stories of Moses. Fonts were one of the most highly decorated pieces of church furniture. In the Middle Ages fonts where adorned with powerful religious symbolism such as scenes showing Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden. Garden fountains where often used for bathing and represented an earthly paradise and a source for spiritual rejuvenation. There are few civic fountains remaining of this period yet there are several located in Viterbo and the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia Italy. The Viterbo Fountain of Santa Faustina has minimal decoration with Four Lion fountains. The Lion has symbolized nobility bravery and strength for many different cultures over thousands of years throughout Europe.
During the late 1400s there was a cultural shift towards an appreciation of the finer aspects of art and literature. Now art was to be appreciated purely for its own sake. In Italy the evolution in philosophical thinking begun by Marsilio Ficino made efforts to reconcile paganism with religion and this together with the growing interest in antique remains allowed pagan images to be considered acceptable for contemporary designs. Small bronze pagan figures were particularly popular and were much prized as collectors’ items. They could be admired, discussed and handled with appreciation as much for their craftsmanship as for their subject matter. Similar designs were ideal for fountain figures. Until now most fountains, even those with figures, were set against a wall where a reservoir was concealed. The small bronze wall fountain figure thought to be by Donatello called Winged Boy with a Fantastic Fish, dating from about 1435-40, may be the link between wall-mounted and freestanding bronze fountains. The winged boy or putto is modeled almost in the round. He stands with his weight on his right leg to balance the large fish that he holds across his shoulders as he glances down to the left. He steadies the fish with his left hand and holds his other out in a clenched fist facing downwards. A neat hollow between the fingers of his right hand suggests that this cavity once held an object, possibly a small water wheel fixed on to a rod that whirled round under the force of water sprayed upwards by the little boy. As water filled the figure it also ran from the mouth of the fish. It is a fountain of mirth following the traditional belief that little urinating boys brought good luck. Donatello had carved many such small figures during his career, borrowing examples from antique putti on sarcophagi in the vicinity of Florence. One, on a sarcophagus in the Campo Santo in Pisa, shows a fruit and wine harvest gathered by putti with one infant lifting his shirt to urinate. So important were antique objects that Brunelleschi, the friend of Donatello, was reported to have thought nothing of walking 80 km/50 miles to see an antique vessel in Cortona when told about it.
One of the problems facing Renaissance artists who were interested in free-standing bronze sculpture for fountain design was how to resolve the all round viewpoints that such a figure required. Donatello produced probably the first sculpture in this style around 1430, the bronze statue of David, now in the Bargello in Florence, using the lost wax method. Because there was so little water for fountain display, artists had to consider the impact of the fountain when it was not working. The architectural lines of Renaissance gardens could be maintained in all seasons by using shaped evergreen planting and architectural features; fountains needed to be equally interesting at all times. Other problems in fountain production at this time included the need for a mechanism to vary the speed of water flow and the difficulty of putting designs into practice.
Because pagan subjects such as the Boy with a Dolphin were now acceptable in art, humanist patrons who wished to keep up appearances of Christian belief could do so even while decorating their gardens with pagan images. The book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by a Venetian monk, Francesco Colonna, was published in 1499. It follows the steps of the hero, Poliphilo, in a dream sequence that begins by a stream and continues through the magnificent gardens of an imaginary world. Twelve fountains are described in detail, each acting as a stage setting for the unfolding story. Giochi d’acqua (Water Games) and table fountains are described but there is little technological detail. The timely rediscovery of grotesque decoration (so called because it was found in grottoes) in the Domus Aurea (Golden House of Nero) in Rome in the 1480s offered artists the opportunity to reflect this style in their work. This can be seen in the woodcut illustrations in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Fountains and water features in private residences were a celebration of a person or family’s wealth and prosperity. In urban areas they combined religious and civic themes, which summarized the town’s revival and were seen as a crowing achievement for all to enjoy.
About the Author
By: James Ross
This article has been written based on knowledge gained from Milibus Ornamental Font Co. A company based in London that specialises in handmade Ornamental Lion Wall Fountains in Stainless Steel, Bronze and 18 ct Gold metals.
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