2.3. Fountains

Ever since Georg Andreas Böckler (1644 – 1698) published his ‘Architectura Curiosa Nova’ in 1664, with a staggering variety of fountains, the subject of hydro-dynamics reached an immanent visibility. However, the book was the pinnacle of an architectonic development, which had set in much earlier. The element of water, with its use and significance in city- and garden design, had its roots in a profuse classical past.

The outlay of the Quattro Fontane in Rome by Pope Sixtus V was, in that respect, the highlight of a Renaissance soul finding its mission (fig. 34). The four fountains are situated at the crossing between the Strada Felice (named after Sixtus V, Felice Peretti), running from Trinata dei Monti to S. Maria Maggiore and Strada Pia from Porta Pia to the Quirinal (or Monte Cavallo).


Fig. 34 – The church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (St. Charles at the Four Fountains) was built by Francesco Borromino (1599 – 1667) from 1638 to 1641. The Baroque building is situated at the crossing of the Strada Felice and Strada Pia. Four fountains characterize the square in front of the church. This drawing was made by Giovanni Battista Falda in the later seventeenth century.

The number four gained a cosmetic value in the process of development of the square. It does not seem to be planned. The original fountains dated from around 1588. They were later fitted in the facade of the Baroque buildings as constructed by Muzio Mattei: the Palazzo Albanidel Drago, Palazzo Barberini and the Quirinal Palace. The fourth fountain (Tiber) was incorporated in the church of San Carlino (S. Carlo alle Quattre Fontane) and was decorated around 1698.

The four fountains represented the rivers Aniene (or Arno) and Tiber and the goddesses Juno and Diana. The sculptures seem to be older than the fountains. The tetradic symbolism of the Quattro Fontane is therefore, a mixed affair. It seems at best the result of a renewed interpretation of the Ideale Classico in a more popular form.

The church on the crossing of the Quattro Fontane – the S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane – ‘springs from the contrast between convention and freedom’. The building was commissioned to Francesco Borromini (1599 – 1667), and mainly built between 1638 and 1641. The upper half of the façade was completed in 1675-77 (after his death) by his nephew. Borromini was initially a stone mason, who worked on the St. Peter under Carlo Maderno, the official architect to St. Peter’s and was later employed in the workshop of Bernini.

Another fountain of that same period and of equal importance is the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome, conceived by the sculptor Bernini. Bernini already employed the classical theme of water around 1620, when he designed a Neptune and Triton for a nephew of Sixtus V, Cardinal Montalto. The Fountain of the Barcaccia at the Piazza di Spagna had the shape of a boat (symbolizing the Church as a ship) and dated from around 1627-29 (SCHAMA, 1995). An enormous shell, itself supported on the back of dolphins, was used for the Fountain of the Triton, at the Piazza Barberini in Rome (1642-43). His masterpiece of exuberance and playfulness, however, was the Fountain of the Four Rivers at the Piazza Navona in Rome. The Piazza was originally a circus (under Emperor Domitian) and was used as a market place throughout the ages (fig. 35).


Fig. 35 – The Fountain of the Four Rivers at the Piazza Navona in Rome is the masterpiece of the sculptor Bernini. Tetradic imagery is used here for the benefit and glorification of Pope Innocent X.

Pope Innocent X commissioned the lower section of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in 1646-47. This rather solid section consisted of animals, trees and plants in a rock pool or grotto-like setting. Above this created organic world are four sculptured personifications of rivers in ‘titanic twists and turns’: Danube (symbolizing Europe), Nile (Africa), Ganges (Asia) and Rio de la Plata (Americas). An obelisk topped the architectural composition. The devotion to the obelisk and its mystical hind to Egyptian antiquities had already started under Sixtus V and his ideas about a revitalization of Rome. This mixture of Ovidian themes and Egyptian references had to create, in Bernini’s view, a new unity. The four rivers of Paradise were turned into a symbol of the reign of Pope Innocent X over the four continents and their pagan cults. The building activities continued through the Holy Year of 1650 and the fountain was inaugurated in 1652.

The theme of fountains runs through the main categories of architecture and four types can be distinguished from a quadralectic point of view:

1. The Arcadian version of a fountain is incorporated in the landscape or in garden design. The (natural) well and its surroundings is a place of tranquility and holiness. The fountain in its mystical environment is like the Fountain of the Philosophers (HAEFFNER, 1986) and historically used in its capacity as a ‘source’ (of knowledge, wisdom, youth, etc.).

The fountain of Mercurius (or fons Mercurialis; fig. 36), in which ‘the mineral, plants and animals are one and form one clear water, which cleans everything and contains all the necessary’ is an example of the symbolic use the theme. The ‘three-headed Hermes’ (Hermes tricephalus) points to a mental organization inspired by the three-division.


Fig. 36 – The Fountain of Mercurius is known from the alchemical world. The two- and three-division are the most prominent in this ‘pagan’ representation of theme of the fontes.

Saint Adomnán of Iona (627/8 – 704) was abbot of Iona (679 – 704) and author of the Vita of Saint Columba. He described a natural version of a well in his De Locis Sanctis (The Holy Places). The sketch of Jacob’s well in Sichem (fig. 37) is positioned in an Arcadian setting. The cross-structure has a reference to a four-fold (Christian) equality.


Fig. 37 – This sketch of Jacob’s well at Sichem is given in Adamnan’s manuscript of De Locis Sanctis, dating from the ninth century (Vienna, Cod. 458, f17v).

2. The monumental version of a fountain falls within the context of city design. The fountain not only marks a place of community, togetherness, and contemplation, but also tries to convey some sort of idea or ideology. A good example is the ‘Quattro Stagioni’ at the Papacqua fountain in Soriano nel Cimino, dated from the sixteenth century. This fountain was instigated by Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo, a friend of Vicino Orsini and inspired by Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia. Many sculptures of Pan figures, nymphs and animals decorate the waterworks, pointed deliberately to the idea of an Arcadian happiness. One of the sculptures could even have been Viciono Orsini himself, the creator of the famous sculpture garden of Bomarzo (KOOLBERGEN, 1984/1996; see also p. 40).

The monumental fountain on the Piazza Navona in Rome, designed by Bernini was already mentioned.  This fountain is a fake from a quadralectic point of view, prostituting on all kinds of four-fold imagery, but trying to express the idea of power (of Pope Innocent X). The four nude youths (called Moors because of the darkened stones) figuring in the Fountain of the Moors, in the Villa Lante in Bagnaia seem to have a similar function of celebrating a personal power (Cardinal Montalto) under the veil of Arcadian symbolism (LAZZARO, 1990).

The famous Trevi Fountain at the Piazza di Trevi in Rome (fig. 38) was designed by Pietro da Cortona and Bernini in the seventeenth century, but the building came to a standstill after the death of pope Urban VIII. The construction was resumed some hundred years later under pope Clement XII, and was finished in 1751. The central Arch of Triumph (or the palace of Neptune) was the center of a two-fold symmetry with statues in niches on both sides of the central figure of Neptune and his chariot drawn by two horses. The ‘placid horse’ and the ‘agitated horse’ referred to an oppositional setting. The statues in the side niches (by F. Valle), on the other hand, with the symbols of Abundance (left) and Salubrity (right), seem to indicate a reference to the multitude.


Fig. 38 – The Trevi Fountain in Rome is one of the most famous fountains in the world. The spirit of exuberance is the reflection of a distinct phase of  visibility in the European cultural history, which started in the middle of the seventeenth and came to a close at the end of the eighteenth century.

3. The representational version of the fountain makes up the majority of fountains. It is placed on squares and markets with the intention to provide water. The fountain is, in this view, a practical item, just to get water for cooling or drink and with no further search for associations with theological or mythological themes. Most villages and cities in Europe do have such a fountain and the number and variety of forms would be too extensive to cover. The fountain in the courtyard of Son Raxa on the Spanish isle of Majorca has to be the only example given here (fig. 39). This practical outfit of a contraption to hail water to the surface in a dry climate does not have any ideological or even Arcadian intentions. Anybody who wants to see more in this fountain is invited to do so.

Having said this, it cannot be denied that the demarcation line between the representational and the (previous) monumental or even the Arcadian version of a fountain is often hard to draw. The most functional fountain often has some sort of symbolism attached to it, even if it was not intentionally. The peaceful surroundings of an idyllic village square can give to the most elementary fountain architectonic contents, which was probably never intended by the builders, but had become in time a tribute to a perfect setting.


Fig. 39 – A courtyard fountain at Son Raxa, Majorca is an example of a representational and functional fountain.

4. The fountain as an essential element in architecture incorporates all the previous stages and adds the knowledge of its being to the process. Water in an essential-quadralectic setting gains its own momentum as a Fourth Quadrant force, with all the characteristics of that quadrant of the visible invisibility. The fountain becomes a medium to transpose not only an idea, but also the whole specter of ideas, which are called art.

The artist Athena Tacha (born in Greece in 1936), who was mentioned in the introduction of this book, emphasized the role of water in the public domain as a source of natural movement. Her sculpture Streams in Vine Street Park in the city of Oberlin (Ohio) is an excellent example of a blending between natural structure and artistic intentions born in a higher division environment (fig. 40). Tacha’s work in the fields of environmental public sculpture and conceptual art shows an affinity with ‘connections’ – deciphering the language of nature in human terms.


Fig. 40 – The sculpture Streams by Athena Tacha in Oberlin, Ohio (USA) is an example of an essential fountain. This water object  reflects  the four (quadralectic) visions. The Arcadian setting (innocent), the monumental presence (idealistic), the representational appearance (functional) and the essential (art) come together in this fountain as a piece of art within an urban environment.

The essential fountain line ends in Marcel Duchamp’s art work called Fountain’ (1917). This ‘ready-made’ consisted of a urinal rotated over ninety degrees with the inscription ‘R. Mutt 1917’ (fig. 41). The artist Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968) acquired the original lavatory urinal directly from J.L. Mott Iron Works and the inscription was also a reference to the popular comic strip ‘Mutt and Jeff’. The original ‘Fountain’ of 1917 has since disappeared, but a signed and numbered edition was produced in 1964 in Milan. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA, 2000) recently acquired a work from this series. It might well be that the fountain – as a quadralectic entity – has reached its final level of intention here.


Fig. 41 – This work of art by Marcel Duchamp is called ‘Fountain’ (1917). The artist rotated a lavatory urinal to create a ‘ready-made’ fountain. The porcelain urinal was rejected from an exhibition sponsored by the Society for Independent Artists in New York. The transformation became a symbol of a new approach to art in the twentieth century.

This short survey of the fountain as an architectural feature indicates a wide variety of forms. The main contribution to the field of inquiry will be the suggestion of a four-fold division within this observational multitude. Any fountain, either historical or modern, can be placed in one of the four  quadralectic interpretations. Its presence can be ‘neutral’, as a source (I), ideological-monumental (II), representational-practical (III) and/or artistic-essential (IV). This division – with its various stages of intermingling – can add to the understanding of fountains in general.

The use of water – as an element closely related to multiplicity – has its own distinct place and importance in the history of building and gardening. The unspoken message of elementary being, movement, reflection and multiplicity is precisely the contents of any good piece of (quadralectic) architecture – even if the element of water is not present in the visible rendering of the building. Any modern edifice has to take these characteristics into account, knowing that the human soul needs an ever-increasing space to appreciate the language of (material) creation.

The fountain is the messenger of the universe. Water acts as a mirror with an endless reflection and its movement prevents any type of stagnant contemplation. This interpretation is, in short, also the message of modern quadralectic thinking.

1 Response to 2.3. Fountains

  1. Pingback: Fountains | Cubic Muse

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