This talk is part of the Fountain Fundamentals Conference held July 10-11, 2013, Kansas City, MO.

A Brief Appreciation of Fountains Through History – Changing Functions, Appearances and Meaning – John Scott
John Scott: And so, I also hope that after such a really good series of highly technical and practically experienced presentations that we won’t mind a little bit of armchair history. Because although I trained as an art historian, that was years ago.

What we’ll do is, I think that there are a number of functional and structural, form and function connections in fountains through history and they connect obviously and certainly through our need for water to live and the motivation that our need for water to live exerts on our choice of locations to live. My sense is that as technology allowed us instead of having to live near water, to bring water to ourselves, that the functions of our mechanisms for getting water have changed.

I’m showing some images that are very recognizable and I start with this from Greece. There’s been a lot of excavation of Greek locations. In art history we often refer to paintings on Greek vases and ceramics to give us an idea of how things were done and we’re very familiar with that in art conservation and the history of technology. So if we look at this pot, toward the middle you can see somewhere on the wall, somewhere in Greece, at that time was a fountain. I’m sure this was not uncommon and a stream of water was coming out of this head in the wall and being collected in containers to be taken away.

Drinking water fountain in Paris.

Drinking water fountain in Paris.

So although there’s an aesthetic aspect to this and we see some architectural, some shorthand architectural features in this painting, centering on the source of water. Since the water is not being dipped out of the river, lake, pond, we know that they had technology at this point to bring water to themselves and we know from our archeological work that the Greeks indeed, and their predecessors and early people, early civilizations became civilizations because they were able to find and transport water.

Here’s some early, like first century Roman fountains from Pompeii. It’s now an architectural feature in itself, more overtly and it’s approached from sides or front. It’s got some containment and we’re starting to get beyond simply filling our hands or filling our container. We can dip, we can possibly bring animals to this water and we can also have a stream of water from these faces you see and an orifice toward the back that allows us to fill containers, wash your hands, or whatever without having to share the water with the animals.

Here’s a kind of baptismal fountain at Chartres. Here we’re not supposed to drink the water. We’re supposed to be immersed in it as a young child. So the fountains still by the late medieval times, still are a center of importance and utility and meaning for humans, for people in highly civilized areas and a baptismal fount strongly connected also with religion as of course in the Greek and Roman era before Christianity, the religion was hardly thought of and was just simply part of culture and of course in the early Christianity up through very recently and in our own time, that can be said for a lot of our major religions.

Here from a book of ours that’s reproduced in Planches, late nineteenth century encyclopedia of clothing, I forget the word he uses, is a depiction of I guess you could say gothic, late medieval scene in an elite setting and we have a design since it’s a painting, instead of knowing about this kind of renderings and books of ours and illustrated manuscripts, we know that they don’t always render exactly how things were or a specific fountain in this case, so much as an idea or a design that might have been good but what’s important for me to see at this point and you will appreciate the water that’s coming from this fountain could, it’s contained in the pool and you can see it’s being also so carried off and it even flows through that grate toward the bottom, but it is coming out in streams which you can put a container there and so you’re still carrying water away from this fountain. I’m sure there were some parts of the habitation that this shows where water was, also pipes just as it was clearly piped to this fountain. So there’s a mechanism for presenting water where you can get it and put it in a container where you can water a horse or an animal at the pool and eventually you can do some washing there.

Here is a sort of renovation in Speyer of a medieval fountain. A water container at the main square in Speyer and it’s well restored but it’s an indication of some structure for centering on water and dipping water that would have been contemporaneous or a little earlier than depicted in the painting that I just showed you. I couldn’t tell in looking at this, which you’ll see my wife and a couple of friends in the picture, some travel we were doing, German figures big in our family.

Here we’re at the Place, I don’t speak French, Place des Vosges in Paris where I was able to snap a shot. I didn’t have my iPad with me but clearly if I’d wanted one, even though this is an early seventeenth century location and the fountain is too, we have the modern world there too. So anyway, we’re also looking here at the, what we saw in the beginnings earlier as the basin, the multiple basins type of fountain, which were the first we’d seen in Rome and so forth, and we still have water in a pool, and I’m sure in modern times there would have been some alterations to the surroundings of this fountain but in a pool where you could potentially bathe or dip, but particularly water animals and also the water’s being delivered in streams so that you can reach out with a container and get the water. So the form of the fountain is still following the function and the function is still, although it’s really a sophisticated design form an aesthetic standpoint, it’s still a water delivery mechanism.

Whereas here in the same century in Rome, is a fountain with a kind of inverted bowl and not so many figures and the water here is decorative, it’s being lit at night and so it’s particularly decorative but there isn’t so much expectation here that you’re going to reach out with a container and get it and we’re seeing this at the very height of the power of the church in Rome and a high degree of design and construction and masonry here and also a fountain which was first made in the very early sixteen hundreds and then remade in the 1670’s, so design factor were changed.

But we’re starting to see a change, we’re seeing a change just in symbol, a rush through history here with my armchair of history, we’re seeing more emphasis on aesthetics, less emphasis on delivery, although there is still a pool and when we see those stanchions we don’t forget that even well into the nineteenth century people were still using horses and they were watering them. The other thing to keep in mind too, is that Rome really elevated the technology for aqueducts and for transporting water for distribution to the people so that the upper classes, the real elite would have water right into the home, but they had hundreds of fountains in Rome for people to go out and get the water they needed in order to keep living and a lot of them were highly decorative starting with the ancient Romans.

Here in Rome also, this was in a location near Cosma e Damiano. I’ve been to Rome a couple of times but my notes of where I snapped this shot is nearer to the Basilica of Saint Cosma e Damiano in the sort of Campatelli area. This is actually a nineteenth century fountain substantially made of cast iron and one reason I wanted to show it besides just to take you forward the idea of the fountain that’s made with a couple of large basins and also this one’s not functioning that way as the mouths of those animals around the main basin and the one above are made to deliver a stream of water that you could catch in a container but I wanted you to see, I’m sure as conservators and talking about biogrowth with fountains, everybody is just amazed to see this. I should have taken the photograph from the other side. This is a figure on top at the sort of finial figure of the fountain and it’s completely covered with sort of a mossy growth.

So the acquisition of water from fountains becomes more of dipping and in fact, in the nineteenth century in New York and here in Frankfurt, Germany, and the name of this fellow is Stoltze, Friedrich Stoltze, a literary person and see that the most important things functionally here, apart from the main aesthetic function of this little monument, are that there are basins around where you can just walk up and dip in and there were little what were originally small streams coming out of just above the basin on the pillar. So again, you could dip, you could fill a container, and sometimes it’s amazing to think that even into the early twentieth century in cities around the United States and around the world, I know in New York there were drinking fountains where they even had like a common cup that would be on a little chain next to each basin and people would just normally come and take a drink out of that cup, something we certainly wouldn’t do today.

Paris, which I’m not too familiar with but I loved to visit recently and I noticed that all over the city, they still have these drinking fountains or water fountains where there is a little stream of water just coming down the middle. There’s a cast iron construction, nineteenth century designed as far as I can tell, again armchair history here, but I found that these were really sweet and they’re maintained reasonable well, though this one isn’t. I ran into the first one that I noticed not far from the Sacre Coeur and Montmartre where all of us tourists must go at least the first time we’re in Paris, and although I snapped a shot of that, somehow I couldn’t find the photo. Staying in Paris at the Place du Concord, here is sort of I would say an apotheosis of if we’re outside of Rome, of the basins and figures and pool type of fountain and notice here that the streams of water, the jets of water are directed in, they’re not directed down where you can get some water, you’re not expected to come with your bucket or your urn or whatever and get water and take it home anymore. This is an expression of a highly technologically advanced society in the nineteenth century, I believe, is when this was made, but I am happy to learn by correction, when the jets of water for a fountain are for decorative and aesthetic effect and the whole fountain is sort of an exultant expression of the power of the society that was the French empire.
So anyway I wanted to show this because it is a very beautiful fountain and it also is the first one I’m showing you where the water stream is not there to give you some water to take home but it’s there for you to enjoy.

Here is an earlier fountain in Stuttgart, Germany. So this fountain still is throwing streams of water downward, however at least now and I don’t know how much the fountain may have been altered through time in its surrounds, but at least now you would have to go into the pool to hold your bucket or urn under those streams and they’re spread streams. They’re really made to splash and look nice. Another thing about this fountain is that it has a substantial amount of zinc sculpture decorating it, look at the little figures down below and I’ll give you a little bit of a close up on that.

Also in Germany, here in Frankfurt at the Rothe House, it looks kind of old design but that’s because its neo-gothic, nineteenth century, latter nineteenth century, especially people worldwide in western civilization just fell in love with the earlier times, the medieval and especially the gothic and so the front of this building, which fundamentally the building dates back to the fourteen hundreds and was the Rothe House ever since then for hundreds of years, but the facades here are a wonderful neo-gothic pastiche of earlier designs and so is the fountain situated in front. Now of course it has a protective fence around it and from its design you would think if you didn’t know how adept we are in mimicking all kinds of designs today, you would think at least that the fence when up sometime in the nineteenth century when the whole thing was built. But at any rate, the fountain still has its components of a catchment pool. Clearly this isn’t a functioning fountain right now and to cut down on slides in my presentation, I didn’t give you a close up on this but if we could zoom in, and I’m not adept enough, probably we could zoom in by expanding the image or something, you’d notice that about halfway down you have some little figures that are backed up and sort of back arched, very baroque looking little figures and their little heads are there and their mouths are like this with little holes and so clearly if when this was made it was a functional fountain, water was spraying out but again there would be no way you could get there to get some water from it and also you were living in a society in the late nineteenth century and later, where you didn’t need to do that.

So the fountains function has become throughout western civilization by this time, for the most part at least for the main urban centers and centers of the reasonably well to do society, their functions are aesthetic. Even though they bring out water, the water’s function is aesthetic as well and we’re getting our drinking water in other ways, washing water and our animal’s water.

So a number of us were in Lisbon a couple, three years ago for a meeting and so got to walk around and see a number of things and so in the area where a number of museums are, a little west of the main center of the city, there are some museums and major monuments along the river and here looking out from the wonderful modern art museum grounds, is a wonderful, huge fountain in the middle of the plaza. Here’s a little closer and if I could zoom in a little more you would or you see immediately anyway, if only from the tertiary arrangements in the flooring but also from the design of the entire fountain and the way the water is working that this is a twentieth century fountain. It has of course, heraldic features from earlier times and is surrounded by a plaza with a lot of nice stone sculpture that’s clearly of the same era.

Now we’re back to New York City, another nineteenth century creation or early twentieth century creation and so again, we have the basins, we have the water spilling over edges, we have the water coming out in discreet points but there’s absolutely no way you can get over there to get yourself some water. The pool that surrounds it is huge and you’re technically not supposed to get in it but there’s not much enforced, doesn’t really need to be in that park. It’s a beautiful setting and it shows really a fountain that’s certainly just like the entire park, was conceived for the relief and recreation and enjoyment of the people of New York and now the people of the world that help us survive in New York and not having anything really to do anymore with our need to have water in order to live or our need to have water in our households or to clean or to propel machines or anything like that.

Since I am here in Kansas City and since I went to a university nearby in Lawrence, I just can’t help showing you the kind of fountain on the campus of the University of Kansas. What do you know it has a pool, although this was a winter shot, I’m usually around here at winter time for holidays, it’s masonry and bronze, obviously has a tremendous amount of iron staining going on. I don’t know what kind of maintenance it gets. Lawrence is a beautiful town.

Back to Haute de Ville, again I don’t speak French but this is city hall in Paris you can tell by looking at it. But in the 1970’s the plaza on this side of city hall, the main entrance side of city hall, was redeveloped or redesigned and the major part on this end of that redesign area is this water feature and fountain. So it seems like although it fits in the area, it’s certainly very characteristic in design and function of the time and those of us who were in high school or college, university around those years can remember what was being done all over the place with things in sort a similar aesthetic or design idea. It seems to fit and we see that everyone is turned away from the water. We still have a big pool of water. Water is moving in that pool. If we look closely we can see little jets that aren’t being used but in the central long central part, water is going up in a lot of discreet streams and this can be considered beautiful. When I was there it probably wasn’t doing too much moving but I have an idea that there is probably some kind of a system that allows them to entertain with the jets as well. I just want to point out that this was in April, but the people aren’t paying much attention to this fountain. It’s an important part of the design of the area but it serves very much visually aesthetic and as a bench for people to sit. Now that’s not a negative comment obviously that’s part of the transition.

Here is something in Frankfurt, Germany, a twentieth century fountain. Again we have this discreet streams of water are produced but nobody needs to go there to get water. Well we won’t start talking about the homeless and so forth that do need features like this but they weren’t put there for that reason.

Something quite a bit more contemporary in 1995, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton commissioned this, what they call, its title is “Free Standing Fountain.” I

Ai Weiwei fountain at Princeton.

Ai Weiwei fountain at Princeton.

don’t show, because we’re focusing on fountains, I don’t show that sort of off in a line with the back wall of this free standing fountain, quite a little bit down the lawn, is a free standing blackboard that’s covered with slate, if you ever see that wonderful little campus there, it’s beautifully decorated with a lot of nice sculpture. This is one of them and they form an ensemble but I wanted to use this photograph so that it’s very clear that this is a fountain but you’re not going to get a drink from this fountain. You’re not going to wash your hands from this fountain. The water in this fountain comes up at the top and there’s a little catchment at the top that’s little cuts in the wall of that copper up there and the water drains down as you can see in pretty discreet paths down the side and this is the design. Actually, examining this and the other sculptures on campus, I think with a little thought especially given this Institute of Advanced Study, where there’s mathematics and other kinds of teaching and so forth going on, you can see that this would be very meaningful but there’s actually no way you can get a water benefit.

Back to France at the Pompadieu Center, here is a large water feature with sculptures either by or emulating Nicky St. Cloud and John Tingley, so I’ll just move on from that, having used time, let’s go back to Princeton. Very proud of Princeton on the left in this whole area anyway is a fountain plaza with a nice big pool and inactive jets around the very tall bronze sculpture and recently we’ve installed and reinstalled Ai Weiwei’s meeting of animals and zodiac head sculptures here, and so it’s an interesting juxtaposition of 1960’s design for this whole plaza sort of reminiscent of Lincoln Center and the sculpture too and then Ai Wei Wei’s contemporary use of really old Chinese designs for his sculpture which are so tremendously popular these days.

Let’s just wind up. Going to an environment which we’ve mentioned a little bit so far, it’s amazing in Dubai, these fountains that they’re making, I saw some kind of a feature, I guess it was on history TV in the background while I was doing office work not too long ago, the tremendous technology that’s being used to tap water underground and so forth they are able to not only supply drinking water for a new community, well they really are pretty new communities in Dubai and then in some of those wealthy places in the middle east but also to generate fountain entertainment. We talked about Las Vegas before and the connection actually between technology transfers. I wanted to remind you then of the 1970’s, maybe we could say someone else knows much better than I do, but the 1970’s might have been a time when this kind of thing was really getting going and here’s another view of city hall in Paris and its wonderful 1970’s era fountain and then the same fountain I showed you earlier in action.

So I’m very glad to be showing you this. I meant to emphasize more that the control of water has in a way sort of gone hand-in-hand and sometimes exchanged a little or less with art and architecture as expressions and sources of wealth and power. Anyone who hangs out with me knows that you have to keep me from talking about politics so I kept myself from doing it this time but art really and architecture in all of our cultures expresses the power of our civilization and of our technology and also expresses wealth that comes from that and from control of resources like water. And again in our time, we are noticing that control of water is becoming another political thing, and we’re finding that in some parts of the world including our own country, the water resources are starting to be a factor in that way.

And so, we’ve moved with water and fountains and water acquisitions systems from survival and utility to aesthetics and enjoyment and so I’d like to leave on the note of enjoyment. I’ve really enjoyed being here, although I haven’t got the lilting voice or really good joke telling, I hope it’s been a little bit of enjoyment not to be hearing a highly technical presentation.


A Brief Appreciation of Fountains Through History: Changing Functions, Appearances, and Meaning by John Scott

Water’s qualities are both essential and dangerous to human biology, behavior, consciousness and culture. Thus people and societies orient profoundly to water’s presence, availability, movement, repose, appearance, and sound–all qualities making fountains’ engineering, architecture and operations vital to human life and culture throughout history. Fountains express and celebrate human technology, power, tastes and sustainability.

Speaker Bio

John Scott conducts heritage conservation contracting, consulting, and education based in New York City and Pennsylvania, USA. John designs and leads applied conservation projects, and helps allied professionals  design and lead applied conservation projects, and he provides relevant practical research, materials and structural analyses, and advice. John lectures, and leads conservation-oriented seminars and symposium through the nfp New York Conservation Foundation, Eastern Analytical Symposium, New-York Microscopical Society, and others. John entered heritage conservation through multiple university graduate degrees, and through practical art, museums and mechanical training and experience.

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