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Florentine Fountains: Sculpture, Not Water

While Roman fountains seem designed primarily for the display of water, the Florentine fountains exist for the display of sculpture. Certainly their outstanding characteristic in the Cinquecento is the tendency of the figure sculpture to dominate the structural portions of basins and shaft, as in the overpowering nudes upon Giovanni Bologna's Fountain of Oceanus in the Boboli Garden, or the riot of sculpture which covers Ammannati's great Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria.

At the Florentine villas, where the design of fountains was in the hands of sculptors, there was a marked predilection for the freestanding types. This popularity was likely because of the opportunity which they afforded for sculpture in the round, a consuming interest in the Florentine school of the Cinquecento. Modern examples can be found at http://www.garden-fountains.com.

Water plays only a minor part in the design of Florentine fountains, seldom receiving a monumental treatment. This fact was due partly to the artists' primary interest in the sculpture, partly to the limited supply of water in Florence and its environs which confined the sculptor to the effects possible with slender jets. The linking of the stream of water with the statue was well adapted to this limitation, and the designers of fountains rang the changes on the water motifs evolved in the preceding century, adding others, such as the wringing out of the water from the hair or beard. In Tribolo's charming Fountain of the Labyrinth, at the Villa of Petraia, a slender stream falls from the locks of the terminal figure.

Such effects may seem to us, with our knowledge of the naturalistic and massive handling of the water in the later Roman fountains, petty and artificial. But the Florentines of the Renaissance delighted in their ingenuity. Even when a considerable supply of water was available, as in the Great Fountain at Castello, for which Tribolo united all the streams from the fountains on higher levels, there was a tendency to weaken the effect by subdivision into numerous petty jets. The water of the Tuscan fountain trickled rather than gushed.

After the wholesale deforestation of the Tuscan countryside in the nineteenth century, the water supply of Florence and its environs became more limited than ever, so that one would frequently see dry fountains. Yet the effect of the whole is seldom greatly impaired by the lack of the water, so slight is the part which it plays in the design, so great the emphasis upon the sculpture.

The copious supply of water made available by the restoration of ancient aqueducts in Rome and its environs led to the particular study of water effects, which were treated with a new grandeur and freedom. Majestic cascades fall from great heights into calm pools below, a veritable geyser gushes upward from the Fountain of the Dragons and along the bypaths, and myriad minor jets toss their cooling spray into the air. Roman fountains, above all others, seem primarily designed for the display of water; when temporarily deprived of the liquid element, they present a most unnatural appearance. The pathetic effect of one that remains permanently dry can be described only by the Italian phrase "una tontana morta."

The sculpture which decorated the Roman fountains, however, received little attention. This was due in part to the plethora of ancient statuary which could be reused, and the scarcity of contemporary sculptors at Rome. The great second court of the Vigna di Papa Giulio and the grounds of the Villa Montalto were once alive with classical figures, while at the Villa d'Este there was originally a wealth of ancient statuary. For all this, the chief cause for indifference to Roman fountain sculpture lay in the fact that the designers were more interested in the water and in architectural effects. In a word, the fountains of the Roman villas are architects' fountains.

Submitted by:

Elizabeth Jean

Find wall fountains based on Florentine themes within the Water Wall Fountains collection at garden-fountains.com.




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