Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Habit de Fontainier

Very sorry to be away so long...I've just finished 9,000 words on a seventeenth century Fontainier--fountain engineer---for publication next spring. An exhausting thing to accomplish so close to Christmas. I blame this guy (from Nicholas L'Armessin's delightful Album des metiers, 1680).

Fountain engineering was a recognized profession in the Renaissance and early modern period, and itinerant fontainier traveled Europe installing waterworks for courts and courtiers. The automata they created, copper 'bodies' that moved and in some cases spoke, are considered forerunners of modern robotics, and Descartes was inspired by garden automata to compare the human body to a machine in his 1630 Treatise on Man. Popular types were siphon fountains, which could be used inside and made to flow with wine rather than mere water, birds that sang by hydraulic action, statues that wept, water organs, and giochi d'acqua, or water jokes, that surprised garden guests with sudden drenchings from hidden spouts. It sounds annoying, but I can personally attest that on a hot day in August in Florence, a little water joke is much appreciated.

The water-wonders were often housed in cave-like grottos, derived from the Greco-Roman tradition of the nymphaeum, which became a fashion all across Europe in the seventeenth century. A description from the intrepid Celia Fiennes, who went 'through England on a Side Saddle in the time of William and Mary', and visited the grotto of Wilton House, Wiltshire, in 1685:

Grottoe is att ye end of the garden just ye middle off ye house - its garnished with many fine ffigures of ye Goddesses, and about 2 yards off the doore is severall pipes in a line that with a sluce spoutts water up to wett the strangers - in the middle roome is a round table and a large Pipe in the midst, on which they put a Crown or Gun or a branch, and so yt spouts the water through ye Carvings and poynts all round ye roome at ye Artists pleasure to wet ye Company - there are figures at Each corner of ye roome that Can weep water on the beholders and by a straight pipe on ye table they force up ye water into ye hollow carving of ye rooff like a Crown or Coronet to appearance but is hollow within to retaine ye water fforced into it in great quantetyes yt disperses in ye hollow Cavity over ye roome and descends in a Shower of raine all about ye roome - on each side is two little roomes which by the turning their wires ye water runnes in ye rockes - you see and hear it and also it is so contrived in one room yt it makes ye melody of Nightingerlls and all sorts of birds wch engages ye Curiosity of ye Strangers to go in to see, but at ye Entrance off each room is a line of pipes that appear not till by a Sluce moved - it washes ye spectators designed for diversion.

And now I am done, for awhile, with fountains.

(read Celia Fiennes' entire travel journey online here. See more of the original L'Armessin prints, or purchase the Fontainier for Christmas for a mere £1250 at the Shapero gallery.)


Hermes said...

... and fountains as practical jokes, designed to soak the unwary. Your essay sounds most interesting.

Sylvia (England) said...

Lovely to see you back, hope the publication goes well. One of the saddest things is seeing a fountain without any water - dried up and dead. Or when visiting a garden, looking forward to seeing a fountain and finding that it is empty for cleaning. I would love to visit the water gardens in Italy - one day I might get there.

Best wishes Sylvia

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