Farcical Fountains in the Fagel collection

Dr Maria Elisa Navarro Morales is a professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture. She and her students have this year been looking at the architecture titles in the Fagel Collection, although for obvious reasons they have not been able to see them in person. The students submitted blogposts, three of which will be published here. Although they included bibliographies in their essays, for brevity we have omitted them. This post is by Olivia Bayne.

*SPLASH* without warning, followed by a roar of shrieks and laughter.  There you were, innocently admiring the garden view from a gallery window when, suddenly, some strange figure hidden in the foliage threw a bucket of water in your face.  Equal parts damp and mortified, you scurry out of the room; away from potential further drenching, away from the laughter of other guests soon to be met with similar ironic fates. Down the hall you come across a mirror.  Stopping to rearrange your hair and wipe the water from your brow, you straighten up, smile, and *poof* another figure, this time hidden in the rafters, has emptied a sack of flour atop your head.  You are now wettened and whitened – just in time for dinner.  Your host must be a madman; surely this is nothing more than a madhouse.

Fig. 1: Guests run away under a cloak from surprise water jets. Giovanni Battista Falda, Le fontane di roma, Rome, 1691. Shelfmark: Fag. I.I.27 no.3, plate 10.

And yet such feats of whimsical antagonism were very common in European Renaissance villas; particularly in their gardens.  Outdoor festivities, weather permitting, were especially popular in Italy, as well as France and Spain.

Feasts would be staged on phony islands, flooding and sinking over the course of dinner.

Hanging bridges would be overturned, tossing guests into the ponds below.

Hidden traps would trigger surprise water features in strategic locations.

All well and good in the heat of the summer, but in the cooler regions of northern Europe, those not wishing to risk hypothermia found these watery gardens to be perhaps best accessible through books. Readers and collectors lived vicariously through animated engravings of fountain frolics or preserved the images as reminders of the festivities of their own trips abroad.

Fig.2 Villa Lante, Bagnaia. Source: File:Villa Lante Jardins.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

Home to many such garden entertainment texts, the Fagel collection offers us today some similarly vicarious form of exploration of these excitements – despite our being worlds away and centuries apart from the action.

Through the pages we explore gardens; wandering mysterious pathways, bathing pools, and conveniently private grottos which entertained so many a romantic escapade.  We watch as guests are entranced, confounded, interrupted, and mocked by the sudden animation of their surrounding decorations.  Fountains, statues, and automata, delighting and stimulating, lured in visitors with their beauty, their brilliance, or their allusion to some mythological story seeking to be retold.

Then, brought to life either triggered by a special stepping-stone, or by the garden attendants who ran about switching them on and off, the ‘frolicsome engines’ would lash out, bubbling and gurgling, dousing their audiences with jets (Italian: zampilli, pìspini, giocchi d’acqua), spattering (acque spezzate), and rain (pioggia).

Booming water organs would imitate the sounds of wind, thunder, and shrieking, while automata birds whistled alongside the lyres and trumpets of mythical creatures.

Zampilli animated statues, mimicking lactation (Fig. 3), urination (Fig. 4), weeping, breathing, bleeding, and sometimes weaponry (Fig. 5).  Characters rendered from spongey travertine (spugna), even had water fed through their porous stone in imitation of sweating skin. Sprays of mist would humidify and fragrance the air with the delightful scents of surrounding flowers and exotic plants.  Jets would arch over paths and staircases creating rainbows; or would spurt up from the ground (or the seats of chairs), wetting unsuspecting guests from below (Fig. 6).

These gardens were evidently not for the fainthearted, and seemingly harmless jests were sometimes not appreciated, and other times, even took a dark turn.

In André le Nôtre’s letters of his touring Roman and Florentine gardens, the Versailles landscape architect referred to these fountain designs as ‘trifles’, considering their playfulness to lack nobility and greatness. But indulgence in such trifles led to a more serious situation at one banquet in the Giardino alle Stalle, Florence, where Carlo de’ Medici is said to have taken advantage of the mischievous setting for a less humorous venture: drowning a love rival.  The unfortunate beau’s body was found that same night; real danger and death (whether intentional or accidental), undoubtably putting a damper on the mood.

Fig. 7: A guest is blasted in the face by a beam of water as another falls to the ground, others pointing in horror. Giovanni Francesco Venturini, Le Fontane del Giardino Estense in Tivoli con li Loro Prospetti, e Vedute della Cascata del Fiume Aniene, Rome, 1691. Shelfmark: Fag. I.I.27 no.4, plate 15

For the sake of whimsical aesthetics, hydraulic systems shot beams of water vertically into the air, levitating objects and dishes (Fig. 8); tumbled waves over chalice lips like ‘tablecloths’; or created streams of wine to fill guests’ glasses al fresco.  Plated edible delicacies would even float about basins in imitation of Pliny the Younger’s ancient villa.

Both the Medici gardens at Castello and at Pratolino also featured the curious creation of living trees which spouted water from their branches and trunks; the former even accommodating a dining room treehouse with interior jets to bounce eggs in the air, spray visitors, and cleanse, cool, and fill drinking glasses.

Fig. 8: A water jet used to balance a ball in the air. Giovanni Battista Falda, Le fontane di roma, Rome, 1691. Shelfmark: Fag. I.I.27 no.2, plate 7

Stuffed elephants, boar heads, and horned monkeys were reanimated by waterpower to ornament the gardens; while exotic seashells, mother-of-pearl, branches of coral, and precious stones were arranged in grottos housing kinetic nymphish automata (Fig. 9).

Mythological characters would blink, roll their eyes, open their mouths, and play musical instruments, while others would act out entire scenes and battles, often coordinated across the yard.

John Evelyn’s 1644 diary recording his visit to the palace at Saint-Germain-en-Laye relates the account of an automaton Neptune with a streaming blue beard, surrounded by farriers hammering iron on an anvil, their sweat drenching eager audiences with sprays of water. Simultaneously, automata gods played lyre and trumpets, and a far-off Andromeda was freed from her chains at the exact moment a Perseus triumphed in his final blow, slaying a mighty beast.

These gardens were not spaces of quiet contemplation, but places for amusement.  The audience themselves, through their senses of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste, were wholly interactive participants in the creative artistic processes at hand. Appreciation was not based on passive, contemplative observation, but on spontaneous tangible stimulation.

Fig. 11: Water jets are aimed by guests at one another, hitting an innocent stander by. Giovanni Battista Falda, Le fontane di roma. Rome, 1691. Shelfmark: Fag. I.I.27 no.2, plate 17

With so few of these gardens remaining in such an active state today, our experience of their past wonders is now mostly by book. Through the eyes of the Fagels we can explore Italian Renaissance gardens as they were understood and remembered from abroad.  These detailed engravings of fantastic fountains and their animated participants, while perhaps not involving quite as much sensory overload as the gardens did themselves, allow us some access into the reality of experiencing such ‘frolicsome engines’, from the safe, dry armchairs of the Fagel library.

Fig. 12: ‘Fontana de draghi detta la girandole sotto il vialone delle fontanelle’, Giovanni Battista Falda Le fontane di roma, Roma, 1691. Shelfmark: Fag. I.I.27 no.4, plate 11