The fountain – from functional necessity to urban decoration

The fountain is a magnificent piece of design that pours water into a basin or jets water into the air. The word comes from the Latin ‘fons’ meaning a source or spring. Modern fountains often serve purely as decoration, but it wasn’t always like that. In ancient times, fountains were functional items that provided water for bathing and drinking.

The ancient Greeks were the first to benefit from the aqueduct and gravity fountains. These fountains used a mix of gravity and pressure to move water out into the open air. Greek fountains were made of stone or marble with water flowing through pipes made of bronze. The end of the pipe was often sculpted with the head of a lion or other animal.

Attic Greek vase from South Italy, about 480 B.C.

In ancient Rome, as in any other society, water was an essential resource, it was seen as a gift from the gods, a basic necessity of life, health, and hygiene. The famous Roman aqueducts provided water for the baths and fountains from mountain rivers and lakes.

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Instead of bronze pipes, they used lead pipes for delivering water throughout the city. Wealthy Romans usually had a small fountain in the courtyard of their houses. By the Middle Ages, Roman aqueducts were finally entering in a state of ruin. As a result, many fountains across Europe stopped working. They only existed in the monasteries or public gardens. The medieval fountains were related to wisdom, purity, innocence and the Garden of Eden.

One of the oldest and most famous medieval fountains in Italy is Fontebranda in Siena. The Fountain of Fontebranda is the result of medieval engineering that provided water for the city, and even today it continues to provide some of the city’s water supply.

It was originally built of three basins: the first filled with water for drinking, the second was for watering the stock, and the third was used as a public laundry. Fontebranda is mentioned in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno which means the fountain was well known back then. This historical fountain also has religious significance. It is connected to the birthplace of Saint Catherine of Siena. Her childhood home is less than one hundred meters from the fountain.


During the Renaissance, Pope Nicholas V started to rebuild the Acqua Vergine in 1453, the destroyed aqueduct in Rome. The restored aqueduct eventually supplied water to the Trevi Fountain and later to the popular baroque fountains in the Piazza Navona and Piazza del Popolo.

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In Florence, in addition to their functional nature, fountains were also a symbol of the power of the ruling Medici family. Cosimo I de Medici built an aqueduct that provided water for the Fountain of Neptune, one of the most popular fountains, which features the Roman god of the seas surrounded by water dryads.

The Baroque fountains were commissioned by the Catholic Church as a way to gain popularity against Protestantism. Rome’s spectacular Four Rivers fountain is a highly dramatic fountain built by Bernini, representing the rivers Danube, Ganges, Rio della Plata, and the Nile. The monumental Trevi’s fountain is a result of the work of several architects including Bernini. This was a golden age for the fountains in Rome, which regained its status as the city of fountains.

Panorama of Trevi fountain 2015. Photo Credit

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Fontana del Tritone, by Bernini, Piazza Barberini, Rome. Photo Credit

The Gardens of Versailles were commissioned by King Louis XIV of France. Fountains were a major feature of the gardens. They include mythical elements and sculptures, especially of Apollo, the Greco-Roman sun god and emblem of Louis XIV. In the Islamic world, fountains were more of a necessity. Fountains are functionally designed to look geometrical and compatible with the surroundings.

Bethesda Fountain with restored plants. Photo Credit

In the 19th century, the first fountains were constructed in the USA. In Philadelphia, the first fountain was opened in 1809 at Center Square. Bethesda Fountain was the first decorative fountain in Central Park, New York, opened in 1873.

In the 19th century, with the innovation of the illuminated fountain and steam pumps, fountains in cities were not strictly used to supply water for drinking, instead, they were a form of art and decoration.