You are here:Home/News/ Fountains Built by Water

Fountains Built by Water

Posted On October 24, 2018 | 10:27 am | by OstmannJ01 | Permalink
Katherine Rinne analyzes fluidity and failure in 16th-century fountains

Katherine Rinne, an adjunct professor of architecture at the California College of the Arts, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her recent research report, “Experiments with Beauty: Hydraulic Investigations in Rome and Lazio and the Genesis of the Baroque Aesthetic (1550–1587),” examined how studying water and making mistakes shaped fountain design in and around Rome.

Q&A with Katherine Rinne

How did Giacomo della Porta change late 16th-century Roman fountain design?

Giacomo della Porta was, I think, a very important architect. He wasn’t a theorist, so we don’t have any of his writings, but he was clearly a methodical and creative designer. He was fortunate because he not only supervised the restoration of an ancient aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo/Acqua Vergine, completed in 1570, but he also designed the distribution system and the first nine public fountains.

At that time, sculptors designed many of the most important fountains. And logically, sculptors want to sculpt. To me, this means that many fountains were really works of sculpture that happened to display some water. Often the basins were octagonal or circular with sculpture set into them. Della Porta’s first fountain was typical; it was an octagonal basin, but with a simple chalice rather than figural sculpture.

What I see as different about his fountains is that he looked closely at water as a material in a new way. As he learned more about water, his fountains changed. The former fountain type with pure clear demarcations no longer existed. His fountain basins became exceptionally fluid in form; so much so that it seemed they had been created by the action of flowing water rather than by a designer. His fountain basins are undulating and very sensuous, like the water itself.


You mentioned that with della Porta’s restoration of the Acqua Vergine in the late 16th century, some 16,560 liters of water per second entered Rome—more than was arriving to Bologna, Messina, and Florence combined. Why the discrepancy?

Rome is a little different from these other cities. First, the new or restored medieval aqueducts in those cities were smaller in scope; there was less water, so there were fewer fountains. Noblemen, like the Medici, or cardinals sponsored those restorations. But Pope Pius V completed the Acqua Vergine restoration, and because there was so much water, his plan was to serve the entire city.

Suddenly there was all this fresh water coming into Rome: enough to fill ten Olympic-size swimming pools a day. It was used for ornamental fountains, drinking fountains, animal troughs, and laundry fountains. Then the runoff would flush the drains, so it also had a huge impact on sanitation and health. Fountains and aqueducts are symbols of the power of the person who brought you the water. It’s where people went to get fresh water, and every time they went, they were reminded how the fresh water came to be there. And access to fresh water is like access to any new technology or amenity: a few people have service, and then more and more people want it. Within 42 years, three newly restored ancient aqueducts served the entire intramural city.


What was the role of experimentation and failure in Roman fountain design?

All of Giacomo della Porta’s new fountains are freestanding, which means the water, coming from a distant source, was fed to them through underground pipes. Rome is a convoluted city that in the late 16th century was only partially surveyed. How are you going to know whether or not you can get water to your fountain without a topographical survey? Figuring that out provided wonderful opportunities for trial and error.

Imagine a mobile, like a Calder mobile. It’s hung from the ceiling by a long line. Imagine that there are nine little objects attached, one on the end of each arm. If you suddenly decide that you would like to add a tenth element, you have to rearrange and redistribute the weight and the disposition of the other nine. The same is true with fountains. If you suddenly build a new fountain, you either have to bring in a new water supply, or you have to give every other fountain less.

If you’re working for the Pope, you really don’t want to make any mistakes. Nevertheless della Porta did. Although his first fountain had a fine water display when built, two years later there was very little water. He hadn’t taken seasonal variability into account. His fountain was simply too tall. So he redesigned portions to lower its height so that even in dry years there would always be an impressive, though smaller, water display.

To me, the most important part of this study is to think of fountain making as site-specific experiments, literally as full-scale models that test and demonstrate water’s potential in a certain place. Sometimes there are failures, but those are interesting because you can learn a lot. Even so, because water is dynamic and unpredictable, you can never learn everything about it. There will always be surprises.