Water and Wonder

Fountains are the true embodiment of Baroque art. They show te main characteristics of this style: the sensual power of the visual experience, the use of mixed media and the appeal to the viewer’s wonder. They are functional objects, but at the same time they perform several, radically more complex tasks. A fountain, indeed, is a public and political statement. Several Roman families in the Seventeenth century financed the building of fountains in squares close to their palaces. The fountain had a practical purpose, in a period when houses did not have access to water, and at the same time decorated the surroundings with the heraldic symbols of the patron. This is the case, for example, of the Triton Fountain (1642-4). Designed by Bernini, it is a travertine group made up of four dolphins supporting wide shells and a triton. It is decorated with the typical emblems of the Barberini family, which commissioned the work: the bees and a papal tiara. Indeed, a member of the Barberini family holds the papacy in these years. His name is Maffeo Barberini, better known as Urban VIII. A notable patron of Bernini, indeed the man who led the great sculptor to fame, he reigned between 1623 and 1644.

Triton Fountain – G. Bernini – 1642-1644 – travertine – Rome, Piazza Barberini

The aesthetic appeal of fountains is pretty immediate. On the one hand, the work is a sculpture and is therefore admirable for its three-dimensionality. Moreover, water adds an incredibly theatrical quality. In this way, the aesthetic experience expands beyond the visual level, drawing the viewer’s attention through all the senses. Water is dynamic, shimmering, and it produces a pleasant sound while pouring down the group. Indeed, the whole Baroque conceit revolves around the contrast between the static quality of statuary and the continuously changing nature of water games. The instant mingles with the eternal so that the final artwork cannot be divided into separate categories.

Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail) – G. Bernini – 1651 – travertine and marble – Rome, Piazza Navona

A consistent part of Baroque art was made of ephemeral creations. These might be vast and complex gardens, temporary installations for specific celebrations… Works that we cannot admire anymore, but whose fame reached our time. Fountains partly share the transitory nature of these means, not in the substance but rather in the perception. It is pretty common to associate eternity with staticity and artworks are generally understood to be both. Fountains, on the contrary, change and move as the water flowing through them.

Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail)

The Baroque taste fully exploited the potential of fountains. Notable examples can be found in the Sixteenth Century as well, but none of them shows the material strength of their later counterpart. Wonder is the essential value of these works and the artists use variety in order to achieve it. Variety of means, indeed, but also of figures and visual devices. The Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini, for instance, features several exotic animals. They are supposed to represent the four continents, each of them associated with one of the river gods carved around the central obelisk.  However, the iconographic link is not as immediate as the sense of astonishment we get from seeing a lion lurking among the rocks, or a snake hissing above our heads.

Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail)

Baroque art is, in a way, illusion. Rather than appealing to our reason, it aims to our imagination. Baroque artists did not create coherent worlds of wonder, but rather powerful images, capable of impressing a lasting picture in our mind. A picture as vivid and dynamic as spurts of water.


Featured Image

Triton Fountain

Fountain of the Four Rivers

Fountain of the Four Rivers (2)

Fountain of the Four Rivers (3)

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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