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In addition to providing drinking water, fountains were used for decoration and to celebrate their builders. Roman fountains were decorated with bronze or stone masks of animals or heroes. In the Middle Ages, Moorish and Muslim garden designers used fountains to create miniature versions of the gardens of paradise. King Louis XIV of France used fountains in the Gardens of Versailles to illustrate his power over nature. The baroque decorative fountains of Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries marked the arrival point of restored Roman aqueducts and glorified the Popes who built them.
By the end of the 19th century, as indoor plumbing became the main source of drinking water, urban fountains became purely decorative. Mechanical pumps replaced gravity and allowed fountains to recycle water and to force it high into the air. The Jet d'Eau in Lake Geneva, built in 1951, shoots water 140 metres (460 ft) in the air. The highest such fountain in the world is King Fahd's Fountain in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which spouts water 260 metres (850 ft) above the Red Sea.
Fountains are used today to decorate city parks and squares; to honor individuals or events; for recreation and for entertainment. A Splash pad or spray pool allows city residents to enter, get wet and cool off in summer. The musical fountain combines moving jets of water, colored lights and recorded music, controlled by a computer, for dramatic effects. Fountains can themselves also be musical instruments played by obstruction of one or more of their water jets. Drinking fountains provide clean drinking water in public buildings, parks and public spaces.
The Ancient Romans built an extensive system of aqueducts from mountain rivers and lakes to provide water for the fountains and baths of Rome. The Roman engineers used lead pipes instead of bronze to distribute the water throughout the city. The excavations at Pompeii, which revealed the city as it was when it was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, uncovered free-standing fountains and basins placed at intervals along city streets, fed by siphoning water upwards from lead pipes under the street. The excavations of Pompeii also showed that the homes of wealthy Romans often had a small fountain in the atrium, or interior courtyard, with water coming from the city water supply and spouting into a small bowl or basin.
Ancient Rome was a city of fountains. According to Sextus Julius Frontinus, the Roman consul who was named curator aquarum or guardian of the water of Rome in 98 AD, Rome had nine aqueducts which fed 39 monumental fountains and 591 public basins, not counting the water supplied to the Imperial household, baths and owners of private villas. Each of the major fountains was connected to two different aqueducts, in case one was shut down for service.
The Romans were able to make fountains jet water into the air, by using the pressure of water flowing from a distant and higher source of water to create hydraulic head, or force. Illustrations of fountains in gardens spouting water are found on wall paintings in Rome from the 1st century BC, and in the villas of Pompeii. The Villa of Hadrian in Tivoli featured a large swimming basin with jets of water. Pliny the Younger described the banquet room of a Roman villa where a fountain began to jet water when visitors sat on a marble seat. The water flowed into a basin, where the courses of a banquet were served in floating dishes shaped like boats.
Roman engineers built aqueducts and fountains throughout the Roman Empire. Examples can be found today in the ruins of Roman towns in Vaison-la-Romaine and Glanum in France, in Augst, Switzerland, and other sites.
During the Middle Ages, Roman aqueducts were wrecked or fell into decay, and many fountains throughout Europe stopped working, so fountains existed mainly in art and literature, or in secluded monasteries or palace gardens. Fountains in the Middle Ages were associated with the source of life, purity, wisdom, innocence, and the Garden of Eden. In illuminated manuscripts like the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1411–1416), the Garden of Eden was shown with a graceful gothic fountain in the center (see illustration). The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, finished in 1432, also shows a fountain as a feature of the adoration of the mystic lamb, a scene apparently set in Paradise.
The cloister of a monastery was supposed to be a replica of the Garden of Eden, protected from the outside world. Simple fountains, called lavabos, were placed inside Medieval monasteries such as Le Thoronet Abbey in Provence and were used for ritual washing before religious services.
Fountains were also found in the enclosed medieval jardins d'amour, "gardens of courtly love" – ornamental gardens used for courtship and relaxation. The medieval romance The Roman de la Rose describes a fountain in the center of an enclosed garden, feeding small streams bordered by flowers and fresh herbs.
Some Medieval fountains, like the cathedrals of their time, illustrated biblical stories, local history and the virtues of their time. The Fontana Maggiore in Perugia, dedicated in 1278, is decorated with stone carvings representing prophets and saints, allegories of the arts, labors of the months, the signs of the zodiac, and scenes from Genesis and Roman history.
Medieval fountains could also provide amusement. The gardens of the Counts of Artois at the Château de Hesdin, built in 1295, contained famous fountains, called Les Merveilles de Hesdin ("The Wonders of Hesdin") which could be triggered to drench surprised visitors.
Shortly after the spread of Islam, the Arabs formulated the design of, and constructed, the famous Islamic gardens. Islamic gardens after the 7th century were traditionally enclosed by walls and were designed to represent paradise. The paradise gardens, were laid out in the form of a cross, with four channels representing the rivers of paradise, dividing the four parts of the world. Water sometimes spouted from a fountain in the center of the cross, representing the spring or fountain, Salsabil, described in the Qur'an as the source of the rivers of Paradise.
In the 9th century, the Banū Mūsā brothers, a trio of Arab Inventors, were commissioned by the Caliph of Baghdad to summarize the engineering knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman world. They wrote a book entitled the Book of Ingenious Devices, describing the works of the 1st century Greek Engineer Hero of Alexandria and other engineers, plus many of their own inventions. They described fountains which formed water into different shapes and a wind-powered water pump, but it is not known if any of their fountains were ever actually built.
The Persian rulers of the Middle Ages had elaborate water distribution systems and fountains in their palaces and gardens. Water was carried by a pipe into the palace from a source at a higher elevation. Once inside the palace or garden it came up through a small hole in a marble or stone ornament and poured into a basin or garden channels. The gardens of Pasargades had a system of canals which flowed from basin to basin, both watering the garden and making a pleasant sound. The Persian engineers also used the principle of the syphon (called shotor-gelu in Persian, literally 'neck of the camel) to create fountains which spouted water or made it resemble a bubbling spring. The garden of Fin, near Kashan, used 171 spouts connected to pipes to create a fountain called the Howz-e jush, or "boiling basin".
The 11th century Persian poet Azraqi described a Persian fountain:From a marvelous faucet of gold pours a wave whose clarity is more pure than a soul; The turquoise and silver form ribbons in the basin coming from this faucet of gold ...
Reciprocating motion was first described in 1206 by Iraqi engineer and inventor al-Jazari when the kings of the Artuqid dynasty in Turkey commissioned him to manufacture a machine to raise water for their palaces. The finest result was a machine called the double-acting reciprocating piston pump, which translated rotary motion to reciprocating motion via the crankshaft-connecting rod mechanism.
The palaces of Moorish Spain, particularly the Alhambra in Granada, had famous fountains. The patio of the Sultan in the gardens of Generalife in Granada (1319) featured spouts of water pouring into a basin, with channels which irrigated orange and myrtle trees. The garden was modified over the centuries – the jets of water which cross the canal today were added in the 19th century. The fountain in the Court of the Lions of the Alhambra, built from 1362 to 1391, is a large vasque mounted on twelve stone statues of lions. Water spouts upward in the vasque and pours from the mouths of the lions, filling four channels dividing the courtyard into quadrants. The basin dates to the 14th century, but the lions spouting water are believed to be older, dating to the 11th century.
The design of the Islamic garden spread throughout the Islamic world, from Moorish Spain to the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent. The Shalimar Gardens built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1641, were said to be ornamented with 410 fountains, which fed into a large basin, canal and marble pools.
In the Ottoman Empire, rulers often built fountains next to mosques so worshippers could do their ritual washing. Examples include the Fountain of Qasim Pasha (1527), Temple Mount, Jerusalem, an ablution and drinking fountain built during the Ottoman reign of Suleiman the Magnificent; the Fountain of Ahmed III (1728) at the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, another Fountain of Ahmed III in Üsküdar (1729) and Tophane Fountain (1732). Palaces themselves often had small decorated fountains, which provided drinking water, cooled the air, and made a pleasant splashing sound. One surviving example is the Fountain of Tears (1764) at the Bakhchisarai Palace, in Crimea; which was made famous by a poem of Alexander Pushkin.
The sebil was a decorated fountain that was often the only source of water for the surrounding neighborhood.
It was often commissioned as an act of Islamic piety by a rich person.