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The functional aspects of fountains: both as an artifact and image inherent in medieval Western European art Hanbury, Douglas Bruce

Abstract

My purpose throughout this paper is to define the importance of the fountain, both as an artifact and an image found throughout Medieval Western European Art. I intend to show by means of architectural and graphic variations, how this motif becomes an identifiable object artistically and functionally inherent in the art of the latter Middle Ages. The destruction, displacement or disappearance of the majority of Medieval fountains dictates a study of a relatively small number which have survived, with particular attention to manuscripts, to literature and to any extent drawings and engravings. In a number of instances I deemed it necessary to select only a few examples to illustrate any given aspect. Chapter one defines the variations of fountain types, clarifying the formation of a tradition embedded in Biblical or literary manuscript pictorial imagery. Chapter two deals with the role of the fountain in relation to the community. The Fonte Maggiore at Perügia stands as a supreme example of how the civic fountain not only functions as a source of water supply, but also by means of its encyclopedic sculptural program, becomes a communicative medium expressing the social, the political and the historical content of a Medieval Italian commune. Furthermore, the highly sophisticated sculptural program clearly defines the direction in which Italian thirteenth century sculpture was to progressively develop. The third chapter deals with the fountain as a symbol. Again, literary tradition construes the pictorial function of the image. The most important literary source finds the fountain symbolically functioning as the Fountain of Life. Two fifteenth century paintings of the Fountain of Life, capitalize the importance of this image in the closing generations of the Middle Ages. Deeply impregnated in Biblical tradition, the Fountain of Life demonstrates the artists' ability to formulate iconographic concepts into a clear, cohesive pattern. No matter what form the fountain may take, there does exist a similar function in each case - that of satisfying man's desire, either physically or through the mental image. One may assume therefore, all Medieval fountains exist for a particular function. The fountain as an image of any given society maintains its primary function, that of satisfying our physical desire for water. It is not surprising to find our modern fountain designers replacing the human, physical relationship with a less functional aspect, that of an entirely aesthetic motivation. Therefore, perhaps the major difference between Medieval and Modern fountains tends to be in their nature of functionalism, the former acting as a catalyst of a society, the latter becoming visually, aesthetically oriented in a new tradition. The fountain as an image defines the importance of art as a transmitter of images in the realm of values and beliefs, therefore, defining the key role of the artist as an agent of image formulation. Hence, this study functions as an exercise in the examination of imagery operative in the creation of an artifact for a better understanding of its significance.

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