Once upon a time it became the fancy for many of the ruling class in Europe to include concealed fountains, controllable at a distance in their ornamental gardens.  Seats became flooded, grottoes became showers, trees sprouted a shower of water, water jets would spring up under ladies dresses and statues would spray passing visitors from their body parts… including (the statues’) private parts. These amusing “joke fountains” were used to provide entertainment for the visitors and guests at significant estates and castles.

Water had originally been used in Rome within sculpture as a way to animate these allegorical figures. This evolved as fountains created in medieval times (overflows from spring-heads) were in the shape of an animal heads spouting water. (Windsor Castle had a stone fountain on its grounds in the mid 1200’s). A popular feature of the Italian Renaissance garden (including Villa d’Este) was these hidden fountains, which could be turned on to drench unsuspecting visitors.

Among the fountains of Peterhoff Palace, one of Russia’s most famous tourist attractions a joke fountain was constructed -- one which sprays passers-by who step on a particular paving stone. The Palace is sometimes referred to as the Russian Versailles, built and primarily designed by Peter the Great, beginning in 1714. Peter had visited the Garden of Versailles and had been so impressed by the fountains there that he was inspired to make the fountains in the same cascading style.  Subsequent Russian rulers and regimes had augmented it up until the Second World War when the German Army essentially destroyed it. Thankfully, restoration work began immediately after the war, and continues today where it has become a UNESCO World heritage site.
The Bench Fountain - walking on the cobblestones initiates the spray of water
images: flicker.com

The water for the Peterhoff fountains is drawn from springs and aqueducts at a higher elevation, thereby creating the technological achievement of eliminating the need for pumps by the use of a gravity fed system!  All the fountains run simultaneously. As a contrast… there were so many fountains at Versailles that it was impossible to have them all running at once; when Louis XIV made his promenades, his fountain-tenders turned on the fountains ahead of him and turned off those behind him. “Louis built an enormous pumping station, the Machine de Marly, with fourteen water wheels and 253 pumps to raise the water three hundred feet from the River Seine, and even attempted to divert the River Éire to provide water for his fountains, but the water supply was never enough.”1

Young Princess Victoria, who was to become Queen of England, was particularly fond of the artificial willow tree at Chatsworth Gardens, originally created by William Cavendish in 1693. Cavendish hired Grillet, a pupil of Andre LeNotre to design it.  It was composed of 8,000 pieces of copper and brass and had 800 jets of water hidden in the branches and leaves. Supposedly, it would spurt into life squirting water from every branch and leaf over the unsuspecting passer-by. To be soaked to the skin in the early 1700s was generally no laughing matter, as fine clothes were very expensive and not usually washable.
Spouting Willow 

Was that anyway to treat your guests?

1.Robert W. Berger, The Chateau of Louis XIV, University Park, PA. 1985, and Gerald van der Kemp, Versailles, New York, 1978


The definitive crown jewel of Central Park, is one of the most famous and universally loved fountains in the world, Bethesda Fountain. Designed by Emma Stebbins, the centerpiece of the "Angel of the Waters" was the only sculpture commissioned as part of the original design of the Park naming her the first woman to receive a commission for a major work of art in New York City.

Born and raised in a wealthy New York family, Stebbins was encouraged by her family in her pursuit of art from an early age. She moved to Rome where she studied under John Gibson an English neoclassicist working there at that time.

While living and studying in Rome she fell in love with actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman, and quickly became involved in the bohemian and feminist lesbian lifestyle, which was more tolerated there than it would have been back in New York.

According to Central Park historian Sara Cedar Miller, Stebbins received the commission for the sculpture as a result of influence from her brother. Henry, who at the time was president of the Central Park Board of Commissioners. Henry's motivation, Miller believes, may have been an unsuccessful attempt to induce her to return to New York and break up with Cushman, a relationship that to Henry was a source of embarrassing gossip in New York.
Cushman was confidant, strong, and charismatic, and recently recovering from a break up following a ten-year relationship with the actress Matilda Hays. Following the death of Cushman, Stebbins never produced another sculpture. Stebbins died in New York in 1882, at the age of 67

Located on the lower level of Bethesda Terrace, this neoclassical winged female figure symbolizes and celebrates the purifying of the city’s water supply when the Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842 bringing fresh water to all New Yorkers. For this reason she carries a lily, the symbol of purity in one hand while her other hand extends outward as she blesses the water below. The stimulus for the idea of the "Angel of the Waters" comes from the Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 5, the story of an angel bestowing healing powers on the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Beneath the eight-foot gilded bronze statue are four smaller four-foot figures symbolizing Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace. The base of the fountain was designed by Calvert Vaux with detail work by Jacob Wrey Mould.  Central Park, as many people are aware of, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

Emma Stebbins was also part of the impetus to educate women at Columbia University -- thereby resulting in the formation of Barnard College.

If you haven’t seen it.. go visit.  I’m told this is the most visited spot in all of Manhattan by tourists.  Otherwise watch a video, where the Angel has a supporting role.
(This post is inspired by yesterday’s discussion with another passionate New Yorker.)