History of Garden Design – Fountains and Water Features in Ancient Times

History of Garden Design – Fountains and Water Features in Ancient Times

Legacy from Antiquity.

Throughout the ages water has been an essential source of life and has dictated the form that gardens took as their most vital element. In arid lands such as Egypt, the annual floods used to irrigate the banks of the Nile, which turned the enclosed gardens into lush retreats, supplying the pools and nurturing pleasurable shade giving trees. As well as this miraculous annual rejuvenation, water was also drawn from the Nile along dykes and irrigation channels. These determined the shape and layout of gardens, usually set in a symmetrical grid. The pool was the centrepiece of the ancient Egyptian Garden and was usually the preserve of high society that used them for pleasure but also to stock fish and fowl. The layout of the ancient Egyptian garden was deemed so important even in the afterlife that their layout can be seen in the tombs of pharaohs and nobility, in order to be used by the deceased. The Egyptians believed in deities such as Nut (also the sycamore tree Goddess) who provided for their needs in both life and the afterlife. Many of these representations are laden with pomegranates and figs so the deceased could continue to receive nourishment in the life there after. An example of this can be seen in the Tomb of Nebamun at Thebes c. 1400 BC. An inscription on another tomb at Thebes reads

‘ May I wander around my pool each day forever more. May my soul sit on the branches of the grave garden I have prepared for myself. May I refresh myself each day under my sycamore.’

Water features both inside and outside Egyptian gardens placed a crucial role in daily ritual of religious life. Larger gardens had several pools randomly placed to help cool the air.

Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire
The Ancient Greeks were filled with amazement when they first beheld the magnificent gardens of the eastern Persian Kings. Water features enhanced by architectural settings probably originated in Greece when springs were enclosed to preserve their purity and were later decorated as shrines.

Homer’s Odyssey has one of the earliest writings from ancient times of a Garden and water, written between 750 and 650 B.C. Mentioning the Garden of King Alcinous, being dependent on two things – Water and divine intervention. Homer describes the garden of Alcinous, king of the Phaeaceans as being rich with pears apples, pomegranates, and sweet figs that grow all year round. In Book V Homer also describes the garden of Calypso:

“And round about the cave there was a wood blossoming, alder and poplar and sweet-smelling cypress. And therein roosted birds long of wing, owls and falcons and chattering sea crows, which have their business in the waters. And lo, there about the hollow cave trailed a gadding garden vine, all rich with clusters. And fountains four set orderly were running with clear water, hard by one another, turned each to his own course. And all around soft meadows bloomed of violets and parsley, yea, even a deathless god who came thither might wonder at the sight and be glad at heart.’

In his book Phaedrus, written about 350 B.C, Plato and his friend chat beside a stream discussing the sanctified atmosphere of the location. Plato remarks:

‘ The spring which runs under the plane, how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. ‘

As also seen earlier in ancient Egypt the Greeks also believed in Deities such as nymphs that inhabited streams and grottoes. Nymphs are personifications of the creative that foster activities of nature, most often identified with the life-giving outflow of springs. The association of nymphs and muses led to informal arrangements of figures in and around fountains and decoration which natural stones and shells.

The writing of the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses are some of the earliest descriptions of the way water sources have been decorated. He describes Diana’s grotto as a cave that included a fountain stream which had walls decorated with pumice beneath a mossy floor. To their grottoes and caves the ancients used to apply a deliberately roughened layer of pumice chips which Ovid called ‘ living pumice’. Green Ochre a natural earth pigment was also used to imitate the living moss of a grotto.

In Pompeii Italy there are many examples of fashionable water features that were used in the seaside city, which provided a welcome retreat from the stifling summer heat of Rome. The fortunate residents of the villas nearby could enjoy gardens that were refreshed and enlivened by fountains and pools. Marble sculptures, especially fountain figures in ancient Rome, often took their subject matter from mythology or something with particular reference to the owner of the house. Bronze was a popular metal and it was more durable than marble. Bronze wall fountains of animal heads over marble basins were very popular across the Roman Empire and were used individually or in groups around a water feature. Typical examples of these are Lion Wall Fountains and notably the two dogs and a boar from the richly decorated house of the Citharist at Pompeii, which are now on display in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. Lion head spouts were one of the earliest forms of water features. This is because the lion has been an icon for humanity appearing in nearly every culture across Europe, Asia, and Africa. The lion has been a popular symbol of imperial stateliness for thousands of years. It has also had a positive depiction in many cultures of bravery and strength yet being noble. This Lion symbolism has been used in garden water features from ancient times through to the present day.

Ancient manuscripts on hydraulics were rediscovered during the renaissance when designers revived the lost art of fantastic fountains for the great Italian gardens.