Les Fontaines de Paris


More than two hundred fountains adorn the city of Paris, and the history of these structures is illuminated by a book published in 1812 and now held in the GSA Library’s Special Collections: Les Fontaines de Paris, anciennes et nouvelles, a work which also casts light on the complex relationship between politics, art and public life in the city during this period. Paris had long suffered from a major shortage of water supplies, and the city’s fountains had been a source of controversy in the past, with criticism that size and scale often swamped function. Voltaire had complained that the eighteenth century Fontaine de Quatre Saisons only had two spouts from which people could collect water, despite the overall structure being substantially larger. In 1802, Napoleon requested the creation of a canal to redirect water from outside Paris into the city to deal with this problem; following this, in 1806 he commissioned fifteen new fountains to be built in the city, with the aim of providing fresh drinking water for the public. Some of these also designed to mark his military campaigns in Egypt and elsewhere. The architect in charge of the project was François-Jean Bralle, who had played an important role in the organisation of water supplies during the French Revolution.

The book’s original title upon first publication in 1810 makes Napoleon’s relation to the project clearer than the 1812 title: Nouvelles fontaines érigées à Paris, de l’ordre et par la munificience de Napoléon le Grand (New fountains erected in Paris, of the order and the generosity of Napoleon the Great). This had been a source of controversy at the time, due to the fact that the title gave the impression it was exclusively focused on the new Napoleon fountains, when the majority of structures covered in the book actually predated his reign. The London Quarterly Review ran a scathing article at the time criticising this misrepresentation, as well as the aesthetics of many of the Napoleon-commissioned fountains. However, this edition tones down the emphasis on Napoleon, and the addition of Anciennes et nouvelles to the title distances it from being focused on his commissions.


This 1812 edition contains sixty engravings drawn by the artist Claude-Alexandre Moisy, accompanied by notes from the writer Amaury Duval. Duval, born Charles-Alexandre-Amaury Pineux, was a French diplomat as well as a writer, and father of the painter Eugène Emmanuel Amaury Duval, who, like his father, would also be better known under the name Amaury Duval. Less is known about the life of Moisy: even the year of his death is uncertain, although it is usually estimated to around 1827. The Latin epigraph on the title page is taken from the writings of the Roman philosopher Marcus Terentius Varro. The book would go through a number of subsequent editions over the next decade and a half, with the final edition including over a hundred Moisy representations of the city’s fountains alongside Duval’s annotations. The notes on the fountains are not just descriptive: Duval is critical of some of the choices of subject and style, especially in the case of the Fontaine de Léda, drawn from the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, which he argued was not an appropriate choice of subject matter for public display.

Some of the fountains illustrated in the book no longer exist: for example, the Fontaine de St Louis and the Fontaine de l’Echaude, shown together on one page of the book, were both subsequently destroyed. Most of the fountains created as the result of Napoleon’s 1806 decree have survived, but many are now located in different places. Fontaines de Paris is therefore also interesting in that it reflects the geography of Paris before Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s remodelling from the 1850s to the 1870s, during which some of the fountains listed were moved from their original locations. Some fountains would also join with others as part of this process: the Napoleon-era Fontaine de Léda was relocated to the side of the much older Medici fountain, commissioned by Marie de’ Medici in 1630, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, where it still stands today. At some point, the Fontaine de Léda’s eagle motif, a familiar symbol of the Napoleon era, was also removed. In addition, many of the surviving fountains are listed by different names in this book than the ones commonly used in France today. The Fontaine de la Place du Châtelet is now better known as the Fontaine du Palmier, or Fontaine de la Victoire, and is the largest remaining fountain from the 1806-1815 period still standing.


However, the Napoleon commissions mark just one chapter in the ongoing history of Paris’ fountains, with each subsequent historical period adding more structures to the landscape of the city. One of the most notable additions was the construction of the Wallace drinking fountains in the 1870s, many of which still supply drinkable water today. And a 2017 plan to introduce a range of new fountains to supply sparkling drinking water shows that Paris continues to look for ways for fountains to enhance the everyday lives of people in the city, more than two hundred years on from Les Fontaines de Paris.


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