The Landscape Guide

Byzantine fountains

We know a great deal more about the history of fountains in gardens on Byzantine sites. Oriental influence is perceptible in certain peculiar decorations. The most conspicuous trait is the splendour of the materials used, wherein we find a purely artistic purpose. In that pineapple fountain in the Sigma the original intention of supplying water has been lost sight of; but the precious stream that flowed from it suited well with its own fine receptacle, and contributed to the delight felt by spectators in the actual costliness of the materials. In like manner two fountains on the west of the new church poured out wine that was supplied from below. Even those that had only water in them were made of costly stone, and round the border of one (put up at the church) the artist wrought hens, stags, and rams in brass, which threw out streams from a good height as well as directly into the basin.

Another feature is the naturalistic sort of imitations. A pineapple sprinkled the water; and that form of fountain was very popular at the time, the oldest example we know being the one at the Giardino della Pigna at the Vatican. There is a pleasant garden that is merely symbolic, which is given in a miniature (Fig. 99).

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 A fountain of classical simplicity stands between two overshadowing trees, which are to indicate an avenue, a clipped tree meaning a shrubbery, and separate flowers to represent a garden. A more important specimen than this is a fountain in mosaic at Daphne (Fig. 100), 

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a cloister near Antioch, where the water is falling into two shells, the lower one made of variegated marble, and then down into an ornamental marble bath, In this example the garden is merely suggested by a few trees, though by the side there is an arbour prettily formed by the interlacing of the tree-tops.

The love stories of the period are much the same. They are closely related to their Hellenistic predecessors, for there is nothing new in their stereotyped descriptions of a garden background. The taste for glittering materials is apparent, and the fancy for elaboration shows how the strong feeling of the Greeks for moderation in all things has been supplanted by the Oriental love of pomp and display. The narrators go on describing baths and fountains, and about the eleventh century there is a masterpiece of this kind in a tale of Eustathius, wherein there appears a pillar of many-coloured marble standing in a shell of Thessalian stone, inlaid with black and white marble. The water breaks into a thousand sparkles. 

On the pillar sits an eagle with wings outstretched as if he would bathe in the stream; water spouts from his beak, and falls down the pillar side, reflecting a thousand hues. On the edge of the round basin a goat rests her foot and drinks, behind is a shepherd milking her; a hare also supports a fore-paw on the brim, and all sorts of birds—swallows, doves, hens, peacocks—pour out water from their beaks; the apparatus moreover makes sounds that imitate their different voices. Round in a circle are marble seats and footstools, and the myrtles are cut to make a green roof overhead.

But the well by the Basilica of the Emperor Basil is a proof that, conventional as their tales appear, they yet described particular objects after the models they saw about them. The naturalistic imitation of animals, even by reproducing the voices mechanically, found its way to the grand imperial receptions. Bishop Liudprand, who several times visited the court of Constantinople as ambassador from Berengarius and Otho I., gives an account of the emperor’s throne-room of the Magnaura. He saw a brass tree, gold-plated, that stood before the throne, and on its branches gilt birds of different sizes, which sang each with its proper notes. The throne was so placed that it could be raised or lowered, sometimes being quite high up. It was guarded by two lions of enormous size, whether of brass or of wood he does not say, but overlaid with gold. At an appointed time they beat on the ground with their tails, opened their jaws, wagged their tongues, and roared. This display did not impose on the bishop, but that the Byzantines themselves took it as a real expression of the emperor’s greatness is clear from the similar account that appears in the Book of Ceremonies of Constantine Porphyrogenetos. Thus we have met again with the metal tree first mentioned in the Mahãwamsa, but the Byzantine court was really only copying the splendour of the Persian Great King, whose throne was shaded by a golden plane-tree. Of Arabian development we shall hear anon.

The tree idea found its way into the love romances also. Although one of these tales bears the classical name of Achilleis, this name is but a veil of the slightest, and once stripped off there is only the ordinary fashionable love story, with its usual descriptions of tourneys, fair maidens, palaces, and gardens. In one of these lovely gardens—alas, too lovely, for words always fail the narrator to describe it—there is the golden plane-tree once more, and in it are birds that begin to sing as the wind waves in the branches. At this period the artificial tree had entirely dropped any religious significance.

Later we shall see how the Crusaders brought news of it to Europe. In the thirteenth century a French goldsmith, commissioned by the Great Khan of Tartary, was clever enough to make a beautiful object of art (Fig. 101)

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 that has been preserved; it is a silver tree with gold leaves, and dragons’ heads on the branches, shooting out some liquid (which is no doubt wine) into four vessels guarded by little lions. In another romance there is a marvellous bath in a park. The vaulting of the roof is a tree studded with jewels for fruit, and a vine made of gold climbs up the face of the wall and mixes with the branches of the tree. Mirrors are set round about, so that anyone who comes in may see the garden repeated. (In the romance by Tatius the simple mirror of the lake had to reflect the garden picture.) As a fact, this Byzantine garden romance is made on a real pattern, and there is talk at Byzantium in very early days of a mirror bath. One room in the palace of the Chrysotriclinium was “ turned into a flowering rose-garden, wherein different kinds of many-coloured stones imitated the forms of living trees, and round them twined climbing plants, making an extraordinary combined effect.” A silver enclosure, like a ring, shut in the whole place, which gave much enjoyment to the beholders. A garden-room like this goes back to a Roman model, based on an earlier original. Of its development in the Italian Renaissance Garden we shall speak later.