In three weeks of wandering in Basel last summer, I began to notice how many fountains I encountered, from simple troughs with a pipe spilling water into a basin to elaborate confections of religious or comic figures. Turns out that Basel has 231 of them, taking second place in apparently fountain-mad Switzerland to Zurich's thousand-plus.
Almost every village or city in Europe can boast some fountains, and sometimes they fill important visual spaces with elaborate cascades and statuary. In other places, they seem a quaint survival. But In an age when portable plastic water bottles fill yards of shelf space in every store, it is possible to lose sight of the origin of fountains: safe, public drinking water.
Roman aqueducts brought distant water to public squares, where people could collect it. Town pumps served similar purposes elsewhere, and in some cities today that tradition continues with street-corner bubblers or even elaborate modern constructions that provide carbonated water to refill bottles.
Here are a few of my favorites from Basel, starting with the stunning Holbein Fountain, near the Spalentor. This is actually an 1885 copy of the 1550 original that had deteriorated. All the figures come from a Hans Holbein the Elder painting called Farmers Dance (Bauerntanz).
During a heat wave in June, the bowl of the fountain was filled nearly every day with laughing small children playing in the water, almost as if they were acting out the artwork above. For reasons I can't explain, the Holbein Fountain is topped by a bagpiper that is said to be based on a copper engraving by Albrecht Dürer.
There's actually a website devoted to a database of Basel's fountains, compiled in 2003; the Basler Brunnenführer lists details of age, artist, status and more; it informs us that the water is drinkable, that dogs are not allowed to drink from it, nor is it permitted to bathe there. Evidently, the neighborhood children did not consult the Fountain Guide...
The Fischmarktbrunnen (Fish Market Fountain) takes a far more serious tack. It's essentially a religious monument, with statues of thirteen angels, six saints and three prophets (there were originally fifteen angels, and I will spare you any jokes about fallen angels).
The three main figures are Mary holding an infant Jesus, St Peter holding a key and St John the Evangelist; the three cornerstones are inscribed for justice, perseverance and love.
The fountain dates to the late 1300s, but was already in need of a major renovation by 1468. That work must have been done well, because the next major work on the statue was a restoration in 1974! It has so many tram and bus lines circling it that it is hard to get a full photo of it.
If fish are still on your mind after the Fish Market, there's a less serious fountain around the corner. It's the Schifflände-Brunnen, or Ship Landing Fountain, but what's really been landed here is a fish. This is a modern work, done by the sculptor Carl Gutknecht in 1926.
It's only steps away from Basel's classic Three Kings Hotel, which stretches along the bank above the Rhine. Just past the hotel is this fountain, featuring, at first glance, an oriental king holding grapes. And it stands outside a wine bar called The Fourth King (Vierte König). But the fountain guide knows better.
The figure is actually St Urban, a 3rd-century Pope who is, for some reason, associated with wine. Up until about 1830, the statue was given a glass of red and a glass of white to hold on his feast day, May 25; if no rain fell in the glasses, it would be a good wine year.
This is actually a replacement for a replacement. The fountain was originally built in 1448; by 1873 it had deteriorated badly and a copy was made. In 1911, the copy was retired to the Historical Museum.
Harry Potter fans should be pleased to know that it is possible to find (but not fight) a basilisk in Basel. In fact, these mythical serpent kings are dotted all over the city on a series of 28 fountains, installed between 1896 and 1972. It's not clear to me why this fearsome creature was chosen as a water-bearer; perhaps someone thought the similarity to the city's name made a good joke.
There were originally fifty of this model spread around the city, and they have an interesting history of their own. In the 1860s, Basel began installing 'valve fountains,' essentially the sort of on-demand bubblers we're used to, but the public was not convinced; it was used to 'stock fountains,' where a stock of water is always there in the bowl. The basilisks were intended to replace the unpopular valve fountains.
Some of Basel's fountains have names their creators clearly never meant; the Salz-und-Pfefferbrunnen, or Salt-and-Pepper Fountain got its name because that's what locals thought it looked like. It was installed in front of one of the buildings of the University in 1862. Its name is clearly more important than the fountain itself, because even its 1967 renovation didn't get it on the list of protected landmarks.
Carl Gutknecht's 1926 fairly abstract Schifflände-Brunnen, the one above of the child holding a fish, is not his only Basel waterwork.
His 1941 fountain in a more representational style, in bronze, marks his slightly comic Mädchen mit Spiegel-Brunnen, featuring, of course, a girl with a mirror.
Below, two more conventional but nicely executed fountain-toppers rise from rather unmemorable basins, cropped out here.
As if basilisks were not enough for the slightly queasy, there are also several fountains featuring snakes. But the snail fountain (Schneckenbrunnen) in the eastern part of the city is just too cute to let you think of squish or slime as it pours water out through its horns. One of Basel's few fountains designed by a woman, it's a 1952 work by Hedwig Frey.
And the largest for last: the Tinguely Fountain, outside the Tinguely Museum that celebrates the work of the Swiss painter, sculptor and re-definer of art. While some of his more active works were built to self-destruct, these are lasting examples of his whimsical sculptural machines, similar to the ones he and his wife Niki de Sainte-Phalle built for Paris's Stravinsky Fountain. The fountain opened in 1977 on the site of the former City Theatre.