Fountains were originally purely functional, connected to springs or aqueducts and used to provide drinking water and water for bathing and washing to the residents of cities, towns and villages. Until the late 19th century most fountains operated by gravity, and needed a source of water higher than the fountain, such as a reservoir or aqueduct, to make the water flow or jet into the air.
In addition to providing drinking water, fountains were used for decoration and to celebrate their builders. Roman fountains were decorated with bronze or stone masks of animals or heroes. In the Middle Ages, Moorish and Muslim garden designers used fountains to create miniature versions of the gardens of paradise. King Louis XIV of France used fountains in the Gardens of Versailles to illustrate his power over nature. The baroque decorative fountains of Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries marked the arrival point of restored Roman aqueducts and glorified the Popes who built them.
By the end of the 19th century, as indoor plumbing became the main source of drinking water, urban fountains became purely decorative. Mechanical pumps replaced gravity and allowed fountains to recycle water and to force it high into the air. The Jet d'Eau in Lake Geneva, built in 1951, shoots water 140 metres (460 ft) in the air. The highest such fountain in the world is King Fahd's Fountain in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which spouts water 260 metres (850 ft) above the Red Sea.
Fountains are used today to decorate city parks and squares; to honor individuals or events; for recreation and for entertainment. A Splash pad or spray pool allows city residents to enter, get wet and cool off in summer. The musical fountain combines moving jets of water, colored lights and recorded music, controlled by a computer, for dramatic effects. Drinking fountains provide clean drinking water in public buildings, parks and public spaces.
Ancient civilizations built stone basins to capture and hold precious drinking water. A carved stone basin, dating to around 2000 BC, was discovered in the ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash in modern Iraq. The ancient Assyrians constructed a series of basins in the gorge of the Comel River, carved in solid rock, connected by small channels, descending to a stream. The lowest basin was decorated with carved reliefs of two lions. The ancient Egyptians had ingenious systems for hoisting water up from the Nile for drinking and irrigation, but without a higher source of water it was not possible to make water flow by gravity, and no Egyptian fountains or pictures of fountains have been found.
The ancient Greeks were apparently the first to use aqueducts and gravity-powered fountains to distribute water. According to ancient historians, fountains existed in Athens, Corinth, and other ancient Greek cities in the 6th century BC as the terminating points of aqueducts which brought water from springs and rivers into the cities. In the 6th century BC the Athenian ruler Peisistratos built the main fountain of Athens, the Enneacrounos, in the Agora, or main square. It had nine large cannons, or spouts, which supplied drinking water to local residents.
Greek fountains were made of stone or marble, with water flowing through bronze pipes and emerging from the mouth of a sculpted mask that represented the head of a lion or the muzzle of an animal. Most Greek fountains flowed by simple gravity, but they also discovered how to use principle of a siphon to make water spout, as seen in pictures on Greek vases.
The Ancient Romans built an extensive system of aqueducts from mountain rivers and lakes to provide water for the fountains and baths of Rome. The Roman engineers used lead pipes instead of bronze to distribute the water throughout the city. The excavations at Pompeii, which revealed the city as it was when it was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, uncovered free-standing fountains and basins placed at intervals along city streets, fed by siphoning water upwards from lead pipes under the street. The excavations of Pompeii also showed that the homes of wealthy Romans often had a small fountain in the atrium, or interior courtyard, with water coming from the city water supply and spouting into a small bowl or basin.
Ancient Rome was a city of fountains. According to Sextus Julius Frontinus, the Roman consul who was named curator aquarum or guardian of the water of Rome in 98 AD, Rome had nine aqueducts which fed 39 monumental fountains and 591 public basins, not counting the water supplied to the Imperial household, baths and owners of private villas. Each of the major fountains was connected to two different aqueducts, in case one was shut down for service.
The Romans were able to make fountains jet water into the air, by using the pressure of water flowing from a distant and higher source of water to create hydraulic head, or force. Illustrations of fountains in gardens spouting water are found on wall paintings in Rome from the 1st century BC, and in the villas of Pompeii. The Villa of Hadrian in Tivoli featured a large swimming basin with jets of water. Pliny the Younger described the banquet room of a Roman villa where a fountain began to jet water when visitors sat on a marble seat. The water flowed into a basin, where the courses of a banquet were served in floating dishes shaped like boats.
Roman engineers built aqueducts and fountains throughout the Roman Empire. Examples can be found today in the ruins of Roman towns in Vaison-la-Romaine and Glanum in France, in Augst, Switzerland, and other sites.
During the Middle Ages, Roman aqueducts were wrecked or fell into decay, and many fountains throughout Europe stopped working, so fountains existed mainly in art and literature, or in secluded monasteries or palace gardens. Fountains in the Middle Ages were associated with the source of life, purity, wisdom, innocence, and the Garden of Eden. In illuminated manuscripts like the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1411–1416), the Garden of Eden was shown with a graceful gothic fountain in the center (see illustration). The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, finished in 1432, also shows a fountain as a feature of the adoration of the mystic lamb, a scene apparently set in Paradise.
The cloister of a monastery was supposed to be a replica of the Garden of Eden, protected from the outside world. Simple fountains, called lavabos, were placed inside Medieval monasteries such as Le Thoronet Abbey in Provence and were used for ritual washing before religious services.
Fountains were also found in the enclosed medieval jardins d'amour, ,,gardens of courtly love" - ornamental gardens used for courtship and relaxion. The medieval romance The Roman de la Rose describes a fountain in the center of an enclosed garden, feeding small streams bordered by flowers and fresh herbs.
Some Medieval fountains, like the cathedrals of their time, illustrated biblical stories, local history and the virtues of their time. The Fontana Maggiore in Perugia, dedicated in 1278, is decorated with stone carvings representing prophets and saints, allegories of the arts, labors of the months, the signs of the zodiac, and scenes from Genesis and Roman history.
Medieval fountains could also provide amusement. The gardens of the Counts of Artois at the Château de Hesdin, built in 1295, contained famous fountains, called Les Merveilles de Hesdin (,,The Wonders of Hesdin") which could be triggered to drench surprised visitors.