Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Water Culture in the Renaissance

  • Lily FilsonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_982-1


Water supply systems in the Renaissance both recovered classical models (often through the lens of Arabic and Byzantine engineering treatises) and applied this set of principles to expanded uses which came to characterize the period: hydraulic gardens and games; fountains public and private, miniature and monumental; and interior plumbing systems which revolutionized standards of hygiene and created a clean break from medieval culture for privileged social classes. This entry reviews the transmission and reception of classically derived water supply systems from the Medieval Islamic East, their integration into larger-scale, inventive adaptations created in France and Italy, early fountains and their statuary which anticipated arrangements which became commonplace later in the Renaissance, and the adoption of a system to deliver hot and cold water on tap to the interiors of princely palaces and villas, facilitating new habits of bathing and cleanliness.


Impact and Legacy

Mirroring other aspects of engineering history, Western civilization’s capacity to channel water for both civic and private contexts is generally perceived to have experienced an acceleration of development from the Medieval period onward with the influx of classically derived Arabic and Byzantine treatises. The surviving Sicilian water gardens from the early medieval period which changed hands between Muslim and Christian rulers, such as Al-Zisa of Palermo, illustrate the early counterparts with which Europeans came into contact around the Mediterranean. Hesdin in late thirteenth-century Picardy constitutes Europe’s earliest and most extensive importation of water supply systems by a returning crusader for purposes of diversion and delight, anticipating the Renaissance hydraulic systems and devices which characterized princely sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gardens and villas. In Hesdin’s works, we witness original features developed alongside innovative reconceptions of the application of hydraulic engineering principles. Its engines were recognizably the hydraulic automata of Al-Jazari and other treatises which emerged from the Caliphates, reborn in shapes both familiar and foreign (elephants, goats, stags, apes, and singing birds). In the fifteenth century, with Hesdin’s refurbishment under the Dukes of Burgundy, a variety of “trick” water jets were introduced, greatly expanding the system of conduits and controls necessary to supplying the dynamic force of water. Monumental, virtuosic expansions of these systems in Italy, at the Villa d’Este of Tivoli, of the Villa Medici at Pratolino, the Villa Lante of Bagnaia, and others, inherited, refined, and applied principles which produced ever-expanded, ever-elaborated networks of pipes, canals, ponds, fountains, and games.

Concurrently, medieval fountains expanded the reach of water supply systems, in some cases restoring a standard of public access to water enjoyed in Roman times (as with the great civic fountains and aqueduct refurbishments, e.g., Siena and Florence) and in others bringing water systems into the private garden and even to the courts and tables of princes, as with the smaller-scale gothic table fountains. A 1365 illustrated manuscript of Boccaccio’s Decameron, the earliest known of its kind executed during the author’s lifetime, contains the depiction of a fountain, with no direct correlation in the text, composed of a hexagonal base, three water spouts in the shape of animal heads, and a nude female figure (presumably Venus) at its top. Whether or not this was an illustrator’s interjection drawn from personal experience or rather a direct, allegorical invention by the author himself is a question left unresolved, but nevertheless we have here early indications for the trend of garden fountains which became increasingly ubiquitous.

As with parallel developments in the history of technology in the medieval and Renaissance, fountains and water systems increasingly became fixtures within newly (re)emerging concepts of hygiene and bathing built into Renaissance palaces and villas. The presence of a room or suite of rooms with running water, much less hot and cold water on tap, for the princes who could afford to have them meant having the luxury of a break from the hygienic standards of their medieval predecessors. Federigo da Montefeltro consciously lived his daily life in emulation of ancient Roman exemplars, and his suite of rooms in the Palace of Urbino featured a lararium, a shrine to the household gods, spaces for both reading Greek literature, and physical exercise on the classical model. In fashion by the end of the fifteenth century and a standard fixture of Italian castles, Renaissance bathing spaces were, for elite patrons, transformed into ornate classical fantasies and follies, e.g., the tub room of Julius II decorated by Peruzzi. Cardinal Bibbiena’s bathroom painted by Giovanni d’Udine evokes a studiolo with the combination of its small enclosed space, dense iconographical program, and lavish decoration. Hot and cold faucets came from the horns of a satyr’s mask; nymphs and other nude female forms with classical identifications were other conventional methods of water delivery in chambers such as these and justifiably so. Water and Venus as life-givers and embodiments of fecundity were intimately entwined. When we encounter the Stufa, either by itself or in its own dedicated grotto at Pratolino, we witness the capacity to bathe in heated waters in imitation of classical, as opposed to medieval, rituals of hygiene.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di Filosofia delle Scienze FormativeCa’ Foscari University of VeniceVeniceItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Matteo Valleriani
    • 1
  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany