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Table Fountain, c. 1320–40. France, Paris. Gilt-silver, translucent enamel on basse-taille, and opaque enamel; 31.1 x 24.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of J. H. Wade 1924.859.
Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain
CLEVELAND, OHIO, UNITED STATES • Cleveland Museum of Art • 9 October 2016 - 26 February 2017
The most complete surviving example of a Gothic table fountain is preserved in the Cleveland Museum of Art. This medieval automaton is datable to about 1320–40 and was likely produced in Paris for a person of high status, perhaps a member of the royal court. The Cleveland fountain is internationally recognized as a unique example of a genre now understood primarily through documentary sources. Such fountains existed in the 14th and 15th centuries in substantial numbers. They assumed various forms but were always made from precious metals and sometimes embellished with colorful enamels or semi-precious stones. Table fountains were probably returned to the goldsmith’s shop for conversion into vessels or coinage once they ceased to function or the fashion had passed, accounting for the scarcity of surviving examples today.
Impressive in their sheer technical wizardry, these mechanical devices with moving parts that spouted (sometimes perfumed) water are known especially from inventories. Once thought to grace banqueting tables, they were more likely placed on pedestals in strategic locations in palaces, where they were showcased as spectacles of ingenuity by their owners to delight their guests. Such objects did not originate in the European West, but were probably introduced through the Byzantine and Islamic worlds.
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