Monumental Fountains of Rossio

Monumental Fountains of Rossio; detail of one of the four mermaids
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The monumental fountains of Rossio are two landmarks of the 19th century Lisbon that can’t go unnoticed in this city of seven hills.

There are others, which we’ve already mentioned in Iron Fountains of the 19th Century Lisbon. However, despite being fascinating, they don’t have the impressiveness of these ones, located in the capital’s living room, that imprint monumentality, embellish and refresh Rossio since 1889.

The monumental fountains of Rossio are part of the so-called Pombaline Downtown, which is classified as Public Interest.

But do you know the origin of these fountains, where they were produced, who their author is and who the characters represented there are?

Here you’ll find the answers to these questions and other interesting facts that you’ll enjoy discovering.

Production and Authorship of the Monumental Fountains of Rossio

In the article about the 19th century fountains, we talked about the functionality and origin of the fountains that were transformed according to needs and aesthetics.

As we’ve seen, in the 19th century, this ornamental structure gained a new dynamic with the mass production of cast iron pieces.

Urban furniture such as benches, lamps, drinking fountains, among others, even sculptures designed to integrate fountains, were created by sculptors, produced in French foundries and distance sold by catalogue, spreading throughout Europe and later the world.

We know that the two monumental fountains in Rossio were installed in this square in 1889, at the initiative of a councillor from the City Council of Lisbon, and replaced two wells that had existed there since 1837.

They’re identical and they side the tribute monument of King Pedro IV at the centre of the square, providing symmetry and balance to the large space filled with the emblematic pattern of Portuguese pavement, Mar Largo (large sea), which simulates unstable waves.

Rossio Square where you can find the two  identical fountains that side the tribute monument of King Pedro IV.
The two monumental fountains of Rossio Square

Its French ornamental style of classic taste includes elements that are also related to the sea: fish, shells, cables, anchors, children, gods and mermaids.

This very ornate model, rich in symbols dedicated to the marine world belongs to the Val d’Osne foundry catalogue and which was awarded a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855. Today these fountains are internationally known as Tourny Fountains.

Its main sculptures are by the prolific French sculptor Mathurin Moreau (1822-1912) and the other figures and ornaments are the creation of the French sculptor and ornamental designer Michel Joseph Napoléon Liénard (1810-1870).

Description and Symbols

South side monumental fountain
South side monumental fountain

The monumental fountains of Rossio are made up of an elaborate sculptural set, composed of a central body topped by four fish that squirt water into a small basin under which four children can be observed.

From there, water overflows into an octagonal-shaped and large basin, which in turn pours water into a circular stone lake.

Under the second basin there are four seated figures grouped in pairs. And inside the lake, four mermaids carrying conch shells that project water in the direction of the second basin.

The Four Children and Their Attributes

Children and their attributes: net, horn of abundance, bunch of ears and rudder
Children and their attributes

When observing them, we found extremely curious aspects.

The children, back to back, are connected to each other through their hands. Each has the right palm facing down in a gesture of receiving and the left palm facing up in a gesture of giving.

They’re also associated with a very rich set of symbolic elements, of which we have identified: a net, a symbol of great complexity that might simply be associated with the Water element, but that in a deeper analysis can be interpreted as a weapon of submission; a horn of abundance that overflows with fruit, a symbol of happiness and fruitfulness that can be related to the Earth; a bunch of ears that remind us of summer, of charity, abundance and rebirth, sometimes linked to Fire; and finally a rudder, sign of responsibility, authority and prudence.

We can even risk an interpretation of the presence of this set of figures. We’re facing a cycle in which water is the source of life, it promotes fertility, which in turn creates abundance. However, prudence and responsibility are needed to keep the balance and not succumb to the net.

Acis and Galatea

Acis and Galatea, characters from the opera with the same name by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), inspired by the Metamorphoses of Ovid (I BC - I AD)
Acis and Galatea

Regarding the figures, the first pair refers to Acis and Galatea, characters from the opera with the same name by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), inspired by the Metamorphoses of Ovid (I BC – I AD), the literary work of Classical Antiquity that most influenced European culture. This narrative has inspired hundreds of artists of all times, from the visual arts to music and literature. In it, stories involving transformations of gods or humans in elements of nature such as stones, trees, rivers, fountains are told…

This pair refers to the tragic love between the shepherd Acis, a mortal, and the sea nymph Galatea. It’s said that one day the Cyclops Polyphemus, a giant with one eye, who had fallen in love with the demigoddess, killed Acis upon seeing the couple, but the nymph brought him back to life in the form of a clearwater river.

Poseidon and Aphrodite

Poseidon and Aphrodite, two of the greatest characters in Greek mythology, equally related to the world of waters.
Poseidon and Aphrodite

Poseidon and Aphrodite form the second pair. They’re two of the greatest characters in Greek mythology, equally related to the world of waters.

Between them there is a representation of an anchor, symbol of firmness, solidity, tranquility and fidelity.

The Greek god Poseidon, who in Rome was named Neptune, is the supreme god of the seas and also of earthquakes.

In turn, Aphrodite was born in the sea and is considered not only the goddess of love, but also the goddess of calm waters, the prompter of good travels. Protector of navigators, as Luís de Camões described her in the epic poem Os Lusíadas, where the goddess Venus (Roman version of Aphrodite) plays a decisive role in the success of Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese in their maritime adventure that culminates in the Island of Love.

The presence of this goddess may have been decisive in the choice of this fountain model by the city council.

Curious Fact

We’ve spotted the same sculptures of Acis and Galatera in another fountain in the Chateau du Pian in Bouliac near Bordeaux, but with a totally different integration, in the Chateau du Pian in Bouliac near Bordeaux.

Poseidon and Aphrodite were also identified in a different composition in an avenue in Santiago de Chile.

Reactions to the Installation of the Monumental Fountains of Rossio

Occidente magazine, 1889, No. 386, cover and article
Occidente magazine, 1889, No. 386, cover and article

In issue No. 386, of October 11, 1889, of Occidente magazine, these fountains are the subject of the cover and of an opinion article inside.

There, the commitment that the City Council of Lisbon undertook during those years to embellish the city is recognised. The opening of the Liberdade Avenue is praised, but the decision to implement the Rossio fountains is already more controversial.

It’s argued that it would’ve been preferable to open a public tender for its design. This action would result in unique and representative pieces of the creativity of national artists, which in the author’s view would be an advantage. Despite having agreed with the beauty of these sources, they reinforce their lack of originality as they are produced in mass, directly accusing the project’s mentors of ignorance.

In our opinion, and judging by other cases of public tenders whose winning projects were never executed, perhaps it was better this way. The fonts are there, they work and they fulfill their role, giving a certain French touch that characterised the taste of the end of the 19th century.

Identical Fountains Scattered Around the World

Images from the Val d’Osne foundry catalogue; Acis and Galatea and the called Tourny fountain
Images from the Val d’Osne foundry catalogue; Acis and Galatea and the called Tourny fountain

To some extent, the observation made by Occidente magazine is true regarding the lack of originality, but this does not invalidate its artistic, symbolic and monumental quality.

Today, more than 160 years after its conception, they are appreciated, chosen as a background for photos of tourists, symbols of cities.

Countless examples of this monumental fountain are still scattered in many other cities around the world. Places as different as Geneva in Switzerland; Tacna in Peru; Quebec in Canada; Buenos Aires in Argentina; Boston in the USA; Salvador da Bahia in Brazil; Launceston in Tasmania; Cairo in Egypt…

Luckily, Lisbon has two! 🙂

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