The top 5 fountains you should get to know in Paris

Paris is not only a “green city” (see our previous article on the top 5 gardens to discover), it is also a “water city”. Think about the Seine, the Canal Saint Martin or the bassin de la Villette, yet, the fountains in the capital also play an important role in the landscape and participate to Paris’ charm. I would like to talk to you today about five of them. Some famous, the others less known though worth seeing. Let me talk to you about their numerous, and often surprising, peculiarities. They are all located on different spots which give you a good opportunity to also exploring their roundabouts.

The Fontaine Médicis

Considered by some to be one of the capital’s most romantic spots, the Fontaine Médicis is a little way off the beaten track, down one of the paths of the Jardin du Luxembourg. It is tempting to take a relaxing break when passing and let the minutes slip by unheeded as you gaze at the water’s imperceptible movements.

Fontaine Medicis

Henry IV’s widow, Marie de’ Medici, had the Grotte de Luxembourg built in 1630 in the image of the Italian gardens of the time. As a tribute to the transalpine gardens of her childhood, the queen ordered the construction of a nymphaeum, a sacred place for nymphs. It is believed that Thomas Francini, Intendant General of Waters and Fountains of the King, designed the plans. The fountain was to undergo several transformations over the following centuries.

Originally, it formed the eastern backdrop for the wide pathway along the side of the palace. After the Revolution, it was restored by the architects Ramey, Duret and Talamona at the request of Chalgrin, the architect of the Palais du Luxembourg.
In 1862, public work undertaken as part of Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris caused the fountain to be moved closer to the palace. It was at this time that the 50-metre basin was built and new sculptures were added, following a request by Alphonse de Gisors. The architect also had the Fontaine de Léda placed behind it.

The central alcove contains a marble group representing Acis and Galatea lying under a rock as the colossal bronze figure of Polyphemus appears over the top of it, ready to cast the lethal boulder at his rival. The entire sculpture was made by Auguste Ottin when the fountain was moved. The lovers and their sad story also inspired Lully to write the opera Acis and Galatea. The lateral alcoves are embellished with two statues portraying a faun and a huntress, also created by Ottin. The eastern façade was decorated with a bas-relief, made in 1807 by Achille Valois (1785-1862) for the Fountain of Leda, and was completed with a semi-cupola and a pediment, upon whose slanted edges lie two gracious naiads, carved by the chisel of the sculptor Klagmann (1810-1867).

The Fontaine Labyrinthe

This fountain is somewhat off the beaten tracks, situated in the 19th arrondissement, at the Place des Fêtes.
In 1980, a competition was organized in Paris to build new fountains in the capital. In 1987, the Hungarian artist Marta Pan submitted this design, which won the jury’s approval.

Fontaine Labyrinthe

In this curious work, water streams out of the ground through a maze of corridors, representing natural streams. The artist describes it as follows: “the fountain consists of five concentric basins… the current is inverted from basin to basin, giving the impression of great speed… It was inaugurated in 1986 and illustrates the two-fold desire to introduce living art into an urban environment and to give a new identity to an area which had been destroyed by urbanization in the 1960s.”

When you are next near the fountain, don’t forget to take a walk around the surprising Mouzaïa quarter which is just nearby, called by some “America in Paris”.

The Fontaine Saint-Michel

Erected in 1860, the Fontaine Saint-Michel is the most famous fountain in Paris. Standing tall as guardian of the Île de la Cité and its surroundings, the archangel Michael perched in its centre, this fountain watches over the thousands of students, tourists and passers-by who ebb and flow endlessly along the famous Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain boulevards, Rue Saint André des Arts and Rue la Huchette.

Fontaine Saint Michel

A famous quatrain of the time gives us a good indication of the lukewarm reception the fountain received when it was designed:

“In this appalling monument,
One finds no taste or skill:
The Devil is worth less than nought;
Saint-Michel worth less still.”

The tallest fountain in Paris was part of the vast urban project launched by Baron Haussmann, who wanted to restructure and beautify the capital whilst bringing it in line with the public health theories of the time.

It was designed by the architect Gabriel Davioud and takes the form of an antique triumphal arch, although Zeus, Hermes and friends are nowhere to be seen – the edifice celebrates instead the archangel Michael and his victory over the demon.

Many artists played a role in its creation, including Félix Saupin, who carved the rock supporting the angelic duo, which in turn were made by Francisque Duret. The two imposing chimeras guarding the wide basin are the work of Henri-Alfred Jacquemart and were very well received. In the upper part of the monument, the four statues represent the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, courage and justice) and were made by different artists. Each virtue is portrayed with her associated characteristics: prudence has the mirror and the snake, justice is armed with her traditional broadsword, temperance carries a bridle in her hand to halt the passions, and, finally, courage bears a clear reference to Hercules, leaning on her oaken mace and draped in the hide of the Nemean lion. Symbolically, these virtues aid Saint Michel in his victorious battle.

A series of cherubs, carved by the feminine artist Marie-Noémie Cadiot (a fact rare enough for it to be notable) wash themselves happily amidst palm leaves and rinceaux. The monument is crowned with allegories of power and moderation encircling Paris’s blazon and famous motto: Fluctuat nec Mergitur – words all the more powerful when considered alongside the plaque commemorating the French soldiers who died defending their city in 1944.

The Fontaine de la Cité de Trévise

In the heart of the Cité de Trévise, in the middle of the 9th arrondissement, a very interesting fountain awaits for you. When the Cité opened in 1840, the project was presented by its promoters as follows: ‘…Although it has been built in the busiest and therefore the loudest district of Paris, the Cité Trévise offers a pleasant sanctuary for those who enjoy calm and tranquility, in the midst of the noise of business and leisure.’ Alexandre Dumas stayed there for a time, as did many German Jews. Anatole de la Forgre, a colorful political figure, was born at number 1 in 1820, long before the construction of the Cité, which now bears a commemorative plaque in his memory.

Fontaine de la cite de Trevise

The neoclassical fountain can be found, more or less hidden, at the centre of the Cité. Three nymphs hold hands in the middle of a small, lush park. Whilst you’re there, take a look at the remarkable neo-Renaissance buildings all around.

According to an urban legend, the park was used as a public dumping ground by the neighborhood’s inhabitants in the 1970s. One day, a man who walked past the fountain every day decided to clean it up. He stopped at nothing, clambering over the bonnets of the cars around the fountain. A council worker came by and gave him her blessing for the good deed he had undertaken. Apparently she had dreamt the previous night that the fountain was clean again. With this encouragement, the man persevered in his task. Touched by what he had done, the locals stopped leaving their rubbish in the square. Several years later, a group of gardeners spruced up the park that surrounds the fountain to this day.

Like many other spots in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, the housing estates dotted about have retained all the charm of former years.

The Fontaine Stravinsky

The Stravinsky Fountain alongside the Pompidou Centre, in front of the Saint Merri Church, is also an important symbol of Paris. The fountain was commissioned in 1981 by Jacques Chirac, at that time Mayor of Paris. Also known as the Fontaine des Automates (the Clockwork Fountain), it was created by married couple Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle (whose work was recently exhibited in the Grand Palais) in 1983. It evokes the musical work of Igor Stravinksy, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

Fontaine Stravinsky

The animals represented refer to the different works of Stravinsky: the Firebird, the Rite of Spring, Ragtime and The Fox, to name a few. In this collection of 16 sculptures, the two artists’ styles complement one another wonderfully (the colorful, fun sculptures of de Saint Phalle alongside Tinguely’s more austere ones).

A characteristic which adds charm to the fountain is that the sculptures are mechanical and start moving when one is least expecting it. It delights children and adults alike.

Didier Moinel Delalande is a Director at Hotel Mathurin.

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