The Mercury Fountain and the Hercules Fountain
by Christian Schaller
The Mercury Fountain and the Hercules Fountain by Adriaen de Vries in Augsburg
In the Middle Ages, Augsburg had grown into one of the most important cities of the Holy Roman Empire and was elevated to the status of Free Imperial City in 1276. As the most important transshipment centre in southern Germany, the settlement also gained political weight through the Imperial Diet, especially between 1500 and 1582. The city between the Lech and Wertach rivers thus became a centre of attraction not only for the powerful, but also for numerous painters, architects, musicians and, not least, humanists and reformers. Nevertheless, towards the end of the 16th century, the city’s economy was gripped by a continuous decline. World trade was in decline in the last third of the decade, the great trading houses collapsed and preluded the decline of Augsburg’s textile trade. The building trade was also in deep crisis, as the municipality lacked capital – for example, due to debt payments after the Schmalkaldic War. The nevertheless growing population mostly found space in stocked-up old buildings. A sustained deterioration in the climate brought famine and plague, which in turn fuelled superstition, fear and a fundamental pessimism. In addition, there were denominational disputes, which manifested themselves in the calendar dispute, for example. Nevertheless, a very prudent city policy ensured stability, a resurgent economy and renewed prosperity. This also increased the desire for appropriate forms of representation.
Since the high Middle Ages, elaborately decorated fountains postulated a functioning drinking water supply for the respective city as a public sign, which could proudly present its technical and mechanical achievements in this way. After the construction of the first Augsburg waterworks around 1414, seven tube wells, no longer preserved today, were installed in the central squares of the imperial city. The subsequent, second generation of wells in the early 16th century also left hardly any traces in today’s city topography. While many simple fountain pillars were crowned by the city pyr, two striking figures also survived that are emblematic of the development of early modern Augsburg fountain art. The Wappner is a two-and-a-half-metre tall figure made of red marble, completed around 1518 by Sebastian Loscher. As an armoured knight, he wears body armour, a shield with a city pyr and a forged mace. He does not represent a living person, but the symbolic bond of the city and the city lords with the empire and the emperor. As a high-quality translation of a late medieval motif into the formal language of the early Renaissance, this expression of the high sculptural art of Augsburg in the early 16th century can be regarded as a direct development of the late Gothic fountain figures that can still be found today in many towns in southern Germany. The figure of Neptune goes a decisive step further in the course of this development. It is considered to be the first life-size fountain figure cast in bronze north of the Alps and the first monumental nude figure in public space.
The figure bears characteristic attributes: a trident in the right hand and a dolphin in the left. However, the sculptor, caster, year of origin and provenance of this singular work of art are unknown. The Neptune has also changed its location several times and is now in the Maximilian Museum. It may be considered certain that the pagan-ancient sea god replaced a predecessor fountain in the divided imperial city of Augsburg, which was crowned by the city saint Bishop Ulrich – a Catholic patron of water – as a neutral, non-denominational subject. In summary, Wappner and Neptune, as surviving works of the second generation of Augsburg fountains, thus represent a significant step in the development of Central European ornamental fountain art: the establishment of the formal language of the Renaissance and the technical progress of bronze art. These innovations were to lay the foundation for the third Augsburg fountain generation, which broke even more radically with the German fountain tradition.
An art-historical link between these two early fountains and the Mercury and Hercules Fountains by Adriaen de Vries is the Augustus Fountain on the Augsburg Town Hall, which is dealt with in another article.
The Mercury Fountain
The modelling of the Augsburg Mercury Fountain on today’s Moritzplatz began in 1596 by Adriaen de Vries. The casting was carried out until 1599 by the important founder Wolfgang Neidhardt the Younger (1575-1632). After several repairs, a protective grille was added in 1716. The basin was renewed in 1752 and the fountain’s base was raised by 22 inches. Around 1920, the fountain was moved slightly towards the rear row of houses so as not to obstruct the growing street traffic. Since the 1990s, copies have replaced the original sculptures, which were placed in the Viermetzhof of the Maximilian Museum in Augsburg after their restoration.
Description and composition of the Mercury Fountain
The approximately 250-centimetre-high fountain group is dominated by the male nude figure of Mercury. His left arm is raised to the sky, while his right hand holds a winged and snake-wrapped herald’s staff in front of his chest. The young god wears a winged helmet and equally winged sandals. The slightly turned and upwardly striving pose creates a contra-posture. His gaze is directed towards Cupid – a small, winged and also unclothed boy at his feet. The latter returns the gaze while he is about to tie one of the shoes. The fountain pillar is four-sided and stands in the centre of a decagonal marble basin. Two rocaille cartouches decorate the cornice of the fountain. The water emerges in jets from numerous pillar bronzes – from two Medusa heads, from two dog and two lion heads and from four eagle heads. The Latin inscriptions on all four sides provide information about the numerous repairs and overhauls that took place in the course of the following centuries – right up to the Rococo period. The so-called town custodians are always named.
Martin Merz even describes the formal elegance of the group as sprezzatura in bronze, the courtly ideal of casual and effortless artistry. In the tradition of depicting the god, the youthful, naked body was usually preferred in combination with dynamic movement. The flying, floating messenger of the gods became a particularly attractive theme of the late Renaissance and was paradigmatic for the new artistic language of Mannerism. The numerous compositional precursors are paradigmatically concentrated in Giambologna’s Mercurio volante. North of the Alps, for example, they are reflected – and in a completely different context than in Augsburg – in Carlo di Cesare’s (1538-1598) fire-gilded Mercury in the Grotto Courtyard of the royal seat of Munich.
Mercury Fountain, © Christian Schaller
Hubert Gerhard also created a Flying Mercury for Wolfgang Paller the Younger from Augsburg, significantly an important copper trader. This 93-centimetre-high figure probably crowned a column or a fountain and is distinguished iconographically as a god of trade by a purse – unlike de Vries’ Mercury fountain. The messenger of the gods is also repeatedly found in the work of the Dutch artist.
According to Burk, he shows himself here “both as an independent inventor and as an ingenious compiler of Giambologna’s famous models”. An early sketch of Mercury from 1596 also gives an indication of de Vries’ artistic development during his Augsburg years. While the motif, form and posture of the figures are initially quite similar to the executed Mercury, on closer inspection they already differ in some elements and iconographic hints – from the missing sandals to the boy’s winglessness. Gode Krämer sees this as a leap in de Vries’ skill and formal language during the modelling of the Augsburg Mercury Fountain. The almost playful drawing still lacked the upward striving, the intense eye contact, and generally the monumentality that would eventually characterise the execution. The contemporary design ideal of all-viewing was achieved in the Mercury Fountain through an exemplary figura serpentinata, which virtually demands a walk around the fountain. Helmut Friedel compares this to the form of a lambent, incomprehensible flame. The directed and slightly elongated limbs reflect the contemporary ideal of elegance and beauty. This is complemented by the artful intertwining of Mercury and Cupid, who turn into each other in opposite directions and are additionally connected by eye contact. The contrapost, characterised by lightness, reflects de Vries’ struggle for new, even more imposing forms of expression, which together represent a very characteristic expression of the Mannerist movement. Above all, de Vries’s late work deepens this ongoing development, as the recently rediscovered Mercury of Karlskrone Castle reveals with its surface covered in innumerable depressions and protrusions that reflect the light in a wide variety of directions and almost dissolve the overall form and outlines into the abstract.
Interpretations and possible interpretations of the Mercury Fountain
As a public monument of a free imperial and commercial city, the Mercury Fountain is thus already singular in its courtly-like formal language and choice of theme. The choice of the motif for the central urban trading centre near St. Moritz can be roughly traced back to two models.
Augsburg’s installation of the Roman god was first and foremost a reminder of the city’s ancient heritage, in which, according to archaeological research, Mercury in particular had been intensely venerated. The proud imperial city had linked its self-image to its Roman heritage early on.
The humanist Marcus Welser probably had access to several surviving reliefs of Mercury from Roman times. As a significant contributor to the iconography of fountains, he transferred the local tradition and ancient pictorial tradition into the subject of the Mercury fountain.
The Mercury Fountain thus suggested a line of tradition of the enduring commercial metropolis of Augsburg from antiquity to early modern times. At the same time, the ancient god of trade also glorifies the currently flourishing merchant city. The bronze statue is a reminder of the prospering metal industry, while its positioning next to the splendidly designed guild house of the weavers on Moritzplatz, one of the city’s central market squares, refers to the textile trade, which was also significant for Augsburg. The small gargoyles on the pillar – medusas, dogs, lions and eagles – underline the dangers of traffic and trade, above which the protective Mercury is enthroned victoriously.
Nevertheless, the god of trade lacks the characteristic attribute of the purse. The wings on the helmet and the sandals refer – in a complementary rather than contrary way – to Mercury’s additional function as messenger of the gods, the mediator between heaven and earth. The caduceus, the staff of Mercury, is also to be seen in this context. In the tradition of early modern iconography, this was regarded as a symbol of unity, which was a basis for successful trade and thus the prosperity of a community like Augsburg. Already in his mythological-antique function as pacificator, Mercury was a symbol of civilisation and peace, which underwent a Christian shift in meaning to a symbol of virtue. The mythical figure can thus be interpreted in many ways. As a symbol of ancient tradition and commerce alike, Augsburg’s Mercury embodied purely positive aspects – the harmony achieved through the absence of war and open violence and the wealth associated with it. The original inscription on the fountain also proclaimed: INDVSTRIAE RECTI AMORE TEMPERATAE – a dedication to the diligence of trade restrained by the love of right measure. This combines with the posture of Mercury, who seems to pause in a retarding moment between staying and flying away. In the end, it is not clear whether Cupid loosens the sandal or binds it. At the same time, the inscription suggests the latter: Mercury should fly, but do so with Cupid’s gift of moderation – a kind of early modern economic ethos that was also directed at the merchants and the city of Augsburg.
The Hercules Fountain
Adriaen de Vries probably began modelling the Hercules Fountain in Augsburg’s Maximilianstrasse from 1597. Wolfgang Neidhardt again acted as the caster. The creation was accompanied by some complications. Due to the rich repertoire of figures, completion was delayed. In addition, a massive foundation had to be laid because of the heavy weight of the largest of Augsburg’s three magnificent fountains. It was not until 1602 that the fountain, including the main group and pedestal figures, was completed and ceremoniously inaugurated. Numerous extensive renovations were also necessary in the following centuries. The restored originals are now in the inner courtyard of the Maximilian Museum.
Description and composition of the Hercules Fountain
A three-sided fountain pillar rises in the centre of the hexagonal fountain basin. The bronze group on top, about three metres high, shows Hercules as a muscular, naked man with a curly beard and hair held back by a ribbon. In his right hand, raised above his head, he holds a burning club with which he aims at the Hydra, a seven-headed winged creature at his feet.
The dragon-like monster writhes between his legs while he seems to hold it in compartment with his left hand. Three naked naiads sit on the cornice-like projection of the lower pillar block. The nude female figures serve as gargoyles. One of the women is wringing out a cloth, the second is wringing water from her hair, while the third is emptying a jug of water over her legs. Between the nude figures, three relief panels framed in marble and made of gilded bronze are embedded. Their content and interpretation as well as the inscriptions on the fountain will be discussed in more detail in the following chapter. At each of the women’s feet is a conch shell that catches the water and passes it downwards through two depressions. Below the depictions of the women, just above the fountain basin, three men with small horns are positioned, holding fish and shells in their hands.
Hercules Fountain in Augsburg, © Christian Schaller
These tritons or water deities are only modelled up to the upper body, the rest seems to sink into the fountain base. They dispense water from their attributes as well as from their mouths. Between this triad, a naked, winged boy stands on each of the three sides of the pedestal. They are holding geese between their legs, which seem to be stabbing or strangling them. The raised goose beaks also serve as gargoyles.
Four years after the completion of the third and largest magnificent fountain, Elias Holl completed the neighbouring Signet House. This positioned the Hercules as a walk-around monument at the end of the city’s central festival square, the Weinmarkt. Emmendörffer therefore describes the Hercules Fountain as built “festival architecture”. As an all-visible work of art, the Hercules Fountain also reveals different, tension-laden figurations to the viewer from different sides, which in turn accentuate varying moments of struggle. The bronze thus refers in a striking way to the developments in early modern art. While the Augustus Fountain still corresponded entirely to the ideals of late Renaissance sculpture, de Vries already emphasised effect and heightened expression in his Mercury Fountain with its graceful twisting – typical characteristics of Mannerism. Hercules takes this contemporary artistic ideal even further. He fights the Hydra in an almost theatrical pose, whereby the base of the fountain is degraded to a stage as a demarcation of the action and is therefore stepped over by the statues. This is supported by the elaborately profiled hexagonal basin, whose walls are alternately straight or curved in an innovative way. The moving surface is still very much in keeping with the ideal of Mannerism, but already takes a small step towards the pronounced illusion of materiality of the Baroque.
Interpretations and possible interpretations of the Hercules Fountain
In courtly contexts, the demigod Hercules was usually depicted as a ruler’s allegory and generally staged as a virtuous hero par excellence. Martin Merz interprets Augsburg’s choice of subject – similar to Hubert Gerhardt’s Augustus – as a publicly signalled, direct reference to the imperial house. He interprets the depicted battle between the hero and the hydra as a fundamental confrontation between the monarch and internal and external enemies. In this context, the hydra cannot, of course, be interpreted directly as a symbol of heresy in the biconfessional imperial city. A victory over the Ottomans represented by the heroic act is also within the realm of possibility in the 17th century, which was characterised by religious zeal, but it also becomes unlikely for Augsburg, which was far in the hinterland and thus not directly threatened.
Hercules, however, cannot only be read as a strong hero of virtue. The figure of Greek mythology can also be associated in many ways with the natural power of water. The killing of the poisonous water snake Hydra, whose heads can figuratively stand for the numerous springs of an agriculture-destroying swamp, also fits into this context. As the brave warrior, Heracles slays the monster, while as the “water builder” of the heroic age he eliminated land plagues and created new farmland.
Hercules Fountain in Augsburg, © stux
The naiads, the water deities half-sinking into the pillar and the goose-killing boys – a common motif since antiquity – initially expand Hercules with seemingly unrelated themes. The female nudes can almost be seen as graces in their graceful beauty. Due to the playful, cheerful, almost erotic impression of the bronzes on the pillar, a direct contrast is created to the serious, virtuous struggle above.
The confessional potential of the fountain is ultimately defused by the other, almost playful, erotic bronzes as well as the mythological, peaceful reference to the city’s history established by the reliefs. These disjointed components deprive the de Vries Hercules Fountain of a clear interpretation. The fountain’s former, original inscription was thus also dedicated to VIRTVTI ET GRATIIS.
The depiction of the Hercules Fountain thus moves in the “field of tension between two classical ideals of virtue” – the fighting courage of the demigod and the grace of the three female nudes. The inscription also relates this contrast – analogous to Mercury – to the city of Augsburg, where virtus and gratia find a rare symbiosis. In summary, the bronzes can thus be regarded as a “polyphonic glorification of the genius loci of Augsburg”.
The Fountain Boy in the Box Tower of the Water Towers at the Red Gate in Augsburg
A final Augsburg work by Adriaen de Vries completes the ideological programme. The fountain youth from the Kastenturm near the Red Gate was completed by 1602 at the latest and, with a height of 63 centimetres, seems almost modest in direct comparison with Mercury or Hercules. Almost reverently, the male nude figure dispenses the precious water from a shell – one of the foundations for the flourishing economy of the imperial city. The bronze sculpture is enthroned on the reservoir that supplied the three magnificent fountains and their residents with water. In addition, the upper storey of the Kastenturm was considered a popular vantage point over the city and its surroundings. The prosperity of the commercial metropolis remained unbroken despite the decline in world trade, the collapse of the great trading houses and the simmering conflicts of the time. The great artistry of both local and international bronze artists, as well as the expertise of the founders and their workshops, was only to be temporarily eclipsed by the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War.
The magnificent fountains as images of their time
The Augsburg bronze art of Adriaen de Vries thus allows a broad spectrum of possible interpretations. On an art-historical level, the Dutchman perfected the formal language and design ideal of Mannerism with his design of Mercury and even more so of Hercules. The two ornamental fountains recall the city’s Roman-ancient heritage and its status as a European trading metropolis. What the Roman messenger of the gods and the ancient heros have in common, however, is above all the inherent expression of contemporary urban politics. In the changeable epoch between the Augsburg Religious Peace and the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, the biconfessional imperial city insisted on an ideology of concord, which it confidently expressed through the city’s iconography. The ancient figures were overdrawn and reinterpreted by a Christian ideal of virtue. Mercury and Hercules can thus be seen as a call for unity, as it were, which in turn formed the basis for peace and prosperity. In this late heyday around 1600, Augsburg created a deconfessionalised public space, which was at the same time adorned by innovative works of art of European rank. These also entered into self-confident competition with the “international” forms of representation, such as those cultivated by the residential towns of large territorial rulers. Together with Hubert Gerhard’s Augustus, the three Augsburg splendour fountains formed an axis through political and economic Augsburg. Complementing them, the young fountain in the Kastenturm, as an authoritative “water giver”, emphasised the city’s hydrological achievements. This unique ensemble was complemented in a planned manner by Elias Holl’s urban planning programme. The Augsburg bronze art of Adriaen de Vries can thus be read as the centrepiece of an almost political manifesto of the city, which wanted to proclaim and assert the self-confident strength and unwavering bravery of the Free Imperial City in an exceedingly uncertain time – the Fortitudo Augustae.
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