A Brief History of Cascada Monumental in Parc de la Ciutadella
What is Cascada Monumental?
Cascada Monumental is a grand 19th-century fountain designed by architect Josep Fontserè i Mestre, with input from a young Antoni Gaudí.
Cascada Monumental History
The Ciutadella Park occupies the former grounds of the citadel built by Philip V to dominate Barcelona after the War of the Spanish Succession in the 18th century. When the military fortress was eventually demolished in 1868, it was decided to convert the space into a public park. To this end, master builder Josep Fontserè i Mestre devoted the extensive space to recreational opportunities for the city’s residents, in the belief that: ‘Gardens are to the city what lungs are to the human body’. Besides the park, he designed a central square, a ring road, ornamental elements, and this large imposing fountain.
The Cascada Monumental’s central structure takes the form of a triumphal arch with two lateral wings embracing ponds on two levels. The work recalls Henri-Jacques Espérandieu’s Palais Longchamp in Marseilles, an influence that Fontserè i Mestre himself acknowledged. The fountain is thronged with sculptural compositions. The architect collaborated with many of Catalonia's best sculptors to create an energetic display of waterspouts and stone-carved decorative elements inspired by classical mythology.
In the centre of the cascade underneath the central arch, you’ll find The Birth of Venus by Venancio Vallmitjana, which many argue is the artist’s finest work. The sculptural group portrays the goddess Venus rising from a shell, flanked by two sea nymphs. Beneath them, four seahorses stretch out their legs. The presence of seahorses is unusual, since according to Greek myth, Venus was blown to shore by Zephyrus, the god of the west wind – an image found in Botticelli's Birth of Venus. However, this unconventional portrayal can be explained by the influence of Espérandieu's fountain in Marseille, which features four large bulls in the same position. The sculptural group is displayed against green foliage, which heightens the drama of the composition.
Above the arch stands arguably the most impressive element in the fountain, Rossend Nobas’ sparkling Quadriga of the Aurora. The sculpture is an allegory of dawn (Aurora in Latin), standing on a chariot drawn by four horses. In her right hand, the goddess holds a torch symbolising the light with which she illuminates the world every morning. This sculpture is the only part of the fountain that does not echo the aquatic theme of the rest of the ensemble. The 30-ton gilded iron statue was instead the initiative of Fontserè i Mestre, himself a liberal Republican, and alludes to the ideals of light, freedom and knowledge.
During the construction process, the architect would regularly share his designs for the fountain with the students working in his studio. On a particular occasion, one of his more mathematically gifted pupils corrected a task that had been given to a fellow student. This was the young Antoni Gaudí. The budding architect began working (mostly behind the scenes) alongside Fontserè i Mestre to develop the fountain’s hydraulic system. Curiously, some of the motifs that came to define his later work made their first appearance here: notably the two stone medallions featuring lizards in the upper section.
The fountain reflects the great artistic development that Barcelona was undergoing throughout the 19th century and the talent of the many artists and sculptors who made the city the architectural wonderland it is today.
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