The Fountaineers

Tommaso Francini and his brother Alessandro arrived in Paris in 1599. Tommaso had been an engineer to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, of the house of Medici, and had been responsible for the waters of the Villa Pratolino until he was asked to come to France by Henri IV. Upon arrival he and his brother were naturalised as French, and Tommaso became General Intendant of Water and Fountains of France. This was the start of a dynasty of five generations, spanning almost 200 years. The title was passed down from son to son, and spanned the rule of four French kings.

The family provided lakes, fountains, grottos, waterfalls, water games and automatons for many of the King’s chateaus, but the family’s masterpiece were the fountains of the Palace of Versailles.  The family made creations such as a fountain of song birds producing cascades controlled by an organ, a 27 meter high fountain jet, labyrinths made from water, and importantly the first cast iron pipes in France.

Under the gardens of Versailles runs a network of tunnels that hold the pipes supplying the enormous fountains with water. The Francinis installed pipes up to 50 cm in diameter, made from cast iron with leather seals. Many of these pipes remain in use today and the crest of Louis XIV can be seen on their side. Today there are 35 km of pipes, and the fountains consume 4500m3 water per hour, the water circulating in a closed circuit. Sourcing the water has been an ongoing challenge as the Palace required more water than the whole of Paris. The Machine de Marly, a leviathan of a pump, was built to attempt to provide enough water. When this provided inadequate, the Canal de l’Eure was started, but this was not completed as the 10% of the entire French military who were building it were required to fight in the Nine Years War.Two solutions tried were to run all the fountains at half pressure, or to run sequentially, turned on as the king passed each fountain, the signal to change given by a whistle. The shortage was never entirely solved. Now a team of 13 fountaineers continues to maintain the network, renovating and renewing the fountains and their plumbing.

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The fountains of Versailles, and its plumbing

L: Jean Cotelle (II) - View of the Three-Fountain Grove, c1689
R: Journal (American Water Works Association), Vol. 23, No. 5 (MAY, 1931), pp. 673-677