Barcelona soars skywards on the spires of the Sagrada Familia, splashes in the sea at the Olympic port and hurries people down the arteries of La Rambla. The big features on the city’s body are obvious to all, but the little masterpieces, a bit like birthmarks, are mainly known only to locals. The quirky Art Nouveau fountains of Josep Campeny, guarded by bronze urchins, are just such treasures
The bases for Josep Campeny’s boys are of stone from one of the old quarries on Montjuȉc hill. In 2009 La Font de la Granota was hit by a truck belonging to a television crew filming nearby. The frog hunter himself suffered only superficial damage, but the stone pedestal broke into several pieces. It took restorers several months to bring the fountain back to its original condition
La Font de la Granota is opposite Palau Robert on Avenida Diagonal: a boy in a straw hat is lying on his stomach, his arms stretched out clutching a frog. Water trickles from the frog’s mouth. The boy’s left side presses against a basket, with more frogs trying to wriggle out. Frog hunting was, apparently, a favourite pastime of village urchins. His barefoot playmate on the Font del Trinxa on the corner of Ronda Universidad and Calle Pelayo looks as though he’s about to try some kind of cheeky trick, like pressing his finger against the spout and squirting water all over the girls running past. A third lad, on the Plaça Urquinaona, has climbed onto the Font del Noi dels Сàntirs with two heavy pitchers. He has put one down by his feet while he gulps water to slake his thirst from the other. You can spend quite a while looking at these bronze figures; each has his own distinctive pose, smile, way of dressing, character. For over a century now they’ve been living under the open air of the Eixample quarter.
Fountains are a natural component of Barcelona’s architectural landscape. There are 1,635 drinking and 301 decorative fountains within the city limits. Maintainance and repairs of the first cost the city budget around 0.5 million euros, of the second 3.5 million
Their “father” was the Catalonian sculptor Josep Campeny. The son of a carpenter, Campeny graduated from the Higher School of Arts and Crafts in Barcelona, and then went to complete his studies in Paris, where he mastered the Art Nouveau style. You could say their “mother” was the City Hall. The urge to beautify the capital of Catalonia seized the city fathers during preparations for the World Exhibition of 1888 and stayed with them through the beginning of the 20th century. Public spaces were landscaped, modern street lighting installed, and a competition organised for decorating the city’s wells and fountains. The first competition was held in the winter of 1891 and Campeny, a handsome, moustachioed, philanthropist, a master of his art who had a weakness for depicting characters drawn from the less respectable walks of life, by this time a famous sculptor much favoured by the aristocracy, won it with ease.
Though the water from Barcelona’s drinking fountains may not taste quite as good as the bottled variety, they are still needed. For this reason the city continues to monitor them for safety and quality, with measurements of pH, bacteria and temperature taken weekly
Barcelona was wealthy and did not begrudge the cost of the sculptures. Of the three, the archives show that the water carrier was the most expensive, at 23,850 pesetas. The frog catcher and the trickster came in at 21,950 and 21,400. For a better idea of the cost in real terms, a loaf of bread at that time cost 5 centimes, a newspaper 10 centimes, while a cobbler would ask around 20 pesetas for a pair of shoes. Incidentally, 20 pesetas was the daily fine Campeny would have paid under his contract if he failed to deliver his work on time. But he met the deadline, though it is now very difficult to find anything about an official unveiling ceremony for his sculptures. There probably wasn’t one, which is why the photo in Catalana magazine’s story on the fountains shows a modestly dressed woman carrying a pitcher standing next to the Font del Noi dels Càntirs, rather than the usual delegation of distinguished, upper-class ladies and gentlemen. In fact, the 20 December 1912 editions of Barcelona’s many newspapers were almost unanimous in noting that the life-size barefoot bronze urchins had caught the attention of the general public. So, success!
How to get there:
Font de la Granota — crossing of Diagonal and Rosellón, metro Diagonal
Font del Trinxa — crossing of Ronda Universidad and Pelayo, metro Universitat
Font del Noi dels Càntirs — Plaça Urquinaona, metro Urquinaona
Campeny believed art should be for the people, even the low-born and poorly-educated, in fact exactly the class of folk who would go to fountains every day to collect water. There remains one question, though. What inspired Campeny’s choice of Mark Twain-like boys? Art historians do not exclude the possibility that the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer did play a part, but it could just as well have been the influence of growing up in a family of eight brothers and first-hand experience of the mischief boys get up to. Or perhaps he was trying to create an image of his own first son, who had not survived a childhood bout of pneumonia… However it was, the boys, now submerged among the throngs of pedestrians, now surfacing from them, became an organic part of the urban landscape of the early 20th century and still look pretty good today.