Be it fountains, cisterns, the subterranean stream or the Aare river – in Bern, water is omnipresent. There are over 100 public fountains in Bern’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Apart from their decorative character and interesting history, Bern’s fountains obviously also have a functional aspect. The cool water flowing from their spouts is drinkable and free for everyone. And the pragmatic locals have combined the useful with the beautiful, placing some of the fountains on busy streets and therefore making them – as people call it – the world’s most charming traffic blocks.
The history of Bern’s public water supply dates all the way back to the Middle Ages: in the 13th century, there were already several standpipes in the city of the Zähringen people. The water came from the city’s underground stream, wells and probably cisterns. The main supply was the city’s creek. It was used as sewage, transported water to fight fires and connected – and still connects – Bern’s fountains. Around 1550, the city replaced the then wooden fountains with elaborate stone ones.
Bernese Fountains – Centre of Everyday Life
In the past, the public fountain played an important role in the everyday hustle and bustle of the city. Apart from supplying water, it also had an important social role.
It was a watering hole where people met up, chatted, exchanged news, settled disputes, discussed politics and made deals. Women and maids carried large copper pots to the fountains to bring back water for household use, water carriers filled their containers and brought them to people’s homes for a small fee, and waggoners came to water their horses. The lower, smaller basins were built specifically for animals and are a reminiscence of the times when cows and horses were led through the streets and alleys of Bern.
Tour “City of Water”
To find out more about Bernese water, the best thing is to join the water-themed guided tour. It takes participants on a stroll through the alleys of the lower part of the Old City, where they visit a select number of important fountains and other water supply stations. The highlight of the tour is the descent into the depths of the State Chancellery: shielded from the public and only accessible with a tour guide, the city’s oldest cistern, Len Fountain, awaits.
More information on the guided tour “City of Water”
Lenbrunnen (Len Fountain)
When the State Chancellery at 68/70 Postgasse was renovated in 1992, an important archeological site was unearthed: the tower-like cistern – Len Fountain – in the basement of the building is the capital’s oldest preserved historic monument.
In the past, the public would get safe and clean drinking water from the well chamber of the once three-storied building. In the Middle Ages, Len Fountain, with its holding capacity of 15,000 litres, carried enough water for all 3,000 of the city’s inhabitants – this was possible because people at the time used only around three to five litres a day. Today, the reservoir is open to guided groups, thanks to careful and elaborate restoration. There are plaques and a model on location to tell visitors about the history of Len Fountain.
Allegorical Fountain Figures, or: Lady Justice and the Ogre
Bern’s eleven historical fountain figures are eye-catchers. Be it in remembrance of heroes, historical events or social ideals: every fountain has its own history and special meaning. What most of them have in common is the creator: eight of the eleven figures were made by sculptor Hans Gieng from Freiburg, who seems to have lived and worked in Bern in the 1540s. The fountains remain the same as when they were constructed and are magnificent examples of Renaissance art. The designs and pompous figures are indications of the prosperity and wealth of the bourgeoisie at the time.
Kindlifresserbrunnen (Ogre Fountain) – Granary Square
High up on a pillar looms a terrifying ogre. There are some defenceless, half naked children in a bag next to him, others are crawling around on the scary man, probably trying to escape him. His crazy stare and wide-open mouth as well as the fact that he is depicted devouring a baby tell us that he is not to be messed with. There are different theories as to the meaning of this fountain, the most plausible one being that the fountain was built to have an educational effect and that the monster was meant to scare little children into behaving.
Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen (Justice Fountain) – Gerechtigkeitsgasse
Graceful and fair, Lady Justice stands on her pedestal, eyes blindfolded. In her right hand, she holds up a sword, in her left, the golden scales of justice. Down by her feet are a pope, an emperor, a king and a sultan; the sovereigns’ closed eyes symbolising their reverence for justice. But the statue’s story was not always as graceful as the statue itself. When the French army marched into Bern under Napoleon’s lead, the soldiers, as a joke, stole Lady Justice’s characteristic props – sword and scales.
Mosesbrunnen (Moses Fountain) – Minster Square
Just like its historical archetype, Moses Fountain on Minster Square has had a long journey: the predecessor had to be removed from the square because of damaged feet, shattered Tablets and complete decomposition, and was replaced by a water fountain composition. The Moses statue became privately owned and adorned a garden shed and later the antiques chamber of the former Church of St. Anthony. In 1791, the fountain was finally replaced with the current exemplar. The statue was made by sculptor Nikolaus Sporrer from Konstanz and represents Moses in a long, golden-blue robe. With his right hand, he is pointing to the second Amendment on his Tablets of the Law.
Vennerbrunnen (Banneret Fountain) – Town Hall Square
The Bernese standard bearer stands proudly on the Corinthian pillar. The banneret in his right hand once fell prey to the French: after the invasion of the “Grande Armée” in 1798, a soldier tore down the metal plate. Artist Hans Gieng’s figure was not suited for this kind of treatment, and its left underarm broke off. For a long time, no one seemed to care, the missing part was not replaced. There is documentation from this time that shows the armoured man propped up on a cane instead of his sword. Today, many years and relocations later, the restored standard bearer stands elegantly atop the fountain on Town Hall Square.
Zähringen Fountain – Kramgasse, upper part
Near the historic Zytglogge (Clock Tower) and at the end of Kramgasse, a bear stands upright on a fountain, overlooking the street. At its feet sits a cub, eating grapes. Bern’s heraldic animal is reminiscent of the founders of the city, the Zähringen people. The large bear is wearing a helmet on its head and carrying a banner in one paw and a shield in the other. Both of these accessories are emblazoned with a golden lion on a red background.
Simsonbrunnen (Samson Fountain) – Kramgasse, middle part
The figure on the fountain depicts the biblical hero Samson, dressed in roman garb. The statue is the personification of a popular Renaissance-era attribute: strength. With his bare hands, the strong man grabs the lion’s mouth, ready to tear it apart. On his belt, he carries a weapon and butcher’s tools. This detail suggests that the fountain was donated by the Butcher’s Guild. It is therefore no wonder that in 1687, people started calling the fountain “Butcher’s Fountain”. It didn’t get its current name until about 150 years later.
Anna-Seiler-Brunnen (Anna Seiler Fountain) – Marktgasse
It’s unclear if the female figure with the jug was initially meant to be an allegory for temperance or depict Hebe, goddess of youth. Today, the fountain is dedicated to Anna Seiler, who, in 1354, donated a hospital – which later became known as Inselspital – to the city of Bern. By the way: rumour has it that this very fountain is where the parents of famous Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler met.
Schützenbrunnen (Marksman Fountain) – Marktgasse
After several relocations, Marksman Fountain has finally found its permanent spot. The armed standard bearer of the marksmen stands on an elaborately decorated pillar in front of Zytglogge (Clock Tower). The fountain was probably donated by the Marksmen’s Association: the flag that the armour-clad man is holding up features the banner of the “Society of Musketry”. A small bear sits between the legs of the figure, boldly aiming its rifle at the passers-by strolling along beneath the arcades of the Old City. At the fountain’s former location, the gun barrel pointed directly at the entrance of the Marksmen’s Association.
Pfeiferbrunnen (Bagpiper Fountain) – Spitalgasse
Along with the Ogre Fountain, the Bagpiper Fountain is one of Bern’s most original fountains. The musician is merrily playing his bagpipe, accompanied by a golden goose and a small monkey playing the flageolet, spreading happiness and lightness. The lively fellowship is meant to celebrate cheerfulness, life, music, games, dance and good food. A copper engraving by Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürrer served as inspiration and template for the figure on the fountain.
Ryfflibrunnen (Ryffli Fountain) – Aarbergergasse
The figure of the crossbow marksman in Aarbergergasse is shrouded in legend. The soldier on the fountain is Ryffli the marksman, who is said to have defeated the knight Jordan III of Burgistein with a single, well-directed shot. The statue of the marksman is completed by several items: Ryffli is wearing a captain’s uniform and carrying his crossbow on his shoulder, a quiver on his back and a firing pin for cocking the weapon. He’s accompanied by a small armoured bear.
Läuferbrunnen (Messenger Fountain) – Messenger Square
Clothed in the colours of the city and with the Bernese coat of arms on his chest, the proud messenger is shown in full stride. The accessories that he carries with him are characteristic of a medieval herald: in his right hand, he holds a messenger’s spear, on his back, he carries a so-called messenger’s case. Might it contain an important letter? Next to him walks a young bear, also dressed as a messenger. By the way: the figure standing on the fountain on Messenger Square is a replica from the 1950s. The original piece can be seen at the Bern Historical Museum.