The Monreale Fountain in the Quadrangle

In the center of the Quadrangle at Cranbrook School is a replica of a fountain which stands in the southwestern corner of the cloister of Duomo Monreale in Palermo, Sicily. Completed in 1182, the cathedral unites Arabic, Byzantine, and Norman architectural and cultural influences and is famed for its mosaics.

The inspiration for the fountain’s long-treasured presence on the Cranbrook campus dates back to 1922, when Henry Scripps Booth first saw the original in the cathedral cloister. This was a site that Henry seems to have particularly wanted to see while on a ten-month architectural study tour of Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Great Britain, and France, with his friend, J. Robert F. Swanson.

View of the Duomo Monreale, December 1922. Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Writing to his father, Cranbrook founder George G. Booth, on December 26, 1922, he describes the cathedral thus:

“Mosaic everywhere — luminous gold, and dull colors — with intricate geometric patterns in abundance and fine but rather arcaic [sic] representations of Biblical stories roofed over with a richly decorated trussed ceiling. The cloister in the cathedral’s shade is that delightful one with such delicate columns in pairs, decorated by mosaics, that is illustrated so frequently.”

View of the Duomo Monreale, December 1922. Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Henry laments that there isn’t time enough to study the monuments as closely as he would like, to measure them and draw them up, for if they did, they would end up knowing only one thing well but miss out on so many others. His letter includes this sketch of the fountain:

Letter from Henry Scripps Booth to George Gough Booth, December 24-26, 1922. Cranbrook Archives.

Several years later, George is in Naples, Italy, at one of his favored workshops, the Chiurazzi Foundry. On March 2, 1927, George wrote to Henry to tell him of numerous purchases he made at the foundry, all to be gifts to the new Cranbrook School for Boys. While the specific uses of the items might be determined later, as was characteristic of George he had a tentative plan for all of them. The most important was the replica of the Monreale fountain. Here, we can see George’s sketch of the replica fountain, showing its dimensions:

Letter from George Gough Booth to Henry Scripps Booth, March 2, 1927. Cranbrook Archives.

George describes the fountain’s base and basin as of Travertine marble with the shaft and top of white marble, and adds:

I have thought that Mr. Saarinen might prefer to put this fountain in the centre of the Quadrangle — that the Manship Sphere — I leave the decision to him — if he should think favorably — then drain and water should be provided for — at Monreale — steps go down into a basin …

Clearly, Saarinen did think favorably as the fountain was installed in the fall of 1927 in a basin with steps of his design, as are the concrete benches that surround the fountain. Other replica items that George purchased from the Chiurazzi Foundry include Turtle Fountain and the Paschal Candelabrum.

View of the Monreale Fountain in the Cranbrook School Quadrangle, 1928. Peter A. Nyholm, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Editor’s Note: This Saturday, the Monreale Fountain will stand at the center of a special, Michigan-premiere performance of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams’ Sila: The Breath of the World. A few tickets remain to what promises to be a magical evening outdoors (and safely distanced) in the Quadrangle. You can learn more about the piece here. The Center for Collections and Research is proud to partner with Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings to present this concert in the historic Cranbrook Quadrangle.

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