If you have been to Bern, you are sure to have seen him — the grotesque ogre standing atop a plinth, busily gobbling small children.
He is halfway through devouring one babe, his hands grappling for the others who are trying to squirm out of the sack he has stuffed them into. And all the while water spouts serenely below.
The so-called Kindlifresserbrunnen (Ogre Fountain) on Kornhausplatz is one of 11 in the Swiss capital featuring statues of allegorical figures that were sculpted almost 600 years ago.
IN PICTURES: Bern's unusual fountains tell capital story
“I know locals whose parents used the ogre as a form of threat,” laughs Bern city guide Ursula Arregger. “I haven’t tried it out on my four-year-old grandson yet . . . but it is one of my favourite fountains, and certainly one of the city’s most iconic.”
Originally built in 1520 to replace the wooden basins that had previously done the job, the 11 stone fountains that line Bern’s medieval streets feature motifs with social and moral meanings.
Some scholars have suggested that the ogre represents Cronus, the Greek god who ate all his children.
But for Arregger, who has been working as a guide in Bern for 26 years, the figure stands for the vices and virtues of humanity. “Folklore goes that at midnight at Christmas, the fountain flows with wine,” she says, “but try to drink any, and you will be possessed by the devil! It is a warning against greed.”
The fountain is the work of 16th century Fribourg artist Hans Gieng, who created most of the oldest fountains in the city with various motifs.
They include a bagpipe player, whose bare feet suggest his exclusion from society; a musketeer who seems to be bound for war but, as his feathered cap set askew would suggest, is really just preparing for a merry joust; and 16th -century hospital founder Anna Seiler, who went against tradition by giving patients diluted instead of neat wine to drink.
One of the fountains, the Lischetti outside the city hall, has recently been adapted as a kind of speaker’s corner. Steps climb to a podium atop the plinth, overlooking benches lined up below. “It invites people to stand and retaliate to government policy,” says Arregger. “But the podium is facing away from the Town Hall, so it is clear that it is satirical.”
Apart from being works of art and social commentary, the fountains had a practical role, says Arregger, as she reaches to put a bottle beneath one of the jets and takes a sip.
IN PICTURES: Bern's fountains tell capital story
Located in the middle of the street, as in many Swiss cities, the fountains were a public source of water and at the heart of urban life until as recently as 80 years ago.
Wagoners would have watered their horses at them. Farmers on their way to market would have stopped to quench their thirst. And housewives and maids from the surrounding households would have gathered to collect their free daily allowance of water.
“There was a fountain guard who checked that people were not exceeding their allotted five litres,” says Arregger, “or trying to poison the water supply.”
Fed by natural springs, the fountains are cleaned regularly to remove any unwanted substances.
“Regular cleaning allows us to remove anything that accumulates, such as algae or chemical substances,” says Alexandra Jäggi, manager of Energie Wasser Bern, which is responsible for the upkeep of the fountains. “In this way, we ensure that clean, drinkable water flows from every fountain.”
The oldest fountain in Bern, the 14th-century Stettbrunnen off Brungasse, was celebrated as a place for town-dwellers to gather for gossip. Skirted by a stone bench, the Stettbrunnen is easy to picture surrounded by chattering women.
“News, family gossip, rumour and scandal, all flourished and – like ill weeds – grew apace,” writes Paul Schenk in his A Chronicle of the Fountains of Berne (Herbert Lang; 1949).
“I love talking about the fountains, because I think they tell us so much about Bern’s history,” says Arregger.
But they have not become ‘historic’, forgotten in the past. New fountains keep cropping up, maintaining Berne’s reputation as a fountain city.
The newest is the Bundesplatz-Wasserspiel in front of the Bundeshaus, inaugurated on August 1st 2004. On warm summer days, children run through the series of jets – which each represent one of Switzerland’s cantons and spurt unexpectedly up through the pavement – trying not to get wet.
If they have lost their role in daily life, the fountains are certainly still a source of enjoyment.
Bern’s City of Fountains tour can be booked all year round. Find out more at www.bern.com