Authors of the hydraulic system of the gardens of Versailles, this celebrated dynasty of fountain builders from Florence served the kings of France from Henri IV to Louis XV. They made Versailles a paragon of excellence in this area and a reference for all of Europe.
Summoned to France in 1599 by Henri IV to install the fountains for the automata in the grottoes of the terraced garden in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Thomas Francine – gallicised from Tommaso Francini – was the founding father of the dynasty. Then came François, the son († 1688) and Pierre-François (1654-1720), the grandson.
With Denis Jolly, former fountain maker of Fouquet in Vaux, François Francine designed in 1664-65 the fountain features of the grotto of Thetys, his first great hydraulic achievement in Versailles: songbirds controlled by an organ made water fall in a cascade or spout up in mushroom shapes. Destroyed in 1676, the reputation of the grotto remained in everyone’s memories.
In 1667, he installed three reservoirs close to the one supplying the grotto to supply the two large pools of the principal axis: the Latona and Apollo fountains. In 1673, he designed for the new pools of the gardens the immense reservoirs placed under the Water Parterre, built by François d’Orbay. Vast structures with carved stone vaults, they still supply water to these fountain-pools for the Grandes Eaux spectacles when the fountains play to music, via a complex network of lead pipes.
The creativity of François Francine is impressive: the criss-crossing jets of the Three Fountains grove; the cascades of the Rocailles grove; the 27-metre jet of the Dragon fountain, the highest of all. No less astonishing were the fountains of the Labyrinth and Water Theatre groves, now disappeared, with their statues of children and animals. Above all, Versailles was where he produced the first cast iron pipes in France in 1672!
Supplying water to the fountains and ornamental pools and lakes was the constant concern of the king and his fountain makers, to the point where there was talk of diverting the river Eure. A large network of aqueducts and underground or exposed pools was laid down around Versailles. From Rambouillet to the Seine, where the celebrated machine of Marly was built, all the surrounding marshes and rivers were tapped to supply the pools and fountains but the supply never sufficed. This lack of water obliged the Francines to make alternating fountains play as the king passed. A whistle was used as the signal. The problem has still not been resolved.