“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness” – those were the famous words quoted by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. And how suitable are those words of wisdom for magnificent pieces of artworks, especially for the artists who crafted them? One example of this mad yet symbolic artistry is the Mercury Fountain in the Fundacio Joan Miro museum. This monumental fountain can be considered as the world’s most lethal piece of art.
[Image Source: Fundacio Joan Miro]
Residing in Barcelona, the mercury fountain was created by the American sculptor Alexander Calder.
In 1937, the Spaniards commissioned Calder to create a piece of art that would commemorate the world’s oldest and largest mercury mine in Almaden, a town in the Spanish province of Ciudad Real. During its time, the Almaden mining field housed the world’s largest reserve of cinnabar, the mineral where mercury is extracted from, and have produced 250,000 metric tons of mercury. However, at the end of the second millennium, in 2000, the Almaden mines inevitably closed because of the price disintegration of mercury in the international market.
The fountain’s political mystique
The commissioning of the mercury fountain has a deep political root starting from the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936. The Republican government’s opposition, General Franco’s Falangist movement, took control of the mercury mine after besieging the town of Almaden during the peak of the civil war. As a great consequence of the fascist control of Almaden, the Spanish government was deprived of the economic revenues from the export of mercury. Spain’s government also didn’t get access to mercury which was a key material in the manufacturing of firearms. So, in 1937, after striving hard to regain control of Almaden, the Republican government commissioned the American sculptor to craft the piece of artwork to symbolize the denouncement of the city’s siege. The artwork was presented during the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937 (Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne) with other symbolic Spanish Republican artwork such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica painting.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Mercury’s role as a poisonous metal
Mercury (Hg) is a metal element that sits at the group 12 column of the periodic table and is well known for its poisonous properties. Also known as quicksilver, mercury is the only metallic element that is liquid at room temperature and can lethally kill someone by inhaling the vapor or ingesting it in any of its forms.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Many ancient civilizations dabbled with mercury, not knowing its poisonous capacity, by ingesting the liquid metal to sustain youth, cure illnesses, and even using the quicksilver for alchemy. All of which have led to unexplained and lethal deaths.
The Almaden mercury mine was notorious for killing most of the slave and criminal laborers that worked with the poisonous metal. As the mercury fountain, currently displayed in the Catalan museum, pumps out pure liquid mercury, the artwork can be safely admired by visitors and tourists through a thick, protective glass pane.