The Joan Miro Foundation is a contemporary museum in the Montjuic hill in Barcelona. In the museum, there is a beautiful and deadly piece of art, the Almaden mercury fountain. It is a simple creation with a standing pipe that releases a stream of liquid mercury into a series of curving aluminum troughs. It swirls and sloshes around a couple of basins and steps before finally falling into a circular pool.
Almaden is actually a small mining town in Spain located 300 km south of Madrid. The cinnabar mines of Almaden were the largest mercury providers in the world for more than two millennia. Mercury is extracted from cinnabar, the reddish mineral which is plentiful in Almaden.
Almaden was initially founded by the Romans who used the mineral as a pigment for the vibrant reddish hue. The mineral later found its way into Chinese medicines as it was thought to give longevity and immortality. This was false of course.
Mercury poisoning was not understood at the time and the metal was frequently used in many industrial processes like the production of felt. Felt was used to make hats in the 18th and 19th century in England and many workers were a victim of mercury poisoning as well.
During the 16th century, it was discovered that gold and silver fused easily with mercury to form alloys and its demand increased greatly. Almaden also grew in importance as a result. Mercury extracted from the mines was sent to Central America to purify the silver deposits there during the Spanish conquest. The silver was then shipped back to Spain.
The Spanish civil war broke out in 1936 and General Franco’s Falangist movement captured the mercury mine after laying siege to the town of Almaden. This cut off the Spanish government’s financial revenues from the export of mercury. The Republican government hired the artist Alexander Calder to create a monument denouncing the siege of Almaden and the Almaden mercury fountain was presented during the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris.
The Almaden mercury fountain was later donated to the Joan Miro Foundation where the fountain still lies behind a glass case. You can check it out in the video below: