The Story Behind Bologna’s Fountain of Neptune

Neptune Statue Bologna
The Neptune Statue, a beloved Bolognese landmark.

[early 2018 update: The Neptune is back! After a lengthy restoration, Bologna’s famous Fountain of Neptune is free from scaffolding and available for you to admire in all its splendor.]

The Fountain of Neptune is Bologna’s most famous landmark along with the Two Towers, and a beloved sight for all of us Bolognesi, who will often pick it as a meeting point. Read on for the interesting history of the monument.

Everything You Need to Know about Bologna’s Fountain of Neptune

– The Fountain of Neptune was erected between 1564 and 1566, when Pope Pius IV decided to give the Bolognesi something they did not yet have: a public fountain. Was it just a gesture of goodwill? Not really. After being an independent ‘Comune’ during the High Middle Ages, in 1508, Bologna became subjected to the Papal States. To mark the new political order, the papal legate, Pier Donato Cesi, promoted a series of architectural interventions in the city center, and especially  around Piazza Maggiore, to make sure the citizens knew who was now in charge. One such intervention took place where the Piazza del Nettuno now stands: several buildings were torn down to make room for the fountain.

Piazza Nettuno Bologna
Standing tall in the aptly-named Piazza del Nettuno.

– The monument is the result of a collaboration between architect Tommaso Laureti and Flemish sculptor Jean de Boulogne, known as Giambologna. Giambologna was summoned from Florence, where he was working at the court of the Medici, to create a bronze statue of Neptune. (You may know him from the  Rape of the Sabine Women marble sculpture, located in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria.)

– The statue of Neptune is almost four meters tall and weighs 2,200 kilograms – in fact, in Bologna, the statue also goes by the name of Il Gigante – or al zigant, if you prefer to say it in the Bolognese dialect.

– Giambologna took his inspiration from ancient Greek-Roman statues. He designed Neptune with a strong body, but depicted an older face to symbolize the strength and wisdom of the pope. Neptune’s outstretched arm blocks the winds, as if he wanted to abate the sea, in a symbolic gesture meant to glorify Pope Pius IV and the power of the Catholic Church over the city of Bologna: just as Neptune rules the seas, the Pope rules the world, represented by the four putti (little angels), placed at the feet of the god, which stand for the Ganges, the Nile, the Amazon and the Danube, the rivers of the four continents known at the time.

– The monument is highly symmetrical, lending itself to being observed from all angles (try it). The four groups of four elements each – dolphins, nereids, coats of arms, and angels – are arranged around the sinuous Neptune, which crowns the monumental structure.

– The inscriptions on the fountain’s basin point to its mission: fori ornamento (to embellish the square); populi commodo (for the use of the people); aere publico (made with public money). The fourth inscription reads MDLXIII, to mark that it was made in 1564; this is not entirely correct, as the fountain was completed in 1566.

Neptune Statue Bologna– Despite being commissioned by the Church, the statue is all but religious. To begin with, it represents a pagan god, Neptune. Once it was unveiled, Neptune, so muscular and manly, was considered too sexy (see? Facebook was not first). And how about those four sensual sea nymphs squeezing water out of their breasts? Legend even has it that Giambologna wanted to make Neptune’s genitals bigger, but, naturally, the Church forbade him from doing so. In retaliation, he designed the statue so that, from a certain angle, the outstretched thumb of his left hand seems to stick out from the lower abdomen, similar to an erect penis. (I know this is the first thing you’ll want to check out – go stand at the bottom end of the staircase leading to the Sala Borsa with your back to Via Indipendenza and take a look.)

– The Fountain of Neptune, which today is ‘just’ a monument, was conceived with a practical purpose: to be used by the Bolognesi as a public fountain. However, residents soon began using it for other purposes as well, namely for washing their clothes and/or the vegetables bought at the nearby market. In 1588, a ban was put in place to prevent such uses, and in 1604, the fountain was fenced off, basically taking away the function for which it was originally built. The fence stayed until 1888.

** [2018 update: as of December 2017, restoration work has been completed and the Neptune is back on view. Obviously the restoration site has closed, but I’ll keep this paragraph as it explains what was done to the monument and because I thought it was very cool to be able to see the Neptune so very close.] At the moment, you cannot see the fountain; our beloved Neptune is feeling its 450 years and is under restoration, hidden by scaffolding. The restoration work is meant to remove dirt sediments and corrosive products, to clean the stone materials, and renovate the hydraulic system. In addition, some structural problems have come to light, and the Neptune Fountain is expected to be under restoration until September 2017. However, you can visit the restoration site, which I did and highly recommend, as it allows you to see il gigante from up close (see photos below).

Neptune Statue Bologna
The Fountain of Neptune is currently under restoration, but you can visit the restoration site for an up-close view.

Fun facts about Bologna’s Fountain of Neptune

  • The Fountain of Neptune is a popular meeting point for the Bolognesi: ‘ci vediamo al Nettuno‘, you will hear them say.
  • It is said that in order to pass an important exam, students at the University of Bologna must take two counterclockwise turns around the fountain, just like Giambologna kept walking around the base of the fountain as he was pondering how to best make the statue.
  • The trident logo of Maserati, the luxury sports car company  founded in Bologna in 1914, is based on the trident of Neptune. This was considered especially appropriate not just because the Neptune Fountain is one of the main symbols of Bologna, but also because Neptune represents strength and vigor.
  • There are several replicas of the Neptune Statue around the world, including Bruxelles, Georgia, and in California’s Palos Verdes Estates.

What’s your favorite part of the Fountain of Neptune’s story?

24 comments

  1. Hi, this is a great article, thank you for these interesting information. Is it still under construction? I will be visiting Bologna between September 19 and 21. I hope it is finished and i can see the whole statue.

  2. Thank you for the information. I’m a waterman at heart. My vibe meter was heightened when reading this piece. I’ve been some how drawn to Neptune his power of thee sea for as long as I can remember.

    I’ll be participating the first round table discussion on cannabis and it’s relation to wellness at the, Global Wellness Summit in Cesnera in October. I can’t wait to see this piece of art. I also live in Redondo Beach, CA adjacent to Palos Verdes and didn’t make the connection about the replica until reading the other comments…

    Blessings, #CBD4Hope

  3. I live in Palos Verdes Estates, CA USA where we have a replica of Neptune. I will visit Bologna in December especially for the Neptune. It’s great to learn all the info from your article. I’d love to post a picture of our Neptune but there is no place to attach a picture.

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