The Story Behind Bologna’s Fountain of Neptune

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

Bologna’s Neptune Statue went viral this past week with the controversy over Facebook’s removal of a photo showing the monument because deemed too “explicitly sexual.” Facebook eventually apologized for the ‘error’ and allowed the post to be published, but not before media from around the world had picked up on the story, putting our beloved Neptune, possibly Bologna’s most famous landmark along with the Two Towers, in the spotlight – which gives me the perfect chance to write an article about the interesting history of the Neptune Fountain.

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.

** 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?

15 comments

      • I haven’t read the book yet, but hope to eventually. He was a wonderful professor and I was sad to see he’d passed away. I was hoping to perhaps even meet up with him in Bologna, as I knew he spent a lot of time there.

  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.

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