Fountain of Neptune, the God who protects Messina “Lady of the Strait”: the history of the statue between truth and popular beliefs

April 6, 2021 12:14

Fountain of Neptune, one of the symbolic monuments of Messina: today the original statue of Montorsoli is kept in the Regional Museum, the one located in Via Garibaldi is a copy made by Gregorio Zappalà in 1856. It was originally facing the city, thus showing its back to the sea ​​and Reggio Calabria. After the earthquake of 1908 the sculpture was moved and Neptune was positioned so as to look towards the Strait

The history of the city of Messina it is certainly linked to the sea and the Strait. Over the centuries the locals have drawn their most important resources so the economy and wealth was based on the work of fishermen, sailors and traders. Still, the most ancient legends speak of the Strait of Messina as an area not exactly hospitable for sailors. Its strong currents, often the cause of shipwrecks, gave inspiration to the Homeric myth (already handed down in the Odyssey) of Scylla is Charybdis, two hideous sea monsters that infested its coasts and destroyed the sailors’ ships. It is from this symbolism that a well-known monument is inspired, one of the emblems of the city of Messina: the Fountain of Neptune. The work was created by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (Tuscan sculptor and close collaborator of Michelangelo), after the note Fountain of Orion placed in Piazza del Duomo, commissioned by the city Senate. Completed in 1557, the artist was supported in the realization by theAbbot Maurolico, author of some of the Latin inscriptions; in this case the mythology becomes an allegory of the city itself, lady of the Strait and winner on the perils of the sea. Even the style seems to change in view of this message and does so with a sober, solemn style, with evident references to Michelangelo.

fountain of neptune messina

Wikipedia photo

The absolute protagonist is Neptune, the God of the Sea, recognizable by the trident; he has his arm extended forward, his gaze on the horizon, his plastic pose and his hieratic and imperturbable expression; the structure dominates from the top of the base on which it is placed, the edge of which is decorated with alternating masks and shells. Unfortunately this is a copy, an excellent reproduction of Gregorio Zappalà in 1856 to preserve the original, which today is located at Regional Museum: the choice was taken as a consequence of the Bourbon bombings, during which Neptune and Scylla were damaged. On the front face of the base is the imperial coat of arms of Charles V of Habsburg, loaded with the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece and flanked by the columns of Hercules, while the corners of the base are decorated with dolphin tails of four seahorses, which protrude towards the basin below. The god Neptune, as if he had just risen from the waters, calm and invincible, brandishes his fearsome trident and keeps the monstrous Scylla and Charybdis chained to his feet; it is an allegory of the physical and moral strength of the City that tames adversity. The fountain is studded with inscriptions, among others the signature of the author present in an inscription engraved on the edge of the octagonal basin. It represents good governance, on the sides of Neptune below are the two monsters. However, this gave rise to a popular story about the fountain, according to which the statue did not depict Neptune, but a mythical giant fisherman, “Lu Gialanti pisci”, who had decided to capture the two sea monsters as a bet with Calabrian fishermen. The statue would therefore have turned its back to Calabria (initially in fact it was turned with its back to the sea) to mock the eternal rivals on the other side of the Strait. But this, of course, is just a legend … Below is the legendary tale taken from Sicilian fairy tales, legends, folk tales Pitrè:

fountain of neptune messina“In the past, large ships passed by near the Lighthouse and in the sea there was a beautiful song, so beautiful that the sailors fell asleep: it was the song of two Sirens; one was called Scylla and the other Charybdis. In this way the ships all sank. Now, there was a giant who made a bet with the Calabrians that he would be able to catch the two mermaids. This giant was an ugly subject and could swim like a fish and had the ability to catch mermaids. To capture them he had a bell put on his head and had some bread and cheese given, as he did not know how long he would remain under water, and jumped into the sea. A rope, connected to a bell out of the water, was within reach of the giant, so that he could sense that he was alive by pulling it and ringing the bell.

Having met Scylla, the most beautiful siren, he chained her with a quick maneuver; then he chained Charybdis by the neck and hands, so that he could no longer move. Then he brought them weeping to the surface, handing them over to the people of Messina, immobile as they came out of the sea. The giant’s skill was so great that the people of Messina wanted to make a statue of both him and the two sirens.
When the statue was finished, the giant put his hands on his lower back and said:
– My dear Messina, I give my ass to the Calabrians
Although mocked, the people of Reggio were equally happy that the giant had defeated the sirens, so much so that they decided to give him a kind of income as a gift. After the construction of the statue, the giant lived a little longer, dying, still very young, due to his continuous diving from Sicily to Calabria ”.

In the story it is clear the reference to sorceress Circe and to the Sirens, while lu Gilante is not Griffin, the mythical black giant of Messina, but Neptune. Originally the statue of Neptune was facing the city, thus showing the backside to the sea and to Reggio Calabria. After earthquake of the 1908 the sculpture was moved and Neptune was positioned to face the sea. They are clear, however references to Colapesce, both for premature death and for swimming in the Strait. Furthermore, a peculiarity is that of the three most important and beautiful monumental fountains dedicated to Neptune, that of Messina is the oldest because it was completed in 1557 compared to the Neptune of Giambologna to Bologna, which is from 1563 – 1566, and to Neptune’s Bartolomeo Ammannati to Florence, of 1563 – 1577.

fountain of neptune messina

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