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Neptune: From Sea to City

There is a majestic Neptune Fountain, the Neptunbrunnen (1891) currently before the rathaus, the red town hall in east Berlin. It was created, pace Bismark, to illustrate the late c.19th dominance of Prussia; the 4 surrounding women represent German rivers – the Elbe (fruit and corn), the Rhine (fish net and grapes), Vistula (wood), the Oder (animal skins). In 2013 a deranged person, naked with a knife, was shot before the fountain.


Whence this febrile potency? In our shell journeys the figure of Neptune has regularly inserted himself, domineering, singular, martial– with gushing mouth, trident, muscular body and giant clam at his feet.


In Britain, a truly giant Neptune, erect and tridentless now, stands forlorn within a silted-up lake at Warmley, nr. Bristol – an industrialist’s statement for prosperity. We remember him from the subterranean grotto at Goldney Hall (Clifton), This mythical subterranean grotto sees him command the waters, his pool surrounded by predatory, frightening creatures fashioned from large shells.



Unusually, today at Cherkley Court in Surrey he features, as Poseidon, in the coral narrative of Arethusa by Belinda Eade. He dominates the cork-lined walls at Basildon Park, Reading where Lady Iliffe’s shell collection is displayed. He is seen in an exedra at Rousham, Oxfordshire.

Fom the top of Dyrham Park he commands the heights from the east, perched on a giant clam over a cascade now deflected underground towards the House below.



And in the grotto at Stourhead – here as a kind of river god. He controls the waters from above in his own cave, set apart from Ariadne in her private pool set there with Pope’s blessing.- These last two c.18th estates from the West Country.



He is splendidly set in the lake at Studley Royal where all landscaping is on a grand scale: (Fountains Abbey) in Yorkshire.



He dominates the shell room/loggia at Woburn Abbey – work of Isaac de Caus. He is at Culzean on the Firth of Clyde and cited at Portmeirion in Wales.


He cuts a fine municipal neo-classical figure with attendants and vibrant water (c.1892) in the heart of Cheltenham. Juno is his sister, Amphritrite his wife; he is the Roman god to the Greek Poseidon, King of the sea and earthquake.



Neptune in Europe


Despite the Neptunbrunnen statuary he is usually on his own, unpartnered, whereas Venus has been developed through nymphaeum and, in painting, dramatically in consort with Mars, Adonis, Cupid, the Graces. With Neptune we have a single, male monotheistic image of power, dominance, control.


Like Venus, his element is water, his genius to beget life, a virile maker of the world. The mimosis of the artistic impulse transferred itself to creator and owner: unsurprisingly exhibits found their way to gardens and galleries.


He commands many palaces in Europe - If not specifically Catholic Europe ie Iberia, France and Italy, where Venus and Mary dominate, but where the National/Imperialistic imperative developed: we think of Sweden, Germany, Russia and Britain.


The Drottingham Palace, outside Stockholm.

The Drottingham Palace was a summer residence developed by Queen Louisa in the 18th century.


A dominant motif above Tsar Peter the Great's Winter Palace on the Neva at St Petersburg.



The Monplaisir Palace at the Peterhof. Here a young, naked, vibrant figure - with trident - challenges the Baltic Countries across the sea.

Here a young, naked, vibrant figure - with trident - challenges the Baltic Countries across the sea.

At Helbrunn Castle, outside Salzburg he is part of an underworld of ancient mythology in a grotto with jeux d’eau.


In Brera Gallery, Milan, an oil painting by Agnolo Bronzino from the mid-C16th depicts Andrea Doria, the great Genoese naval commander/statesman (he defeated the Turkish Corsairs) as Neptune in aspetto di Nettuno : very tall, masculine, bearded, individual, commanding, his torso naked.


We see how Italian figures personalised classical and mythological characters by association in a contemporary, self-reverential manner. [ An excellent reference in Florence is Antonio Canova’s Paolino Borghese Bonaparte as Victorious Venus (1804-08). Paolina is reclining, confident, naked.]


In the hills above Dubrovnik the Trsteno Arboretum offers a large baroque nymphaeum in a neo-Romantic garden complex above the Mediterranean. Poseidon/Neptune is at the heart of this summer residence, with trident and grotto backdrop.



The Ancient World offers us much (which will be dealt with in a future blog)


He is a figure from the Ancient World, but transmuted as I have suggested: Paestum (Poseidonia) is a town dedicated to Poseidon.


In Chania, Crete, there is a larger-than-life copy of Poseidon (or – perhaps - Zeus) – a copy of the c450BC original ( from under the sea) now in the Athens Archaeological Museum.


In Herculaneum there is a fine shrine with framed shells/ hood and a glass paste mosaic (blues, yellow, green and red) to Neptune and Amphitrite behind an artrium and facing a street.



Neptune Mosaic in Herculaneum


The House of the Large Fountain in Pompeii has a cockle/murex framed mosaic mask of Neptune.


At Ostia Antica, west of Rome the Baths of Neptune have a basilica from the time of Agrippa, with shells evident.


He is a ubiquitous god.


And of course, there is Rossi’s Fountain of Neptune at the Tivoli Gardens of the Villa d’Este, Lazio and the dominant figure in the grotto/nymphaeum behind the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati.



There are so many other examples. The notes and photographs here are extracts from our ongoing two books.


We will add more in the future.


Margaret and Gerald

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