One day, while I was living in Bologna, my friend Vlatko came to visit me. We went for a nice walk across the city ending up in Piazza del Nettuno. The city of Bologna is in shape of a star and Piazza del Nettuno is right in the middle, next to the main square. The little square is named after a fountain dominated by a massive statue of ancient god of all seas. Neptune is standing on top of a pedestal that is held by four magnificent mermaids. These mermaids are sitting on waves with their split fish tail spread. Their hands are offering abundant breasts sprinkling water from their nipples.
I tried to tell my friend a story about the statue of Neptune that, only if you look from a certain angle, sports an imposing sex. Optical illusion and sassy joke of the artist. But, Vlatko was mesmerized by the mermaids: “They look so pornographic! What are they doing? How is it possible that they do that in the middle of the city?!!” I was so used by the naked bodies in the Italian art and by the everyday sight of that same fountain, that I couldn’t understand what was so shocking. Then I tried to see with his eyes. In fact, the mermaids were generously offering their big breasts to everybody, from all four cardinal directions. Their split tail was proudly showing the lovely shell in the middle. Their tapered hands were adorably squeezing their full breasts so that the water could spray in several fine streams – exactly like a boob full of milk. However, there were no infants with the mermaids; the “milk” was there for everybody. It was spilling perpetually, day and night, never ending copiousness of a precious fluid. Those breasts and those thighs were the celebration of wealth and life, even lavishness. The fountain was undoubtedly erotic. Yet, the gesture of the mermaids was more maternal then erotic to me. I guess it appealed in a different manner to a man.
The author of the statues (photo by Patrick Clenet) is Giambologna, a Flemish Renaissance sculptor that finished the fountain around 1567. In those days, it was not uncommon to see on paintings and sculptures a breastfeeding Madonna, or simply a woman with her breast exposed and offered to a child, sometimes with her milk spilling out. Supposedly, it was equally not uncommon to see a mother breastfeeding her child in everyday life. My friend was not familiar with that kind of scenes, as probably most of young man today. He could hardly see breastfeeding in public, except for occasional gypsy baggers at the traffic lights. He could equally hardly see breastfeeding scenes in contemporary art or popular mass culture.
The client who commissioned the Fountain of Neptune was Cardinal Carlo Borromeo. The aim of the Church was to “symbolize the fortunate recent election of Borromeo's uncle as Pope Pius IV” (quote from Wikipedia). In the Christian iconography, breastfeeding was associated with Christian charity, the Church was represented by the mother. Her breasts were offering Christian love to infants and adults. There could be a digression about adult breastfeeding and its representations inside or outside religious context, but we can skip this subject for now. Instead, we can point out how the mermaids hold their breasts in the same manner as Flemish Virgin with Child from the XV century (visit a beautiful on line resource on breastfeeding in art). The mermaids of the Neptune’s Fountain are not carrying a child though, but they are gleefully spouting their breast fluids in our direction. It could be a kind of a playful act, or maybe another gag of the artist mad about the controversy concerning the dimension of “The Giant”’s male attributes. The fountain has also four cheeky water bearing cherubs purring water from a pot right above the mermaids’ heads.
This scene reminds me of a teenage mother who came to visit me in Bologna with my sister on their graduation trip. She was seventeen and already a mother of a toddler. Her graduation trip was one of the few occasions she could still enjoy as a simple teenager. I was so moved by seeing her spending her week of freedom lying on the couch in front of our big TV. She had all my sympathy. During one of her few escapades outside the idle zone, she went with my sister and my sister’s boyfriend on a public bus. There was an old grumpy couple somewhere in front of them. “Bet I can sprinkle them with my milk right in the face!”, the teenage mother challenged playfully. She pulled out her breast, squeezed it and centered the old man right on the spot in a few meters distance without the victim noticing where it came from. I found the gesture hilarious. The mermaids of the Fountain of Neptune reminded me of her ever since.
Vlatko was right about one thing: mermaids are usually not represented breastfeeding. I could not even say that the mermaids from Bologna are mothers (Madonnas) breastfeeding a child, since there is no infant catching the precious fluid in their arms. However, the mermaids are undoubtedly pouring water from their breasts, therefore I assume they are breastfeeding, since I could not imagine any other function symbolized by the liquid coming from the nipples. The commonplace wants the mermaids erotic, enchanting, elusive, even menacing, and here they are maternal, generous, firmly grounded and open. On this fountain, their traditionally seductive nature is enriched by their propensity to feed. They might also look as a kind lover, promising joy and delight together with complete fulfillment. Their gestures are both sensually aggressive as well as maternally gentle. It could be that we are not used today to the complexity and subtleness of old fashioned personification of female seductiveness. Our modern female stereotypes are confined to the mare physical readiness to perform sexual gymnastics, if they are not totally deprived of flesh and force. None of the modern icons representing the feminine in popular culture features maternity as stimulus for desire. Only the contemporary fixation on big breasts remains an open question that calls for more in-depth research.
There are several interesting articles on line about the nature and the iconography of mermaids (see the explanation of the Starbucks logo). Digging into the history of mermaids we find out they are more then just male sexual fantasies. Apparently, “the mermaid is the surviving aspect of the old goddesses” (quote from Scarlett deMason, Shadows of the Goddess - The Mermaid). Her origins in Western culture lead us to Aphrodite, ancient Greek “fertility goddess, and goddess of fair sailing”, whose attributes descend from the earlier great Goddess. From the Babilonian sea-god Oannes and his sister Tethys, an entire sea population is generated creating, among others, Tritons, gods of the sea, and Nereids, sea-nymphs.
“Nereids had become synonymous with mermaids by the time of Pliny (80 CE) and the Tritons the originators of the mermen. The original sea-gods were Wise Old Men of the Sea in keeping with the tradition begun by Oannes, but the Tritons were a lustful and rapacious lot, fond of assaulting unwary sea-nymphs and human women alike, doubtless as a result of their association with Venus.
The Nereids on the other hand were protective of sailors, and reserved their beautiful singing voices to entertain their father, unlike the dangerous Sirens who ensnared sailors with their enchanting voices and lured them to watery deaths. The Sirens were originally bird-women related to the Egyptian Ra, or soul birds, demons of death sent to catch souls. But the Sirens eventually became synonymous with mermaids; thus the mermaids acquired their unpleasant reputation for drowning sailors. This evil aspect can also be traced to a certain degree as stemming from Greek sea-monster propaganda, promoting a fearful image of the sea to discourage commercial rivals in shipping and colonization.” Scarlett de Mason, “Shadows of the Goddess - The Mermaid”.
I confess I used the terms sirens and mermaids as synonyms without knowing the difference. Accordingly, the ones represented on our fountain should be more correctly called Nereids (photo by Patrick Clenet). Yet, both generous then rapacious nature of respectively Nereids and sirens belong to the complex nature of the great Goddess who was represented both as inviting maternal woman, as well as rapacious unkind creature. So the mermaids of our fountain are not that incongruent after all, the artist must have chosen the maternal side of these mythological creatures on purpose. I would like to venture a comparison between Nereids of Bologna and previously mentioned Sheela-Na-Gig, following the suggestion of Heinz Insu Fenkl. The spread thighs, namely the split fish tail of the mermaids, offer a clear view of the “shell”, positioned in such way that leaves no doubt on its availability and accessibility. It is a vulva. The association of a shell with the female mammal’s genitals is a commonplace in Western art. In the Manieristic artwork of the Flemish sculptor, the sexually suggestive nature of the mermaids is not at all condemned, but emphasized. The sensual feature is enforced by the maternal attitude of the Nereids without compromising their feminine appeal. In this case, the Church did not use the mermaid as representation of the evil and temptation, as it happened in the past, but as a symbol of prosperity and generosity of the Church herself.
Those who have spent some time in Bologna could easily recall some commonplaces the natives are proud of, namely the big breasts and the generous sexual skills of their women. The opulence of the city was known lengthwise and crosswise, that is why it was called “Bologna the Fat” and “Bologna the Rich”. Being home for the first Medieval University, this city is also famous for its goliard students who would spend their days as scholars between study and the practice of outrageous rites of passage. The Fountain of Neptune fits perfectly into Bologna’s own personality and it reflects the proverbial joyful character of its inhabitants. It is also a spit in the face to the others who forgot the joys of life.
At some point of my breastfeeding journey, when my little baby was growing up into a toddler, I started to doubt of my ability to feed my daughter. She became more demanding and I wasn’t sure I would have enough milk for her hungry strives that paid no attention to the fact that solid food was being introduced into the belly. Koko would avidly suck on my nipple, while I was praying to have enough milk for her. Then one day, I recalled the mermaids from Bologna, and the milk would promptly flow down in the right amount. The image of those mermaids’ perpetual abundance of breast fluids would stimulate my brain and my body as by association. I was happy to discover the power of representation and our ability to connect to our inner nature through symbolic identification.