Sea monster. Carrara marble mouth fountain. Italy, late 16th century

Mostro marino
Sculpture

Sea monster
Carrara marble mouth fountain
Italy, late 16th century

It measures:
It measures 13.8 x 31.5 x 18.9 in (35 x 80 x 48 cm).
State of conservation:
some small evident gaps and widespread signs of wear due to outdoor exposure. The gray marks crossing it do not come from restoration, but are rather the natural veins of the marble

Particolari del Mostro marino

This work has some morphological characteristics typically associated with the iconography of the sea monster: an elongated muzzle, sharp teeth, protruding eyes, elongated ears, and a coiled serpent’s tail.
An in-depth series of studies on artistic depictions of the sea monster attempted to verify how this symbol evolved in antiquity in the European and Mediterranean contexts and how it gradually changed its image and function over time. The iconography itself is mutable and imaginative and its history is rich with cultural and artistic exchange, as well as the overlapping of ideas. This occurred so much that it is difficult to accurately pinpoint the “types” that satisfactorily represent its various developments.
However, we can try to summarize the main figures, starting from the biblical Leviathan and the marine creature that swallowed Jonah (in the Christian version, this figure was to become a whale or a “big fish”, the “kētos mega”, (translation of the Hebrew “dag gadol”). Other specimens ranged from the dragons mentioned in the Iliad (which were winged and had legs) to “kētos” (also from Greek mythology), the terrifying being from whose Latinized name (“cetus”) derives the word “cetacean”. See J. Boardman, “Very Like a Whale” – Classical Sea Monsters, in Monsters and Demons in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, in Papers presented in Honor of Edith Porada, Mainz am Rhein 1987, pp. 73-84).

In Italy the monster underwent yet further variations: it can be found in Etruscan art on the front of some sarcophagi representing the companion of souls, while among the Romans we find the “Pistrice” (cited by Plinio in Naturalis Historia PLIN., Nat., II 9, 8 and by Virgilio in Eneide: VERG., Aen., III, 427), which appeared in the shape of a stylized hippocampus or a very large monstrous cetacean and evolved into a hideous being with a dragon’s head and long webbed fins.

During the Middle Ages, the sea monster was the object of new transformations: at this time, it is often winged, the head is stretched like a crocodile, the front legs are often very sharp fins – sometimes real paws – until the image merges with dragons, the typical figures of medieval visionary spirituality widely found throughout Europe (on this topic and much more, see: J. Baltrušaitis, Il Medioevo fantastico. Antichità ed esotismi nell’arte gotica, Gli Adelphi 1997).
In Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries, the revival of classicism – representative of the humanistic and Renaissance periods – led to a different reading of these “creatures”. Indeed, the sea monster was also to find widespread use as an isolated decorative motif, especially in numerous fountains and sculptures where dolphins or sea monsters were used as a characterizing element linked to water (on this theme see: Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, London, The British library, 2013).
From the morphological point of view, the “sea monsters” of this period are mostly depicted as hybrid figures, in which the body of a mythological or real being (a hippocampus, a sea snake, a dolphin), is joined to a head with a rather indistinct appearance. It was usually characterized by large upright ears, an elongated snout, sharp teeth and globular, protruding eyes; a complex and indefinite figure, both from the symbolic point of view and from that of its genesis.

The work we are examining is placed as a cross between the medieval sea serpent and the Renaissance dolphin, with stylistic features which recall the snake as often used in heraldry (such as the “snake” depicted in the coat of arms of the Visconti – the lords and then dukes of Milan between 1277 and 1447 – and which, for some, may be derived from the representations of the “Pistrice” that swallowed Jonah).

In the search for sources, Renaissance cartography and in particular woodcuts should not be neglected. See for example the monsters of Olaus Magnus, from the editions of the “Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus” (“History of the peoples of the north”) and the natural histories of Conrad Gesner, Ulisse Aldrovandi, Edward Topsell and John Jonston dated from 1555 to 1665 (Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, London, The British library, 2013).

From a chronological point of view, our sculpture can be placed around the end of the 16th century, during the time when the revival of classicism – and the iconography associated with it – had already been metabolized and more casual reworkings were beginning to be distinguished, forming a prelude to the Baroque style.

This work is indisputably Italian, but it is more difficult to define its precise area of origin.
There is no lack of examples, but they are scattered over a very wide territory, ranging from Tuscany to Naples.
We point out, in particular, one that, from the iconographic point of view, seems the closest to our monster: the fountain of the Siren in Carrara, in front of the Chiesa delle Lacrime (Church of Tears).

Cover Photo: Fabrizio Stipari

Bibliography:

J. J. Boardman, “Very Like a Whale” – Classical Sea Monsters, in Monsters and Demons in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. Papers presented in Honor of Edith Porada, a cura di, Mainz am Rhein 1987, pp. 73-84;
J. Baltrušaitis, Il Medioevo fantastico. Antichità ed esotismi nell’arte gotica, Gli Adelphi, 1997;
Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, London, The British library, 2013;
S. Riccioni, Dal ketos al senmurv? Mutazioni iconografiche e transizioni simboliche del ketos dall’antichità al Medioevo (secolo XIII), in Hortus Artium Medievalium, vol. 22, 2016, pp. 130-144;
A. Angelini, Dal leviatano al drago: mostri marini e zoologia antica tra Grecia e Levante, Bologna, 2018.
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