Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 6, 2020
Felicia M. Else The Politics of Water in the Art and Festivals of Medici Florence: From Neptune Fountain to Naumachia European Festival Studies: 1450–1700. New York: Routledge, 2018. 226 pp.; 32 color ills.; 76 b/w ills. Cloth $155.00 (9781472410795)

Veramente il mare, a “veritable sea,” was what the courtyard of Florence’s Palazzo Pitti looked like according to Simone Cavallino on the occasion of the naumachia (mock naval battle) organized in 1589 to celebrate the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine. This expression, used in Cavallino’s official description of the festivities and quoted by Felicia M. Else (165), is paradigmatic of what her book aims to demonstrate. According to Else, bringing the sea to landlocked Florence, making it visible, and reproducing it in the city of the Arno was a goal of three rulers of sixteenth-century Florence: Cosimo I, Francesco I, and Ferdinando I de’ Medici. After an introduction and a preliminary chapter, Else devotes a chapter to each grand duke for a total of four sections. Proceeding in chronological order makes Else’s discourse clear, and the book does not lack for internal connections. What ties together all the sections is the discussion about the birth, construction, and early restoration of the Neptune Fountain in the Piazza della Signoria and its colossal marble statue carved by Bartolomeo Ammannati.

Chapter 1­, “The Arrival of Cosimo’s Neptune: Early Works and Influences from Abroad,” discusses the precedents of the Florentine Neptune, from Genoa to Messina, from Carrara to Venice. These are not mere iconographic considerations, though, as the discourse is situated in a specific political context, namely what Philippe Morel, as quoted by Else, defined as “the ducal microcosm reflecting back on the Imperial macrocosm” (19). The Florentine desire to imitate the Spanish Empire, which was extending its power over the oceans, is a key factor, as explored by Lia Markey in her Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence (Penn State University Press, 2016). The pivotal importance of the politics of water for Cosimo I emerges at the end of chapter 1, when Else defines his challenging engineering projects—making use of a suggestive quotation from Emanuela Ferretti’s recent and fundamental book Acquedotti e fontane del Rinascimento in Toscana (Olschki, 2016)—as a “duel with water.” In the early 1550s, the construction of new aqueducts made possible commissions of gardens and fountains in the city of Florence, which visualized Cosimo I’s water-control projects.

The gestation of the Neptune Fountain is the core of chapter 2, “Art and Festival: The Neptune Fountain in the Piazza della Signoria and the Entrata of Johanna of Austria in 1565. Two aspects of it seem to have been very urgent to Cosimo: the scale and the marine iconography. The necessity of adding a gigante (giant) to the piazza is reflected in the words of Baccio Bandinelli, who was initially in charge of the project and “promised a fountain that would surpass the fountains of antiquity and the present day” (54–55). In this ambitious language, I also see a reference to the recently unearthed Baths of Caracalla. The final project was eventually executed by Bartolomeo Ammannati, who gave his static colossus—which was in line with the colossi sculpted by Michelangelo and Bandinelli—a dynamic framework, namely the seashell chariot in purplish Seravezza marble (71). Here, perhaps the absolute centrality of the fountain in the Piazza della Signoria (a fourth of which is occupied by the Palazzo Vecchio) could have been more clearly emphasized by Else. Bringing water to the piazza was not an easy task, and what contemporaries celebrated about Ammannati’s fountain was “the Duke’s building of aqueducts in the city” (76). This was crucial in a city that, according to Agostino del Riccio, “lacked nothing except water” (81). In discussing the marine iconography, Else makes evident that “by the time Ammannati started work on the Neptune Fountain, Cosimo had reached some important milestones in regard to territorial control and the maritime frontier” (73). Although Cosimo’s aspirations were limited by the fact that many ports of Tuscany remained under Spanish control, Else draws our attention to the growing presence of Neptune in contemporary poetry, from Laura Battiferra—Ammannati’s wife—to Timoteo Bottonio. Ammannati’s Neptune, however, exhibits a rather peculiar iconography. On the one hand, Else interestingly argues that the lack of the typical trident, replaced by a commander’s baton (62), and his unusual crown of pine make his figure less marine and might suggest a link between the maritime and the woodland (89). On the other hand, Else’s conjectured connection of the crown of pine to shipbuilding and naval development seems a bit more difficult to demonstrate. Finally, this chapter (and indeed the whole book) focuses on the dialogue of the stable and site-specific Neptune Fountain with the ephemeral apparati (festival displays). Not by chance, Vincenzo Borghini defined the Neptune as “the most beautiful ornament” of all elements of the entrata of Johanna of Austria in 1565, because it was “real and permanent” (85).

Francesco I’s intimate and melancholic world was very different from Cosimo’s, but they shared a strong interest in water, as is made evident in chapter 3, “Granducal Florence and the Age of Francesco I, 1566–1587: Courtly Pleasures and the Decline of Public Authority.” Else stresses that Francesco oversaw the administration of waterways by the Capitani di Parte Guelfa as part of the duties Cosimo entrusted to him as prince regent. Most important, under the rule of Francesco I the Neptune Fountain was completed in permanent materials and unveiled on June 23, 1574. Two main aspects of this chapter should be underlined. The first one is a speculation on the materiality of Giambologna’s Fountain of Oceanus in the Pitti Gardens. Else asks if the fact that the massive granite basin came from the island of Elba could account for the fountain’s marine subjects. This seems a very attractive hypothesis that again connects land and sea. The second is the discussion of aquatic imagery as a reference to Bianca Cappello, Francesco I’s most beloved second wife, and her Venetian origins. Venice, as is well known, is a city built on water, and it makes absolute sense that, on the occasion of the 1579 wedding festivities, marine subjects were especially conspicuous and meaningful, as discussed by Else (130). Here the protagonists are no longer the imperial oceans, but the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic Seas, representing respectively the grand duke and his Venetian wife. After them, “Neptune made a glorious arrival in the long-awaited final pageant car” and, according to Else, “touted the maritime prowess of the Serenissima” (133).

In 1581, a few years after Ammannati’s Neptune Fountain was completed, the monument was “severely damaged.” This opened the door for the final restoration of the fountain under Ferdinando I discussed in chapter 4, “A Revitalized Age: Ferdinand I and the Wedding of 1589.” The most compelling quotation to give a sense of this chapter is taken from Giovanni Cervoni’s description of the festival on the occasion of Ferdinando’s 1588 triumphal entry into Pisa. Neptune featured in the apparato and Cervoni explained that the god indicated Ferdinando’s love for “the things of the sea” (151). Ferdinando’s marriage with Christine of Lorraine shifted Florence’s attention, and consequently the imagery in his wedding, toward France. However, even considering Ferdinando’s approaching maneuver toward France, Else seems to put a bit too much emphasis on the theories about his anti-Spanish sentiment. After a thorough discussion of the 1589 maritime spectacle and naval battle organized in Palazzo Pitti and the desire to shut “the Mediterranean within the interior of a princely palace courtyard” (178), a thought-provoking quotation from Maria Alberti, the book ends with the Neptune Fountain and its restoration. Else elaborates on documents published by Ferretti that demonstrate an expansion of the Mugnone aqueduct to conduct water to the Neptune Fountain and to repair damaged sections of this conduit beginning in 1588. Interesting new payments from the Scrittoio delle fortezze e fabbriche are published, demonstrating a detailed program of restoration of the fountain undertaken from March 1588 to March 1589. As Else states, when Christine made her triumphal entry into Florence on April 30, 1589, the Neptune Fountain “must have looked truly revitalized” (186). What is central, however, is the consistent and prolonged interest in the politics of water that are visualized in a site-specific public monument. As Else puts it, from Cosimo to Ferdinando, Florence’s leaders’ “ambition to control waters never faltered” (189).

Fernando Loffredo
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Colorado Boulder