MamaBlogger365 – Breastfeeding Mermaids of Bologna by Elena Skoko
Mermaids, mythology, motherhood and more… part one of a two-part mini-series by the creative and ever-fabulous Elena Skoko:
The mermaid of the Fountain of Neptune in Bologna (photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto) is the image I recall when I’m concerned about my milk supply. I visualize it vividly, my breasts start to tickle and I feel the flow reaching my nipples. I breathe a sigh of relief: everything’s fine, my baby, you’ll have enough food, as much as you need, whenever you wish.
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 to 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 men 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 online 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.
Watch for part two of Elena’s essay next Sunday, for more about mermaids, motherhood and mythology!
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