The lactating fountain of Parthenope

The fountain on the wall of the church of Santa Caterina della Spinacorona in Naples has a curious and interesting story. The fountain was installed on the orders of Viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo in 1498 and is the least known of the three Naples fountains representing the Siren Parthenope. It is also the only one that has remained in its “original version” – i.e. with wings and bird legs. Some historians of antiquity have claimed that there was already a fountain on this site dating back to a more distant time, but this is a disputed hypothesis.

The relationship between Naples and Parthenope goes back to Homer, who tells how, after failing to shipwreck Ulysses, the three Sirens drowned and the lifeless body of one of them, Parthenope, was washed ashore near the island of Megaris (site of Castel dell’Ovo, now Medaride peninsula). The Greek colonists then erected a tomb to house the remains of the virgin Siren (parthenos = virgin in Greek) and gave her name to the city they founded near the monument – Naples.

Jets of water spring from the breasts of the Siren Parthenope at the fountain and flow down over Vesuvius carved in high relief. At the foot of the statue, a viola symbolizes music, an inseparable element of the myth. A Latin inscription that used to be there, dum vesevi syrena incendia mulcet, encouraged the divinity to extinguish the destructive fires of the volcano Vesuvius.

It may seem that Don Pedro de Toledo was expressing his desire to calm the ardour of the very volcanic Neapolitans by gentleness, but they apparently didn’t take the hint, because it has always been popularly known as the ‘fountain of the tits”!

Don Pedro perhaps didn’t know which way to turn at a time when Saint Januarius hadn’t yet proved himself (I’ll write a piece on this later), the Virgil cult had waned and the Madonna had never before pulled off a miracle with respect to eruptions of Vesuvius, so this was his form of inspiration.

The statue here is a copy: the original is on display at the remarkable San Martino Museum. the museum of the history of Naples.

So next time you are in Naples make sure you make your way to Via Guacci Nobile and take a look at this amazing fountain.


(Adapted from Secret Naples, published by JONGLEZ)

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