The Fountain of Naiads

A scandal in plain sight

  • Lisan Lesscher - Faculty of Economics and Business
  • Lieke Stockmann - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences
  • Anouk Smit - Faculty of Medicine

The fountain of Naiads

Located in the centre of the Piazza della Repubblica (former Piazza Esedra) in Rome, the work of Rutelli 'La Fontana delle Naiadi' can be found. In 1912 Rutelli completed his masterwork where four water Nymphs (Najadi) have been placed on the lower four basins. These young naked Naiads were a shock to the Romans. For a long time the fountain was considered very obscene, a scandal in plain sight. In this wiki an interpretation is provided, explaining that the fountain was also a solution to a problem the artists and leaders of the state faced: presenting the new secular state.

1. History of the fountain
2. Rutelli
2.1 Lola Mora
3. The Naiads
3.1 The Naiad of the Lakes
3.2 The Naiad of the Marshes
3.3 The Naiad of the Rivers
3.4 The Nymph of the Oceans
4. The Glauco
5. The ambiguity of the fountain
5.1 The layers of the fountain
5.2 Symbolism
6. Interpretation
6.1 Breaking the taboo
6.2 'Sex sells'
7. Sources

History of the fountain 1,2

The base of the fountain was commissioned by Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) in the late summer of 1870. Pius IX was very interested in technology and he gave permission to an English company to introduce the rediscovered springs of the Aqua Marcia into Rome. The springs were first brought to Rome by the Marcian aqueduct in the year 144-140 BC. A few days before Rome was taken over by the Italian troops in 1870 at the end of the Risorgimento. The reason why the pope commissioned a fountain while the Italian troops were very close remains unclear. It is possible that he wanted to leave something behind to celebrate his success.

Originally, the fountain consisted of four basins with no statues and was placed 300 feet from the original location. In 1885, with the completion of Via Nazionale and the construction of two palaces by Gaetano Koch (1849-1910), the fountain was moved to its current location on the Piazza della Repubblica. Since the 1950's the square is called the 'Piazza della Repubblica' , however before that its name was 'Piazza Esedra'. The fountain was moved to the center of a roundabout, connecting some of Rome's main streets, for example the Via Nazionale, Via Vittorio Emanuele and the Via delle Terme di Diocleziano. This clarifies that the fountain is placed on a very prominent spot.

Rutelli's "fishfry"

The decision to refurbish the whole place was made by the new government after the risorgimento. The fountain was moved to its present location, and it was increased in size. However, the fountain was very plain. When the German emperor William II visited Rome, there was an urgent need to make the fountain look more impressive. Therefore, they placed four plaster Lions on the basins, made by Guerrieri in 1901. Many of the people in Rome were not pleased with the so-called fake solution, which is why the city council of Rome decided to commission bronze statues to decorate the fountain.

In 1901 the government commissioned the sculptor and architect Rutelli (1859-1941) to finish the fountain. He decorated the fountain with four water nymphs, called Naiads. On top of the fountain he placed a statue that consists of three men, a dolphin and an octopus tangled together. At first he made the sculpture out of mortar, giving him time to make it out of bronze, but the center piece received a lot of criticism and it was mockingly called 'Rutelli’s fishfry '. Therefore, the centre piece was removed and Rutelli replaced it with a Glauco, which is currently still on top of the fountain.

Placing these naked Naiads on a fountain originally commissioned by a pope is a bold statement. Also, moving the fountain to its new location was a tactical idea. The street between the baths of Diocletianus and the Trajan's Forum was build between 1864 and 1871. Originally it was called via Pia, named in the honour of Pius IX who wanted to connect the Termini station to the city center. After the capture of Rome by the Italian troops the street was named Via Nazionale, which was another insult to the pope. After the Risorgimento the Piazza dell'Esedra was build, surrounded with government buildings. This square was a celebration to the new Rome with the shocking fountain as its center piece.

Rutelli 3,4

Rutelli (1859-1941) was a sculptor from Palermo. He is the great grand-father of Francesco, mayor of Rome twice between 1993 and 2001. Mario Rutelli's father was famous for designing the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuelle in Palermo. Rutelli studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Palermo and later in Rome under the supervision of Giulio Monteverde (1837-1917). The fountain of Naiads is seen as his masterwork. Other works include the statue of Anita Garibaldi on the Janiculum, and one of the monuments of Victor Emmanuel.

Lola Mora5

Lola Mora

Another student of Giulio Monteverde was Lola Mora (1866-1936). Mora was born in Salta, Argentina. She studied art in Argentina and with a scholarship she moved to Rome to study under Monteverde. Interestingly, in 1903 she revealed a fountain created for the city of Buenos Aires called: The Nereids Fountain. This fountain shows many similarities with the fountain of Rutelli. Nereids are also a type of water nymphs. The nymphs displayed on this fountain are also naked. Interestingly, the female Nereids are in the center of the fountain and the men are below. The meaning of this is unknown.

The fountain of Nereids

This fountain was also received with a lot of controversy. The Catholic Church was, and still is, the dominant religion in Argentina, because the country belonged to Spain until 1810. The loss of power of the Catholic Church in Italy and the defeat of the pope at the end of the Risorgimento must also have had an effect on Argentina. It is highly likely that Rutelli and Mora drew inspiration from each other and discussed the effect the fountains would have on the public and the new era in which the Church lost a lot of power.

The Naiads

Naiads were worshipped by the ancient Greeks. They were represented as young, beautiful, almost naked women. Often they held shells, pearls or an urn from which water flows. The Naiads were sex symbols in the ancient world and often played a role of both the seduced and the seducer in literature6. They were thought of as daughters of the Greek god Zeus, which is the father of Gods and men. Individual Naiads are often associated with a specific body of water. The Naiad is part of that water. If the water she lives in dries up, she will also perish with it7. Naiads therefore fit well on the fountain, when the fountain stops flowing the Naiads will perish.

The name of the fountain insinuates that there are four Naiads on the fountain but this is not true. There is a distinctions between Naiads and Nereids. On this fountain there are three Naiads present: the nymph of the marshes, the nymph of the lakes, and the nymph of the rivers. The fourth nymph is the nymph of the Oceans, which is a Nereid. Nereids were daughters of Oceanus and Thethys. However, Nereids and Naiads are alike.

The Naiad of the Lakes

The Naiad of the Lakes

The Naiad of the lakes is represented by the woman leaning against a swan. She is looking at the swan as if she is deeply in love with it. The pose of the Naiad is very sensual and very inappropriate for that time being. She has a romantic gaze in her eyes and holds the neck of the swan almost as if she is in love with the animal. Looking at the back of the sculpture you can see that she has lifted one leg up in the air in a playful way. The Naiad looks totally in control. The swan itself isn't very peaceful though, as will be explained in the claws section.

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy
by Peter Paul Rubens,
after a lost painting by Michelangelo
(National Gallery, Londen.

The sculpture of the Naiad with the swan could be a reference to the Greek mythological story 'Leda and the swan'. In this story Zeus falls in love with Leda and tries to seduce her with his divinity, but Leda shows no interest because she is already married. Zeus then changes himself into a swan and approaches Leda when bathing in a lake. There are different stories about what happens next, but some say Zeus seduced Leda, others say he raped her. The same night Leda also has intercourse with her husband and nine months later she gave birth to her children of which some say they were born out of eggs. A lot of paintings have been produced with Leda and the swan as the theme. For example the famous painting of Peter Paul Rubels, it is situated in the National Gallery in Londen.

The Naiad of the Marshes

The Naiad of the Marshes is lying in a very open position on top of the dragon, hiding almost nothing of her body. Both hands of the naiad are in her hair, which causes a rather sensual vibe. The facial expression of the naiad looks relaxed and dreamy. The dragon looks calm and accepting that the naiad is lying on top of him, but the claws are giving away that the animal is not as peaceful as one thinks at first sight.

The Naiad of the Rivers

The Naiad of the Rivers is also lying in an open and revealing position tangled between the tail of the animal. It seems as if the animal (monster) is more in control in this statue, because it looks like he is trying to drag the naiad down into the depth of the river. The facial expression of the naiad is not confirming this, because it is as if she is very relaxed and enjoying herself. Her body position shows a bit of resistance against the monster.

The Nymph of the Ocean

The Nereid of the Ocean is in a fight with a hippocampus, which is a seahorse. The facial expression of this nymph is fiercer than those of the other sculptures. Although the hippocampus is trying to control her, she is resisting with all of her strength. It seems that she is successful, because the hippocampus might seem to some people to be very tired and almost giving in.

The Naiad of the Marshes The Naiad of the Rivers The Nymph of the Ocean

The Glauco

The Glauco

On top of the fountain a Glauco statue is placed. Glaucus was a fisherman, who one day ate a herb and became an immortal half fish. At first he was upset with his new form, but he was quickly accepted by Oceanus and Thethys. Who are as previous stated the parents of the Nereid of the Ocean. Glaucus fell in love with the sea-goddess Scylla, who rejected him. He then consulted Circe for a solution, but she fell desperately in love with Glaucus herself. Glaucus was still in love with Scylla and Circe was so jealous that she turned Scylla in a fish from the waist down and gave her a row of vicious dog heads around her loins. Glaucus remained in love with Scylla and mourned her transformation forever8.

The ambiguity of the fountain

Layers of the fountain

When looking at the fountain, the first thing you will notice are the different layers of the fountain. This could be interpreted as more than just a nice composition. Placing the female naiads below the male Glauco tells us something about the general impression of women in that time. Women were thought of as beings that were not rational and who surrendered to their emotions easily. The Naiads lying naked in sensual positions represents this surrender to their desires. The male Glauco is the only one that has the animal fully under control. This shows a contrast between men and women.

The Claws

When looking further the next thing you will notice are the statues of the naiads and the monsters. The first contrast here is between the facial expressions and positions the naiads are in. Each of them are lying in a different position and moreover showing a different facial expression. When looking at the animals another contrast is shown. As mentioned with the naiad of the lake, the animal does not look that frightening. However, the claws highlight the fact that it is still concerning a monster. The animals in the other remaining sculptures do not all look like peaceful animals, which is made especially clear when looking at the claws. The claws of the animals are very present in every statue, but they are not noticeable at first sight. It looks like Rutelli tried to make a paradox. On the one hand the animals look like loving animals with their naiads, on the other hand the animals look like monsters that might try to harm the Naiads.

Facial expression

All together it looks like the fountain shows a lot of ambiguities. Every statue has a different degree of surrender. Some of the naiads look like they fully surrender to the monster, others try to fight it. The voluptuous women with the hideous monsters. The conclusion about the fountain is left open to interpretation. This is part of the method Rutelli used to present his message. By using symbolism, there is no clear evidence about what Rutelli tried to say.


In the nineteenth century symbolism was an art movement. Symbolist painters used mythological figures and dream imagery. This can also be seen on the fountain by looking at the monsters and the naiads. Furthermore, in symbolism the symbols are intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. The monsters and especially their claws are obscure and the whole concept is ambiguous. The fountain is a good example of a symbolist piece of art.


In early 20th century Rome, just a few years after the Catholic Church lost its power, this fountain was placed. The question may arise what the purpose of placing such a controversial item was. Especially, the fact that it was a pope who commissioned the basins, should be taken into account. The pope would never have agreed with placing sex symbols on his fountain.

Breaking the taboo

Up until the end of the Risorgimento, most of the pieces of art were influenced by the bible and the Catholic Church. Rutelli probably made the fountain to break the taboo of nudity and sexuality, and introducing the people to the "new" Rome which would be very different from the city they knew at that moment. Evidence supporting this, is an interesting quote from Benito Mussolini. He said the fountain was an:

exaltation of eternal youth, the capital's first salute to art.

What he meant by this is that the fountain was the first piece of art that was free, with no influences of the church.

'Sex Sells10'

Sex sells, which is well known in marketing. Actually, it is one of the strongest and most effective selling tools. Dating back to 1871 to the earliest known use of sex in advertising when Pearl Tabacco featured a naked maiden on the package cover. So, by the time Rutelli was commissioned to design the sculptures for the fountain, this marketing mechanism was known. Rutelli used this tactic to sell the fountain and thereby the new and modern Rome and Italy to the citizens. However, this is not done explicitly, but by using symbolism. This marketing technique is still known and used now. Back then to sell the secular state, which was new and modern. Nowadays the world is still evolving and new states are being sold, like the homosexualiy. This is being sold and already accepted in many countries due to people getting used to homosexuality due to media.


  • 1. A Naughty Fountain, the scandal of the naked Naiads. Retrieved October 06, 2014, from Virtual Roma.
  • 2. Fountain of the Naiads. Retrieved October 06, 2014 from Meetingwater.
  • 3. Lavagnino, E. L'Arte Moderna: Dai Neoclassici Ai Contemporanei. Italy: Unione Tipografico, 1961. Print.
  • 4. Bellonzi, F. Architettura Pittura, Scultura Dal Neoclassicismo Al Liberty. Rome: Edizione Quasar, 1978. Print.
  • 5. Lola Mora. Retrieved November 12, 2014 from Wikipedia.
  • 6. Fisher, B. Naiads. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved October 06, 2014, from Encyclopedia Mythica Online.
  • 7. Hansen, W.F. Handbook of Classical Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
  • 8. Leadbetter, R. Glaucus. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved October 06, 2014, from Encyclopedia Mythica Online.
  • 9.Symbolism (arts). (2015, February 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:06, November 30, 2014.
  • 10.Sex and marketing: how to use sex in your advertising. Retrieved November 30, 2014, from Psychology for marketers.