“Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
The exquisite lines rise involuntarily to the lips as one comes suddenly upon Bernini’s old fountain in the Piazza Tritone, which, standing in the centre of one of the busiest and most prosaic thoroughfares of modern Rome, still keeps its own quality of beauty and seems to weave about itself the enchantment of the world of fable. Roman art has created many Tritons, notably the joyous group surrounding Galatea in the Farnesina
Triton blows his conch-shell with all his might as he kneels across the hinge of a wide-open scallop-shell, which is supported on the upturned tails of three dolphins massed together in the middle of a large, lowlying basin. The dolphins’ tails are twisted and folded about large papal keys-a Bernini conceit which, suggesting St. Peter both as fisherman and pontiff, must have delighted the Pope. The composition of dolphins, keys, and shell is extraordinarily rich and harmonious.
Triton, kneeling upon this noble support is, from the waist upward, a severely simple figure, almost uncouth and somewhat out of keeping with the rest of the design. This effect is entirely accidental. It has been brought about by the ceaseless flow of the water, which for two and a half centuries has been thrown upward in a slender jet of great height, returning upon itself with such precision that Triton’s face and shoulders have been worn and blurred into shapeless surfaces of travertine. Triton has suffered from a sculptor’s point of view, but as a work of imaginative art it is, perhaps, all the better for Nature’s modelling. The shapeless head and shoulders have in them something of the formlessness and blurred masses of the elements, and the water-creature becomes more real to the imagination in proportion as he suggests-but does not entirely resemble-a man. The entire design is on a colossal scale and has a dignity and harmony rarely to be found
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