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A Corsair History of Sculpture: Abducting Italian Fountains in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Fernando Loffredo
A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2015–2017


Gian Giacomo della Porta and workshop (with the collaboration of Guglielmo?), with additions by José Micael Alfaro, Fuente de Génova, c. 1533?, completed 1635, Plaza de la Constitución, Málaga. Author photograph

On November 18, 1669, the inhabitants of Naples awoke to an unpleasant surprise. According to the manuscript journal of Innocenzo Fuidoro (Vincenzo d’Onofrio), the monumental Renaissance fountain known as I Quattro del Molo (The Four [River Gods] of the Dock), formerly located on the main dock of the city’s harbor, had been dismantled on the order of the Spanish viceroy Pedro Antonio de Aragón, ostensibly to be restored. The four monumental statues depicting the four rivers of the world, for which the fountain was named, were loaded onto a ship and sent to Spain. The monument was probably intended as a gift to King Charles II of Spain, as Neapolitans later learned. Maintaining their typical sense of humor, according to Fuidoro’s journal, they made what had happened to the four River Gods the subject of proverbs, jokes, and pasquinades.

The kingdom of Naples was under Spanish rule, and as viceroy, Pedro Antonio de Aragón exercised full power over the city and the state. Nevertheless, in Naples as in other early modern cities, public fountains were the only source of drinking water, and the disappearance of a public fountain from one of the most popular of its urban spaces was extraordinary.

The case of the forced relocation of I Quattro del Molo from Italy
to Spain may seem highly unusual, but it is not an isolated story. Other fountains have given rise to similar narratives. For instance, according to the Malagueño poet Juan de Ovando y Santarén’s Ocios de Castalia (1663), the Fuente de Génova in Málaga was “won” from pirates by Don John of Austria in the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks (1571). On the other hand, according to Cristóbal Medina Conde’s Conversaciones históricas malagueñas (1789–1792), which was based on Pedro Morejón’s manuscript “Historia general de la antigüedad y grandezas de la muy noble y leal ciudad de Málaga” (supposedly written shortly before 1677 and never published), the fountain was carved in Genoa under a commission of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V (as King Charles I of Spain). During its transport from Genoa to Málaga it was captured by the corsair Barbarossa (Khayr al-Dīn)—one of the most famous Turkish corsairs—and amazingly the captain of the Spanish fleet, Bernardino de Mendoza, was able to rescue it and to deliver it to Málaga.

The purpose of my current research is to put together for the first time case studies, contemporary narratives, and traditions of forced relocation of Renaissance fountains around the Mediterranean. These will be the basis for a book chapter as well as an article. The title of this report—a humble evocation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Corsair Writings—intends to foreground a fundamental aspect of these stories: what one could call the sea-lives of these fountains across the Mediterranean. My aim is to conceptualize the desire for all’italiana fountains as fashionable status symbols, taking into consideration several cases of “abducted,” “kidnapped,” or “stolen” works of sculpture whose stories navigate the dubious boundary of historical truth. Interestingly, many episodes of abducted fountains are in fact inventions. But whether true or not, these stories are important per se, since they attest to prevailing artistic tastes. Given their frequency of recurrence, the stories could constitute a sort of literary topos, as I emphasize here. On the other hand, it is certain that the desire for all’italiana fountains in early modern Europe generated the phenomenon of the circulation of works of art outside more common channels such as those of patronage and diplomatic exchange.

During the Renaissance the market for marble sculpture throughout the Mediterranean was robust. The taste for Italian fountains spread all over Europe, from Portugal to Poland, and, thanks to its marble quarries and specialized workshops, Italy was the fulcrum of this commerce. Italian fountains and Italian-style gardens became fashionable objects of desire for many European monarchs and aristocrats, who valued them as status symbols. Thus, many works were taken, for instance, from Italy to Spain, in some cases legally acquired or offered as diplomatic gifts, but in other cases transported after being requisitioned or stolen. These multiple dislocations generated a sort of diaspora of Italian garden sculpture, which makes it necessary to examine this kind of artistic production from a continental and comparative perspective.

My aim is to illuminate in new and complex ways the study of early
European modernity through the circulation of Italian sculpture by considering the attraction of all’italiana fountains as an engine of these transfers. I will analyze works of art that traversed the Mediterranean Sea, working not only with archival documentation but also with travel writings, diaries, and urban descriptions as well as literary works in verse and prose. I am interested in reconstructing the original and adoptive locations of these monuments while shedding light on the stories, places, and political networks that explain their travels. Thus, I intend to explore the meaningful transformations that these monuments underwent in a broader European context, mainly focusing on southern Europe. At the same time, I will discuss the theoretical implications of their movements in the manifold cultural, political, and economic exchanges of the Mediterranean space. The perspective that I adopt explores these dislocations as forms of translation that produced cultural transformations and instigated dialogues across the Mediterranean.

A Poetic Urgency: Sculpture and Poetry in Dialogue in the Early Modern World
Fernando Loffredo

A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2015–2017