Neptune at Place Stanislas in Nancy

Neptune, the Roman god of the sea (Poseidon to the ancient Greeks), is featured in an elaborate set of fountains at the northwest corner of Place Stanislas, next to the Fine Arts Museum in Nancy.

Details of these fountains were featured in the videos used in the opera production of Lully’s Armide at the nearby opera house.

Neptune and friends

Here is a closer look at the central fountain, dominated by Neptune.

Since Nancy is nowhere near any sea or ocean, it seems that the city (or the duchy, as it still was at the time) had no particular reason to chose Neptune for their fountain, rather than some other senior Roman god such as Jupiter, Pluto, Saturn or Mars. But of course it had to be someone from ancient Roman or Greek mythology, since that was the custom throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, ever since the beginning of the Renaissance around 1600.

Neptune in Nancy, with one of his horses

The strange thing is that neither the Duke Stanislas Leszczynski nor any of his contemporaries actually believed in Neptune or any of the other ancient Roman or Greek gods. To them, these ancient gods were Literature, not Theology.

What they really did believe in was Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic variety, with its monotheistic God coexisting uneasily with the Trinity, the Virgin Mary and a staggering variety of saints, both universal and local. If some 18th century person in Nancy was worried that his or her soul might be in danger of burning in hell for all eternity, that person wouldn’t sacrifice an ox to Neptune, but would more likely light a candle and pray for intercession from Saint Epvre, a local saint who was popular in Nancy but more or less unknown anywhere else.

Child torturing a fish

Like most 18th century fountains, this one includes a child torturing a fish. I have never understood the significance of this, but perhaps someone can explain it to me in the comments below.

Neptune fountain at night

By the 18th century, five of the ancient Roman gods already had planets named after them, namely Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Since 1610, thanks to Galileo and his telescope, Jupiter was known to have at least four moons (now up to 80, and counting).

In 1781, fifteen years after the death of Stanislas Leszczynski, the planet Uranus was discovered, named after the ancient Greek god of the sky. But it took another sixty-five years, until 1846, before the planet now known as Neptune was finally discovered. (See my post on The Weikersheim Planetary Trail.)

Amphitrite sculpture

At the northeast corner of Place Stanislas, next to the opera house, there is a decorative metal fence, partly golden, with a fountain and sculpture ensemble featuring Amphitrite, the ancient Greek sea-goddess who was the wife of Poseidon.

At first, I was somewhat puzzled about why Amphitrite is identified here by her Greek name, rather than her later Roman name Salacia. But the reason seems to be that Salacia was a relatively unimportant (and uninteresting) figure in Roman mythology, whereas in Greek mythology Amphitrite did exciting things like giving birth to seals and dolphins and to Triton, who turned out to be a ‘merman’, with the upper body of a human and the lower body and tail of a fish.

My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2022.

See more posts on Nancy, France.
See more sculpture posts.

9 thoughts on “Neptune at Place Stanislas in Nancy”

  1. The Neptune theme, even far from the sea, could possibly be, as well as the water (fountain) connection, just that Neptune represents a powerful figure, and thus power over water, specifically. Or maybe some sculptors lacking in inspiration simply had plenty of templates to follow if they chose Neptune! As for children assaulting idea, unless childhood equals good and sea creatures represent evil…and we see one in triumph over the other.

  2. Le trident est le symbole et l’attribut de Poséidon/Neptune.
    Cette lance à trois pointes servait à pécher les poissons.
    À ce titre, cet “enfant torturant un poisson” doit représenter Neptune (jeune) dominant les habitants de la mer, son royaume.

  3. I’ve never been to Nancy so these fountains are new to me. But I was pondering when I wrote my recent post about various other fountains how many around the world feature Neptune? Of course he was the god of the sea so it’s apt, but as you point out, by the time these fountains were designed no one worshipped him as such!

    1. Yes, perhaps it’s just his connection with water that made him so popular with people designing fountains. (He was also the god of horses, so they could include some wild horses snorting water through their nostrils.)

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