The Fountain of Women

Jun 18th, 2011 | author Antonella Bazzoli | posted in Discoveries, In Focus, Women in History

The reliefs and inscriptions that decorate the Main Fountain of Perugia catch the eye of every passer-by. In the past the reliefs of the fountain welcomed the visiting merchant for the fair, consoled the worried farmer during the harvest, lifted the spirit of those gathering in the Cathedral’s square, and made all quietly reflect, whether they be man or woman, elderly or young.
Much has already been said on the artistic and symbolic significance of this important medieval monument, except for one aspect that until today has never been considered: the Fontana Maggiore is above all Woman.
Along with the many female figures carved by Giovanni and Nicola Pisano, we find women representing allegories such as the Vittoria Magna (Great Victory), the Roman Church, the Theology, and the Commune of Rom, depicted as a shawled matron seated on a throne (in the upper basin) above the reliefs (in the lower basin) that tell us the story of the mythical founding of the city. Among the mythological subjects we find the legendary She-wolf of Rome, portrayed milking the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, and Rea Silvia, the vestal virgin who birthed the twins thanks to a sacred tryst with the god Mars. Rea Silvia is depicted holding a cage: a symbol of the container in which the sacred fire was kept burning in honor of their goddess, Vesta.

The relief represents the She-Wolf milking Romulus and remus

Though not as powerful as it once was, the memory of the Roman Calendar still seems alive in the 13th century, even though it may seem difficult to grasp how well the commissioners knew of the great connection between the cycle of the medieval calendar and that of the festive Roman’s.
The personification of Perugia too is depicted as a matron and is shown holding a cornucopia, the symbol of abundance and good luck. Perugia is not alone but flanked on either side by female figures representing the territories under her control. To the left is the Lady from Chiusi, in the act of offering grain, while to the right is the representation of Lake Trasimeno, carved in the act of offering fishes to Perugia.

The Liberal Arts, from Grammar to Dialectics and from Geometry to Music are represented by women, as well as Philosophy and Astronomy, together donning crowns on their heads to underline their importance as the highest respected sciences of their times.
In the lower basin of the Fountain some of the most familiar feminine characters from the Bible remind us of the misogynistic view of the Benedictine Abbot Geoffrey of Vendome, who said: “this sex has poisoned our first born, has strangled John the Baptist, and has brought on the death of the courageous Samson”. Those three responsible culprits: Eve, Salome and Delilah (mulieres perniciosae) are all present on the reliefs of the fountain.

In the inscription Adam says: "Eva made possible I sin"

One can read Eva fecit me peccare in the inscription that runs above the scene of the expulsion from Eden. It is Adam, of course, who spits out these words as he accuses her of making him sin. Immediately after follows the scene of Delilah, shown in the act of cutting Samson’s hair, thus depriving him of his power and authority.
On the higher basin we are then presented with the character of Salome who holds the head of John the Baptist in her hands. However, according to some this may in fact be a depiction of Judith rather than Herod’s diabolical dancer. Judith, the beautiful Hebrew widow who cut off the head of her people’s nemesis Holofernes. Even still, a woman courageous and tremendous who was able to obtain what she wanted through the weapon of trickery and seduction.

Dalilah is cutting the hair of Samson

Contrary to the common stereotype and this presentation of women to fear, the medieval woman was well integrated in communal life and once married she enjoyed the esteem of being the fulcrum of the household and many social activities. This integration however has not to be interpreted as the emancipation of the woman in the middle ages. Even though the wife (uxor) played some social and public roles in the family and in the community, she was still always seen as weak in nature and needy of protection.

Antonella Bazzoli, June 2009
translated by Genna Neilson

The article is part of the research titled “Chi dice acqua dice donna” by A. Bazzoli – edited in “Medioevo”, Year 13 N. 6,  June 2009
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