The milk of non-human kindness

When I was in Bologna I was a bit awestruck by the Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune), particularly by the four figures at the corners, voluptuous feminine creatures, like mermaids, but with two legs (scaly of course!)

They are sitting astride dolphin-like animals, with a fortunately placed dorsal fin. Most fascinating, though, is that water squirts from their nipples, and that they are squeezing their breasts. My research reveals that these wonderful woman-type beings are nereids, from Greek mythology, and that they were reputed to be helpful and friendly to sailors, unlike the treacherous mermaids.

Curiously, they are wearing helmets and some sort of peek-a-boo breast harness. Why? Was Giambologna, the sculptor, into bondage back there in the 1500’s? Is there something in Greek mythology I’ve been missing?

Then, of course, why are they lactating in such a spectacular fashion, and why are they squeezing their breasts? Obviously to stimulate the flow of milk, but for whom? Are there baby nereids somewhere nearby? Perhaps they are offering sustenance to lucky ship-wrecked sailors. I can’t help but wonder, furthermore, what nereid milk would taste like. Maybe a bit salty or fishy?

It’s interesting, too, to consider what Pope Pious IV was thinking when he commissioned such a weird and wonderful, but frankly erotic sculpture!


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