“Dolphins are not gentle or psychic”*

*Miriam Goldstein, marine biologist and science communicator, writing in “Slate” on May 13 2009.

From the website of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association:

“Leicester Square was first laid out in 1670, but was redesigned in 1874 by Albert Gottheimer and his architect Sir James Knowles. An unscrupulous speculator, Gottheimer was given the title of Baron by the King of Italy and was known as Baron Grant. Plans for the original ornamental fountain and gardens were described by Knowles, but the addition of the statue of Shakespeare (see image) was not revealed until a few days before the Square opened. The monument and fountain were designed by Knowles. The statue is by the sculptor Giovanni Fontana, who had worked for Grant and Knowles at Kensington House (demolished), and is a variant replica of that designed by William Chambers and carved by Peter Scheemakers in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey…

Dr. Philip Ward-Jackson in his excellent survey, Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster, vol.1, in the Public Sculpture of Britain series reveals Knowles’ ‘pretentious’ intentions for the original fountain which he found in contemporary accounts: ‘…The dolphins playing close below him imply his Arion-like attraction for the ‘sane and simple’ animal part of us…’. Grant’s paper, The Echo, reported that the dolphins emitted water through blow-holes in their heads rather than through their mouths and by doing this were following ‘nature and the example of the ancients.’…”

L. A. Miller writes at cyclopaedia.org:

“…I found on the internet a picture of a supposed Ancient Greek Dolphin Sculpture shown above with the caption that accompanies the photo”

The Greeks loved dolphins and believed they brought good luck and good health.

Greek sailors often sported dolphin tattoos believing it would protect them from sharks.

If we consider that the Italians of the Renaissance were keen to revive Greek thinking and philosophy, and this is where the term *humanist* has its roots – then we can see a relationship with the dolphin motif as something lucky, the diving dolphins motif as a sort of talisman when linked to the bud, the archetype of organic life, of birth, death and rebirth, just as the acanthus leaf also symbolized.

Here then is the meaning of this diving dolphins motif, a talisman that ensures luck and good health, fulfillment in life and its promise of eternal regeneration.”


*Britannica: “The word umanisti derives from the studia humanitatis, a course of Classical studies that, in the early 15th century, consisted of grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy…Their name was itself based on the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero’s concept of humanitas, an educational and political ideal that was the intellectual basis of the entire movement...”*

Donna Zuckerburg, editor-in-chief of Eidolon, wrote on 16 June 2016:

“…The ancient Greeks loved dolphins. They called them philomousoi, music lovers, because they thought that dolphins danced when they heard music. The poet Bacchylides tells a story about Theseus jumping into the ocean as part of a demigod pissing contest with Minos, only to reappear riding a dolphin. Taras, the mythological founder of the Greek city Tarentum on the south coast of Italy, rode there on a dolphin; the city adopted the image of a man riding a dolphin on their coinage. The Homeric Hymn to Dionysus recounts the story of how Dionysus was taken captive by a ship of pirates and turned them all into dolphins, and Herodotus tells a similar story about how the poet Arion was captured by pirates, jumped overboard, and was rescued by a dolphin and carried to shore…

Unlike the Roman depictions of dolphins, most ancient Greek pictures of dolphins a) aren’t horrifying and b) appear to have been painted by people with at least a slight awareness of what a dolphin actually looked like. Greek dolphins run the gamut from childishly drawn to friendly-looking to moderately dissatisfied, but they never look like they want to eat your soul…

Literary evidence from ancient Rome paints a similar picture of dolphins to the one we find in Greece. Pliny the Elder believed that dolphins loved music, and he tells several stories of close bonds of friendship between dolphins and humans. (He also says that they have spines on their backs and mouths in the middle of their stomachs, so he may not be a credible source.) His nephew, Pliny the Younger, in a move familiar to everyone who has ever tried to sound clever at a party, tells the exact same story about a dolphin that formed a close attachment with a boy in North Africa while pretending it was his story to begin with.

Mosaic evidence suggests that the Plinii may have been outliers in their warmth toward cetaceans…

Later painters in western Europe — who I guess had never actually seen a dolphin with their own eyes? — more or less took the Roman depictions of dolphins as their models. Later European dolphins are even toothier and hairier (literally, not figuratively) than their predecessors…

Apparently all we had to do to find some sense about dolphins was cross the Atlantic.

In a diary he wrote during a sea voyage in 1726, 20-year-old (Benjamin) Franklin shares some thoughts about dolphins:

This morning the wind changed; a little fair. We caught a couple of dolphins,…

Every one takes notice of that vulgar error of the painters, who always represent this fish monstrously crooked and deformed, when it is, in reality, as beautiful and well-shaped a fish as any that swims. I cannot think what could be the original of this chimera of theirs, (since there is not a creature in nature that in the least resembles their dolphin) unless it proceeded at first from a false imitation of a fish in the posture of leaping, which they have since improved into a crooked monster, with a head and eyes like a bull, a hog’s snout, and a tail like a blown tulip…

(BRUNILDE SISMONDO RIDGWAY, (born 1929 in Chieti) is an Italian archaeologist and specialist in ancient Greek sculpture. She wrote in Archaeology 23 (1970): “We do not know who was the first artist to conceive of the dolphin as a suitable motif for statuary support, but it certainly was a brilliant idea and must have originated some time around the middle of the second century B.C. A marble statue, as contrasted with a bronze, needs a certain strengthening at key points to prevent breakage. Roman copyists were always hard put, when converting a metal original into a cheaper marble version, to find a suitable but un­obtrusive way of supporting the ankles of their figures. The same problem faced artists who conceived their works directly in stone and only seldom was a solu­tion found which managed to fuse the support into the composition. The traditional strut was a tree trunk, often irreconcilable with the subject. A dolphin up­right, possibly with a rider, had the same stabilizing influence of a tree trunk but was more compatible with many representations. The Poseidon of Melos, for example, an original work of the late second cen­tury B.C. was given a dolphin support and certainly this became standard practice in the case of Aphrodite: both deities had reasonable connections with the sea. The Medici Venus is only a Roman replica, but the Aphrodite Landolina in Syracuse is an original of the late second century B.C. and other original examples of Aphrodite and the dolphin are known. Perhaps the cleverest use of a dolphin as a statue support is to be found in connection with a Roman emperor: the Augustus from Prima Porta is flanked by an Eros riding a dolphin. The head of the child is a Julio­-Claudian portrait, while the obvious connection of the dolphin with Aphrodite stresses the descent of the Julian family from the goddess through Aeneas.

In a way, this idea became so popular as a propaganda motif, that the Eros on a dolphin can almost be considered a badge of Augustan times. The motif is ubiquitous: on lamps, table supports and other similar objects. In later times, dolphins with or without riders continued to be associated with supports in general, to the point that we find them incongruously even among the leaves of Corinthian capitals or as arm rests for chairs! Though such excesses seem illogical, the general principle is correct and based on accurate observation. These animals will support a sick or newly-born dolphin above water level, since periodic immission of air is essential for the life of this aquatic mammal. A natural instinct has therefore developed which spurs dolphins to bounce and support any object.”)

…none of that explains why the Romans and later Europeans liked to give them hog snouts and tulip tails…I like to think that someone in the early history of Rome suffered a Jaws-style dolphin attack and the horror became etched into their cultural consciousness, but that’s just a guess. I don’t really know how they became such terrifying monsters.

Cheryl Strayed once wrote that “the invisible, unwritten last line of every essay should be: and nothing was ever the same again.” That’s a little ambitious for an article that’s little more than a string of increasingly horrifying pictures, but you’ll probably never look at Lisa Frank’s happy technicolor dolphins the same way again.”


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