In fact, the little mask can be found in the glorious Villa d’Este, the sixteenth century “garden of marvels” in Tivoli, just outside Rome.
It’s in the Avenue of the Hundred Fountains, where three levels of water gush and spray and spill in a dazzling spectacle. The upper level of the fountains has some fine sculptures of birds and flowers; the lower row has dozens of little animal faces or masks, all spurting forth water into a trough below. There are anthropomorphic lions and rabbits, wolves and monkeys.
As was common in Renaissance gardens, the water feature was designed to have a specific meaning: it represents the relationship between nature and humanity, with the three levels of water a reminder of Tivoli’s three rivers, and the eagles and fleur-de-lys symbolising the gardens’ creators, the Este family. Originally the animal masks were interspersed with carved panels showing scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, but these are now hidden beneath blankets of maidenhair fern. Ironically, it is probably the wild, overgrown feel of the garden today that is one of the main reasons for its popularity.
So one of the animal masks felt a good choice of image to illustrate my blog: it is a detail in an iconic garden, part of a feature that symbolises the balance between art and nature, as well as bearing witness to the changing character of historic gardens.
I’ve also just stumbled on an Italian verse that pleasingly suggests the Hundred Fountains are like a female voice:
Parlan fra le non tocche verzure le Cento Fontane,
Parlan soavi e piane come femminee bocche,
Mentre sui lor fastigi che il sole di porpora veste,
Splendono (oh Gloria d’Este) l’aquile e i fiordiligi.
The Hundred Fountains speak in the midst of that untouched greenery, / they speak gently and sweetly like the mouths of women, / while at the highest point, clothed in purple by the sun, / shine those glories of the Este, the eagle and the fleur-de-lys.