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River gods: personifying nature in sixteenth-century Italy

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Abstract

This essay traces the Renaissance appropriation of the ancient river god type from the discovery of several ancient statues and their display in the Vatican Statue Court to the first example of their use in a garden. Through an association with water, the natural element that the figure personified, the river god came to express the Renaissance understanding of nature as fertile and effortlessly bountiful, a male counterpart to female images of abundance. This is demonstrated in both installations of ancient statues and modern recreations in print (The Judgement of Paris, a collaboration of Raphael and Marcantonio Raimondi), paint (Giulio Romano in the Palazzo del Te), and sculpture (Niccolò Tribolo's statues). The Medici Pope Leo X was the first to employ river gods to denote political entities in public festivities, and in the borders of the tapestries that Raphael designed for him, personifications of cities, rivers, and mountains identify geographical regions and anticipate their later use in gardens. Tribolo's lost river gods at the Villa Medici at Castello, reflected in title pages to works by Cosimo Bartoli, translated the river god type into a Florentine aesthetic, influenced by Michelangelo's body torsions, to signify through their form both the specific place and the flourishing of nature there.
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Keywords: Florence; Medici; Raphael; nature; river god

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Cornell University

Publication date: 2011-02-01

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