La Fontaine Médicis in the Luxembourg Gardens, a world away from the bustle of the Latin Quarter on Rue de Médicis

Medici Fountain

The fountain that we see today evolved in stages. It was originally built in the 1630's at the behest of Marie de Medicis, to remind her of her childhood walks in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. It was modelled after the grotto or cave of Bountalenti in the Boboli. This is the only one of the queen's original Luxembourg Garden decorations to survive to the present day, but it was a close call. In 1862, it was moved about thirty meters closer to the Luxembourg Palace to accomodate the widening of the Rue de Médicis, a less drastic street expansion than Haussmann wanted, but it still took a hefty slice out of the gardens. The plane trees surrounding the fountain were planted in 1840 and contrary to the normal French fashion, are not severely pruned, but allowed to leaf out and cast delightful shade. The statue group in the center, Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea, by Ottin (1861), was obviously not originally part of the fountain but was added at the time of the relocation. Like most of the Luxembourg statuary, it carries a heavy allegorical load but it is more captivating than many. As recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Galatea was a Nereid (this is not the Galatea who was the sculpture/wife of Pygmalion) and Acis was a handsome son of Faunus and a sea nymph. Polyphemus was one of the Cyclops and a son of Poseidon, and later blinded by Odysseus (for which Polyphemus called on Poseidon to extract vengeance on Odysseus, propelling the latter into ten years of wandering in his attempt to get home). Polyphemus was crazy for Galatea and paid some belated attention to personal hygeine, cutting his beard with a scythe and combing his hair with a rake. But he discovered Acis and Galatea in the clinch and in his fury, told them they were having their last tryst. Galatea jumped into the sea to escape and Acis tried to run for it, but Polyphemus flung a huge rock at him and crushed him to death. The flow of Acis' blood was the source of the river that bears his name. In the sculpture, the lovers look blissful but their bliss is not going to last. It was no use telling Polyphemus that there were (49) other Nereids in the sea. The lovers are executed in beautiful while marble, Polyphemus in dark weathered bronze.

Recently I saw the beautiful and moving film Iris about the life (and death, from Alzheimer's) of the British novelist Iris Murdoch. This prompted me to reread Under the Net, her first novel (the book that Iris' younger self, portrayed by Kate Winslett, is working on in the movie). This funny, fast-paced book is set mostly in London, partly in Paris. Murdoch chose a male first person narrator, Jake Donahughe (a somewhat daring choice for a first novelist, not perfectly realized but not bad either) and a silent sidekick named Finn who seems to be on loan from some early book by Beckett. Jake ekes out a living by translating the books of a second rate French novelist who suddenly surprises everyone by writing a book that wins the prestigious Goncourt prize. Under the Net has some implausible plot elements but also some insights about the turnings of chance and coincidence, the endings and beginnings of romantic relationships, the ways in which people overlook the more or less obvious for long periods of time and then have to go back and re-think the past. The first time I read this book was before my first trip to Paris and what was said about it meant little to me then; by the time I first saw the fontaine des Médicis, I had long forgotten that it appears in Under the Net. (A closeup of the lovers' faces appears on the cover of the Penguin paperback edition that I have.) So 25 years later, I finally have it all figured out ... in the Paris scenes, Jake has traveled to Paris in desperate hopes of finding an old flame, Anna Quentin, whose exact whereabouts are unknown. He stops at the fountain because it was a place they often visited together, but she is not there. Eventually he sees her from a distance at a Bastille Day fireworks show on the Seine, but he never succeeds in catching up with her in the crowds of revelers. [There is a really remarkable scene of Juliette Binoche water skiing on the Seine during the Bastille Day fireworks in the film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, released in America as The Lovers on the Bridge.] However it is apparent to the reader before it is to Jake that Anna has slipped away some time ago, and that both his life and hers are taking new, somewhat unexpected, but successful turns. But as is often the case in real life, change for Jake is experienced first as loss.

From Under the Net:

"Arriving in Paris always causes me pain, even when I have been away for only a short while. It is a city which I never fail to approach with expectation and leave with disappointment. There is a question which only I can ask and which only Paris can answer; but this question is something which I have never yet been able to formulate. Certain things indeed I have learnt here: for instance, that my happiness has a sad face, so sad that for years I took it for my unhappiness and drove it away. But Paris remains for me still an unresolved harmony. It is the only city which I can personify. London I know too well, and the others I do not love enough. Paris I encounter, but as one encounters a loved one, in the end and dumbly, and can scarcely speak a word." [Penguin paperback edition, p. 168]

Medici Fountain (detail)

"I went straight to the fontaine des Médicis. There was nobody there; but the spirit of the place held me at once and I could not go. When I had been in Paris with Anna long ago we had used to come here every day; and now when I had stood in silence for a moment I could not but believe that if I waited she must come. There is something compelling about the sound of a fountain in a deserted place. It murmurs about what things do when no one watches them. It is the hearing of an unheard sound. A gentle refutation of Berkeley. The pied plane trees enclosed the place. I approached slowly. Today there was hardly a trickle down the green steps and the tall grotto swayed only slightly in the water on which a few leaves floated lotus-like. On the steps fantail pigeons waded in to drink deeply. Above them the lovers lay immobile, she in a pose of abandoned shyness exposing an exquisite body, while he cups her head in a gesture which is too concerned to be called sensual. So they lie, petrified into stillness by the one-eyed gaze of huge rain-marked, weather-stained, pigeon-spattered, dark-green Polyphemus, who leans over the rock from above and sees them. I stood there for a long time, leaning against a marble urn and meditating upon the curve of her thigh. How her right leg is drawn under her, and her naked left leg outstretched in that pure undulation which can lift contemplation and desire almost together to the highest point of awareness, the curve of a reclining woman's thigh. There she was, braced and yet relaxed, superbly naked and smiling faintly with closed eyes. I waited a long time, but Anna did not come." [pp. 185-6]

Jake's visit was in July, this picture was taken in May, but I think the scene was very similar. I have to confess that I paid very little attention to the statues of the two lovers when I took this picture, and I want to go back soon for a closer look.

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