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The infamous story of the Sun Fountain in Nice, France

sun fountain nice france

When a powerful Greek deity arrives in Nice, he is ridiculed, humiliated, and banned from the city says Margo Lestz reporting from the South of France…

The Sun Fountain in Nice

If you visit Place Massena, in the very heart of Nice, you will see a large fountain called the “Fontaine du Soleil”, the Sun Fountain. There are 5 bronze sculptures in the basin and in the centre stands an impressive marble Apollo.  He is 7 meters (23 feet) tall and weighs in at 7 tons.  He is definitely the king of the square and you would think this giant would be admired and respected… but not by the Niçois.

When the Sun Fountain was unveiled in 1956, the people of Nice were not impressed.  Apollo’s “job” according to mythology is to carry the sun across the sky every day and he usually does this in his chariot pulled by 4 horses.  But this Apollo didn’t have a chariot and the 4 horses were on top of his head, forming a sort of crown.

sun fountain nice franceThe spectators claimed that he looked like an advertisement for the most popular automobile at the time, the Renault 4CV, known as the “4 horsepower”.  So the magnificent Greek deity was saddled with the nickname – “the 4 horsepower statue”.

But there was a bigger problem – and it was located further down the nude sculpture.  Some conservative inhabitants of the city thought that his “manhood” was too large, while some older ladies thought it was too small, and college students took to decorating it as a prank.

In an effort to calm the controversy, the sculptor took a hammer and chisel to his creation to reduce the size of the offending member. This operation earned Apollo a new nickname. Now, instead of being called “4 horsepower”, he was called “the virgin”.

His embarrassing surgery proved to be insufficient; it wasn’t enough to satisfy the Catholic women’s “League of Feminine Virtue”. He was still nude as were the bronze statues. The virtuous women gained enough support that in the 1970s the fountain with its naked sculptures was dismantled.

sun fountain nice france

Banished from Nice

The bronze figures were stored at the water treatment plant and Apollo went to stand guard over the Mayor’s office for a short time before he was moved out of the city centre to stand near a sport stadium where he was less likely to offend the ladies. He stayed there for about 30 years.

In 2007 a reporter researching water treatment spotted the bronze statues at the purification station.  He wrote an article about the fate of the Sun Fountain and the public took an interest in it.  The fountain was reinstalled with the bronze sculptures in the basin – but the giant Apollo was still not allowed to return.

The sun god reappears

Finally in 2011, Apollo was reinstated to his rightful position. Today he stands at the centre of the fountain in Place Massena proudly surveying the plaza and all of the passer-by. The Sun Fountain is once again complete and as the artist intended. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for Apollo.  But he is quite an impressive sight, even if there is a little less of him than there used to be.

A bit more info:

  • Alfred Janniot is the sculptor who created the Sun Fountain. He also did some bas reliefs on the War Monument in Nice.
  • The 5 bronze sculptures in the fountain represent: Earth, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, and Venus.
  • Janniot had finished the bronzes but had not started on Apollo when the Second World War broke out.  They were buried in a garden to keep them from being destroyed during the war and then dug up afterward.
  • Apollo was at the stadium Charles Ehrmann for about 30 years.

Margo LestzMargo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog as thecuriousrambler. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.

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