Mystery surrounding fate of Wrocław’s historic 18th century Neptune statue solved after it is found lying in a BUSH

The location of the statue eluded researchers for years until a team that included Dr Tomasz Sielicki and conservator Joanna Biniek traced it to a palace park in Wielowieś. Tomasz Sielicki

Almost 300 years old, an iconic monument of Neptune that once decorated a fountain in Wrocław has been sensationally discovered in a park and now returned to the city amid calls for its restoration.

Sculpted by Johann Baptista Lemberger, the figure of Neptune was installed on Plac Nowy Targ in 1732. Crowning an octagonal fountain, the monument was mounted on a shell supported by mermaids and tritons and featured dolphin-like creatures at the feet of the god.

The location – and choice of figure – had not been incidental. For two centuries before, it was here that market animals were watered.

Sielicki and Biniek discovered the statue had been moved to Wielowieś. Sieliecki said that to their surprise they found the Neptune “lying in the bushes.”Wroclaw.pl

Later, it also became a popular place of residence for merchants that specialised in the trade of fish such as herring, and it was because of their presence that several tenements overlooking the square found themselves acquiring Scandinavian names such as Helsingoer and Skanoer.

The fountain itself was a work of intricate beauty. Made from sandstone, the project was executed by a stone masonry firm owned by Johann Adam Karinger which had been responsible for, among other things, the marble pulpit in the city’s Cathedral.

It was on Karinger’s behest that Lemberger was recruited alongside Johann Jakob Bauer to create the fountain and its various adornments.

Sculpted by Johann Baptista Lemberger, the figure of Neptune was installed on Wrocław’s Plac Nowy Targ in 1732.fotopolska.eu

Sculpted by Johann Baptista Lemberger, the figure of Neptune was installed on Wrocław’s Plac Nowy Targ in 1732.fotopolska.eu

Yet although it was spectacularly typical of the Baroque flamboyance that marked the age, the fountain proved a little too striking for the tastes of many.

Looking stern but handsome, Neptune was depicted wearing little more than a wreath on his head and a loose robe entwined around his muscle-bound torso – too much for some, the sight of Neptune’s half-naked form scandalised the city who saw him more as a Godless incarnation of sin and depravity.

According to Dr Tomasz Sielicki, one of those who helped bring the statue back to Wrocław, the object became the target of hateful outbursts: “It was regularly vandalised, despite being surrounded by a fence – it became such a problem, that the city authorities hired a watchman to look after it.”

The fountain itself was a work of intricate beauty. Made from sandstone, the project was executed by a stone masonry firm owned by Johann Adam Karinger which had been responsible for, among other things, the marble pulpit in the city’s Cathedral.fotopolska.eu

In particular, it was Neptune’s trident that attracted thieves, specifically the city’s student pranksters who, in later years, would expand their antics to include the theft of the pen held in the hand of the Rynek’s Aleksander Fredro statue, and also the sabre at the side of the naked swordsman standing outside the university.

In this case, though, it wasn’t just Neptune’s trident that was targeted by local rascals, but also his fingers and nose.

As the years inched by, prevailing attitudes to Neptune softened. Possibly buoyed by the fountain’s associations with the drunken japery, it became one of the primary centres of raucous New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Wearing little more than a wreath on his head and a loose robe entwined around his muscle-bound torso, the statue often came under attack from those scandalised by the sight  of Neptune’s half-naked form and who saw it more as a Godless incarnation of sin and depravity.fotopolska.eu

This buffoonery hit a nadir in 1850 when thousands converged on the square, firing pistols, scaling the statue, and ‘insulting’ officers of the law.

Such was the extent of the debauchery that even Gazeta Warszawska saw fit to write about it years later; pleasingly lurid in its description, their report gloried in regaling how one unfortunate policeman was robbed of his hat and coat before being rolled in the snow by the unruly rabble.

Thereafter, the city’s authorities outlawed such gatherings in Plac Nowy Targ as well as the shooting of firearms, a law that to this day still stands in place. 

In 1874, the city decided to replace the statue with a new version (pictured).fotopolska.eu

Despite these new safeguards, the years had taken their toll on Neptune. Having already replaced the form of his trident a few decades prior (the original, said some, looked more akin to a pitchfork used to toss dung), the city went one better in 1874 when it chose to replace the statue altogether.

Designed in a more ‘dynamic’ style, it was sculpted by Albert Rachner and was as popular as the Neptune that had come before – in 1879, a couple of students, Theodor Schube and Juliusz Ressel, made local news after being caught urinating in the fountain following a celebratory dinner.

Unimpressed by their version of events (the duo had claimed they were simply ‘resting’), the judge sentenced them to a stint in solitary confinement, a punishment that would have little bearing on either of their futures – the pair of rogues would later become professors at the university.

The original statue fell into the hands of Karl Muller, a former city councillor who is thought to have first displayed it in his Wrocław manor before ordering its transportation to his estate in Wielowieś in 1889.fotopolska.eu

The statue, however, did not fare so well and sustained heavy damage during the bloody 1945 siege of Festung Breslau – for years, its shattered fragments lay inside the remains of the fountain’s basin before disappearing entirely when Nowy Targ was redeveloped.

When construction of an underground car park was initiated in 2011, parts of it were found buried in the earth and were proudly placed on exhibition.

The location of the original continued to elude researchers until a team that included Dr Tomasz Sielicki and conservator Joanna Biniek traced it to a palace park in Wielowieś.

Having sculpted the new statue, Rachner had planned on donating the old one to the city’s Museum of Antiquities. “But Neptune did not end up there,” says Sielicki, “maybe the curators just didn’t want it.”

Standing in the park until the 1960s, it was then that it was felled by a tree during a violent storm. Lying in pieces ever since, its value and historic importance remained unrealised until Sielicki and Biniek embarked on their quest to find the first Neptune.Wroclaw.pl

Instead, it fell into the hands of Karl Muller, a former city councillor who is thought to have first displayed it in his Wrocław manor before ordering its transportation to his estate in Wielowieś in 1889.

Whether or not Muller acquired it legally or via some underhand dealing remains unclear, but his decision to move it to Wielowieś almost certainly saved it from wartime destruction.

Standing in the park until the 1960s, it was then that it was felled by a tree during a violent storm. Lying in pieces ever since, its value and historic importance remained unrealised until Sielicki and Biniek embarked on their quest to find the first Neptune.

Authenticated by the National Museum in Wrocław, the statue has been transported back to the city where inside the museum’s workshop its condition is undergoing further assessment before a decision is reached regarding its future.Wroclaw.pl

Scouring archived 19th-century newspapers, they learned that it had been shifted to Wielowieś and headed there to investigate further. “To our surprise,” says Sielicki, “we found Neptune still lying in the bushes.”

Authenticated by Barbara Andruszkiewicz and Romauld Nowak of the National Museum in Wrocław, the statue was finally transported back to the city last week thanks, in no small part, to the cooperation of the palace’s current owners.

Now safely sitting inside the museum’s workshop, its condition is undergoing further assessment before a decision is reached regarding its future.