Old Father Nile Vatican Museums Vatican City

OLD FATHER NILE,” VATICAN, ROME — Beneath the arches of the Vatican reclines in Oriental calm this mighty statue of antiquity, portraying the Egyptian river-god. It was discovered about 300 years ago buried in that wondrous soil of old Rome, within which no doubt lurk even now so many other masterpieces of the past. The work is full of truthful and suggestive symbols. The figure leans against a Sphinx just as the river in reality flows calmly on before that monster’s steady gaze. One hand maintains a cornucopia, a most appropriate emblem of the fertility caused by the river’s annual overflow. Over its huge limbs and shoulders play sixteen pygmies representing the sixteen cubits of the yearly rise of the Nile. One of these figures stands erect in the cornucopia with folded arms, as if he symbolized the last or sixteenth cubit, and stood in the midst of agricultural abundance complacently surveying the result. It is not strange that the ancients deified the Nile, for without the alluvial deposit of its fruitful overflow the whole country would be a desert. Egypt is really the gift of Old Father Nile. Just as far as its beneficent waters advance in their annual uprising, just so far extends fertility. Beyond that line is the pitiless desert, between which and the Nile a ceaseless conflict has waged since history began. Ordinarily the inundations of a stream occasion calamity, but those of the mysterious Nile are hailed with thanksgiving and its advancing waves are looked upon as prophesies of peace and plenty. (from John L. Stoddard, Glimpses of the world; a portfolio of photographs of the marvelous works of God and man – 1892)

This colossal statue of the Nile was found in 1513 in Campo Marzio where it was probably part of the decoration of the Iseo Campense, dedicated to the Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis. The river is shown as a venerable old man stretched out on his side with a cornucopia of fruit in his left arm and ears of wheat in his right hand. Egypt is represented by the presence of a sphinx, on which the figure of the Nile supports himself, and by some exotic animals. The scene is enlivened by sixteen children who allude to the sixteen cubits of water by which the Nile rises for its annual flood. The base of the statue is decorated with a Nile landscape with pygmies, hippopotamus and crocodiles. The sculpture was probably inspired by a monumental statue of the Nile in black basalt, a masterpiece of Alexandrian Greek sculpture, which Pliny the Elder described as being within the Forum of Peace. (from Vatican Museums website)


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