One of the most beautiful jewels of Florence is precisely the fountain of Biancone by Ammannati, with its seventy mouths that allow water to flow in cross jets and waterfalls. The colossal marble figure of the sea god, surrounded by three young Tritons, stands on a carriage drawn by four sea horses. The sea gods modeled in elongated and slender forms are the deities of Greek mythology: Thetis and Doris and their respective spouses Oceanus and Nereus emerge as if they were the crests of waves; at their feet are nymphs, satyrs and fauns, bronze sculptures made by Giambologna. The satyrs are agile in their movement and perfect in their anatomy, typical of the Mannerist style. The vague resemblance of Neptune with Cosimo I de’ Medici justifies the interest of the presence of this fountain which symbolizes the prestige and glory of the duchy and its maritime aspirations.
To sum up, the fountain was built thanks to a competition organized by Cosimo I de’ Medici with the participation of many artists, including Ammannati, Benvenuto Cellini, Giambologna and so on. As we said, the latter won it and started working right away by establishing his workshop exactly in the Loggia della Signoria. The theme, of course, recalls a historical fact that reminds the deeds of the Grand Duke: the taking of Pisa and the project for the port of Livorno (Leghorn).
The fountain was unveiled for the public on the occasion of the wedding of Francesco I de’ Medici, son of Cosimo I, with the Archduchess Joanna of Austria, daughter of the late Emperor Ferdinand I of Habsburg, who died in 1564. The marriage was celebrated in San Lorenzo in 1565, and then the newly-married couple went to their own residence at the Palazzo Vecchio, renovated and frescoed once again for the occasion.
It was the era of the Renaissance, when many artists were designing large fountains to decorate the city, despite the shortage of water that afflicted the city bathed by a low-average river flow for centuries. There were two types of fountains: those intended for the private and noble use and the public ones. Their history is very ancient. Fountains derived from practical wells and medieval washhouses that reached the highest results of refinement and art during the Medici Grand Duchy when they were used to celebrate solemn occasions, such as fountains throwing wine instead of water.
The fountain of Ammannati also served for the public, for the "common people", allowing them to take advantage of the water completely for free. Here they washed clothes or used it as drinking troughs for animals. Since 1592 the fountain was protected by a railing to save it from the frequent abuse by the Florentines who did not understand the dignified solemnity of this work, so some of them were washing in their quills and inkwells.
They named Neptune the Biancone (White One) and lamented the fine Carrara marble with the phrase: Ammannato, Ammannato, you’ve ruined so much marble!
In 1720 an order prohibiting the abuse was issued and the Lords Otto di Guardia (literally Eight on Guard) and Balia put a marble plaque on the rustication of the Palazzo Vecchio, behind the fountain and forbade them to wash the clothes or other things like that there.
Now back to the history of the sculptural group - as the first argument I would approach a case of theft of a satyr made by the Flemish artist, Giambologna (his real name is Jean de Boulogne), who mostly worked at the Medici court. The bronze work was located at the corner of the Old Palace; now we can see a copy made by Francesco Pozzi in 1831 in Milan to replace the stolen one. The stealing happened during the last day of the carnival the previous year. The theft had taken place just a few steps from the guardhouse of the Palazzo Vecchio, and nothing was ever found out about it.
We should console ourselves, like Luciano Artusi says, because Dante sent thieves to hell by giving them the punishment to transform themselves continually from men to snakes and from serpents back to men.