Malaga Cove’s Neptune’s fountain offers a bite-sized Italy in California

All of Palos Verdes’ rolling hills and bluff-topped seascapes look like Europe, but Malaga Cove Plaza particularly so. There’s a gray quietness to this corner of the city every time I visit. It feels empty, like a less-traveled part of a tourist destination where you can wander insouciant. If I had to put a country to the face-ades, it would be, undoubtedly, Italy. The arched brick loggias, terra cotta tile roofs, magnificent columns. And of course, the star of the attraction — Neptune himself. 

You wouldn’t expect to find the god of the sea in a humble shopping mall in Southern California, but there he is, reigning supreme over his kingdom of cherubs, mermaids, dolphins and fish. The bearded figure is imposing, his torso twisted, his shoulder cocked, his eyebrows furrowed. He is gazing toward the distant ocean, his one hand is clutching a trident behind his back, the other outstretched, calming the waters ahead. And it seems as though he’s been towering over the city and keeping watch forever.

However, the Carrara marble statue, which tops the fountain and anchors the plaza (or should I say piazza?), is a fake — a replica of a replica. The original version is in bronze and currently stands in Piazza del Nettuno in Bologna, Italy. It was the first major commission for Flemish artist Giambologna, who created Neptune’s sculpture to sit atop a fountain base by architect Tommaso Laureti in 1563. I remember seeing Giambologna’s other work in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. Incredible, kinetic emotion. You can practically see the movement, imagine the sculpture animating. 

Giambologna’s Neptune is an incredible masterpiece, which is why there are a few replicas scattered around the world that honor the work. There’s one in Brussels and another in Batumi, a seaside town in my birth country of Georgia. And there’s the third, which ultimately ended up right here in Southern California. Arnoldo Adolfo di Segni, an art collector based in Rome, housed the smaller, one-third-sized replica of the statue, which he brought to the United States and offered up to the city of Palos Verdes in the 1920s. 

It seemed like a perfect match. The city, at the time, was looking for ways to beautify the plaza, to transform it into an eye-catching backdrop where folks could gather, eat, drink and stretch out the afternoon. “A new marble basin was constructed in Bologna and shipped stateside, and the new installation was dedicated with great fanfare on Feb. 16, 1930, nine years before the city of Palos Verdes Estates officially incorporated,” according to the Daily Breeze. 

Since then, however, Neptune’s endured his fair share of trials. Over the years, as is the risk of public art, the statue was vandalized with colored spray paint. There were chips and cracks and stripes of grime and dirt from being exposed to the elements and the spontaneous actions of disrespectful visitors. Finally, after years of mistreatment, Neptune’s metal support gave out, and the weakened god of sea collapsed to the ground in 1968. And a new Neptune, created by Italian sculptor Andrea Raggi with funds raised by the community, replaced the fallen king in 1969.

This new god is smaller, and there’s the added fig leaf — a little piece of foliage shielding his private parts from the world. In reading more about the history of the statue, I realized that the issue of his indecency divided the city’s residents into folks who wanted him covered up and others who didn’t. I’m not quite sure which camp I fall into. Fig leaf or not, original or replica, the statue is something I’ve been drawn to since I first visited Palos Verdes a few years ago. I’ve always had a huge enthusiasm and love for public art — or in other words, beautiful pieces of work that are accessible to anyone, at any time, at no cost at all.

That’s what I loved most about being in Italy, where you’d turn the corner and find the work of Bernini, walk into an unassuming neighborhood church and find a Caravaggio. No piazza is too small or obscure for a masterpiece. Art is for all; it’s everywhere. Standing in front of the fountain brings that need into clear focus. Of course, Neptune traveled a long way to be where he is now and fought a big fight to stay in this quiet nook of the city. But if Neptune — a deity of the sea, controller of winds and summoner of earthquakes — can’t weather a storm, who really can?

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(Unfortunately, the pants are sold out, but I’ve replaced the item with a similar style from the same brand.)

LA-based journalist and blogger sharing her deep-seated, honest love for fashion and travel. Check in every week for new stories of exploration and roundups!

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