The lobsters, the latrine and the “jewel of the city”
The Fonte Monumental, located in Praça Júlio de Mesquita (formerly Praça Vitória), was designed by sculptor Nicolina Vaz de Assis Pinto do Couto (1874-1941). This was the first monument by a woman to be installed in a public space in São Paulo, at a time when there was little female representation in the artistic sphere. The work was commissioned by the city, in 1913, during urban improvements and reforms carried out by Mayor Antonio Prado (1899-1911), and initially intended for Praça da Sé.
The construction and installation process took more than ten years and was marked by delays and tensions. Alleged disagreements between the sculptor and the Italian company Poli Eugenio de Carrara, hired to build the monument, and the consequences of the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) in Europe, are some of the facts attributed to the delay of the work. Tension regarding the lengthy execution process is also evidenced by the city demanding its completion, as early as 1923, under the penalty of the artist having to return the money already spent on the work. In 1927, fourteen years after its commission, the fountain was inaugurated. Its inauguration took place in the same year that Praça Victoria was renamed as Júlio de Mesquita, in honor of the founder of the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo.
The Fonte Monumental is made up of two overlapping marble basins and, in the middle of the two pieces, is a fisherman surrounded by four mermaids carved in the same material. The upper basin is adorned with marble flowers and bronze figureheads, and the sides of the lower basin are adorned with marble shells, interspersed with bronze lobsters by the sculptor Roque de Mingo (1890-1972). Lobsters are an important part of the affective memory associated with the fountain, which is popularly known as the ‘Lobster Fountain.’ These came to be the object of inspiration for the song by Adoniran Barbosa and Tasso Rangel, Roubaram a lagosta [The Lobster was Stolen], from 1970, which mentions the thefts related to the fountain. In the 2000s, the problem with the lobster theft led to them being replaced by resin replicas, and the bronze originals being moved to city hall.
On social networks, blogs and in the mainstream media, the Fonte Monumental is often cited for its beauty. At the same time, most publications tend to have an indignant tone about the monument’s state of conservation because of the successive acts of vandalism the work has undergone. For example, in the suggestive title of the article about the monument on the portal São Paulo Antiga: ‘From Monument to Latrine.’ Associated with these criticisms, there is also the frequent demand for the public authorities to do something for the ‘recovery’ of the fountain. The recognition of the conservation problem and the various pressures led the city to begin its restoration plans in 2010, with its completion in 2013. The monument restoration project was carried out by Estúdio Sarasá and the work was carried out by the company Concrejato, totaling an expense of R$ 515,235.92 by the city, according to a 2012 publication by the Municipal Department of Culture. Tempered glass panels were installed in an attempt to protect the fountain from vandalism and theft. It was not the first time that the monument received some kind of ‘protective’ barrier, in the 1980s a fence was installed around it. The glass panels installed during the last restoration became the target of public spending and conservation. In 2021, a resource from the Municipal Fund for Urban Development (FUNDURB) of R$ 20,000.00 was approved for the maintenance of the fountain.
The presence of glass panels makes it possible to question the efficiency of installing barriers to contain the problem of vandalism. At the same time, it allows for reflecting on how much this type of element can contribute to a monument’s detachment from its urban context. According to the statement of the director of the Department of Historical Heritage (DPH), for the newspaper o Estado de São Paulo in 2013: ‘This protective fence is not one that excludes, but one that sets a distance for contemplation (…) The fountain will be protected like a city jewel, like a sculpture in a museum.’
The Fonte Monumental, commissioned to beautify São Paulo in the context of urban improvements during the city’s ‘belle époque,’ brings to light the social problems of the city center, safeguarding behind often cracked glass walls, the idea of a European São Paulo that starkly contrasts with its reality marked by inequality.
- Cidade de São Paulo. Ata de abertura Contratação de Projeto de Restauração da Fonte Monumental implantada na Praça Júlio Mesquita, República, São Paulo-SP.
- Cidade de São Paulo/Secretaria Municipal de Cultura. Em cartaz. São Paulo: Prefeitura de São Paulo, 2012.
- Cidade de São Paulo. Lei nº 1.742 de 18 de setembro de 1913. São Paulo, 2013.
- Cidade de São Paulo. Parecer nº. 23 das comissões reunidas de justiça e finanças, 1924.
- Cidade de São Paulo. Parecer nº. 72 das comissões reunidas de justiça e finanças, 1924.
- Cidade de São Paulo. Resolução Secretaria Municipal De Urbanismo E Licenciamento – SMUL/FUNDURB Nº 1 de 26 de Fevereiro de 2021.
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- SIMIONI, A. P. C. Profissão Artista: Pintoras e Escultoras Acadêmicas Brasileiras. 1ª edição ed. São Paulo, SP, Brasil: Edusp, 2019.
- Edison Veiga/Agência Estadão. Protegida por vidro, fonte será reaberta no centro de SP. Jornal O Estado de São Paulo, 2013.