Personification of the River Nile

Artist: Giovanni Volpato (Italian, Bassano 1732–1803 Rome)

Date: ca. 1785–95

Culture: Italian, Rome

Medium: Hard-paste biscuit porcelain

Dimensions: Overall (confirmed): 11 7/8 × 23 1/8 × 11 5/8 in. (30.2 × 58.7 × 29.5 cm)

Classification: Ceramics-Porcelain

Credit Line: Purchase, The Isak and Rose Weinman Foundation Inc. Gift, 2001

Accession Number: 2001.456


In 1785, Giovanni Volpato, a notable Italian engraver, archaeologist, and dealer in antiquities, founded a porcelain factory on the Via Pudenziana, Rome, specializing in biscuit porcelain figures after famous antique statues, urns, etc. Biscuit porcelain (unglazed and white, with a texture similar to marble) was an ideal medium for the reproduction of ancient sculptures in reduced form. Such statuettes were popular among Grand Tourists as easily transportable souvenirs.

Volpato's allegorical figure group of the river god, the Nile, consists of a male nude reposing against a sphinx and cornucopia surrounded by sixteen infants who play with an alligator and a mongoose. The River Nile may be the only surviving biscuit reduction of the colossal ancient Roman marble sculpture of the Nile, housed in the Braccio Nuovo at the Vatican.

The Vatican Nile, itself a copy of a Hellenistic statue, probably Alexandrian in origin, was discovered in the early sixteenth century in excavations of the shrine to Isis and Serapis near Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. Pliny the Elder mentions a similar sculpture in ancient Egypt in his Natural History (36.58), explaining that the babies surrounding the river god represent the ideal height of sixteen cubits to which the Nile river rose annually, thereby assuring abundant fertility in Lower Egypt. The Nile's waters, carved as wavy lines and embellished with ibisis, crocodiles, and hippopotami on the Vatican group, are more effectively replaced with wet drapery on the Volpato version due to its smaller size. The Neoclassical flavor of such drapery prefigures its later use by sculptors such as Canova.

Given its exceptional size (for porcelain) and labor-intensive detail, The River Nile may be the only example of this model that the Volpato manufactory produced.