The painting under discussion here was unquestionably conceived in the course of his trip to Italy and is the sole surviving evidence of his work as a landscape artist in Rome, together with a view of the remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum (oil on canvas, 42.5 x 63.5 cm; signed and dated 1898) which recently appeared on the antique market (fig. 1). Our picture, which can be dated to some time between 1897 and 1898, depicts one of the sites of choice for "tourists" in the second half of the 19th century: the circular fountain in the centre of the Passeggiata del Pincio, or Pincio Promenade, with the belvedere overlooking the city and St. Peter's in the background.
At the time the picture was painted, the recent art of photography had already taken possession of the "clichéd" sites of Rome, one of which was unquestionably this view because we have numerous depictions of it, in particular in photographs taken by James Anderson, Robert Turnbull Macpherson and Pompeo Molins between 1860 and 1870 (figs. 2-3). In fact it is possibly as a result of that particular development that Holsøe felt free to characterise his depiction by building certain imaginary elments into it. A marble group portraying Moses Rescued from the Waters of the Nile carved by Count Ascanio di Brazzà Savorgnan (1793–1877) had been placed in the centre of the circular basin in 1868, the fountain itself having been built as part of Luigi Poletti's renovation of the Promenade from 1851 to 1860 following the disorders of 1849. Despite the accuracy with which Holsøe has depicted the trees – the result of a project designed and executed by Francesco Vachez between 1861 and 1866 to renovate the entire Pincio park in accordance with the dictates of the fashionable "gardenesque" style – and the details of the park furnishings, such as the dolium protruding from among the palm trees on the right (similar to the one that can be seen on the edge of the water-clock lake at the Pincio today, fig. 4), he has chosen to replace the Moses with a female statue, seen here from behind. The naked figure harks back to the sea goddess type, her hair held in place by a ribbon "in the ancient style". She is seated on the upright tails of two dolphins and gazes down into the water below. These features are reminiscent of a nymph or a nereid, in particular of the nereid Galatea who is almost always shown in triumph on sea animals or in a chariot drawn by such animals. It is in all likelihood a modern work, possibly something that the artist had seen before and superimposed on the real view of the fountain, because this iconography has no precedent among Classical examples, echoing, rather, a subject fashionable with French late Baroque sculptors: one has but to think of Jean-Baptiste Tuby's Galatée (1667–75) in the "Bosquet des Dômes" in the park of Versailles, or even more cogently of Robert Le Lorrain's Galatée (1701, fig. 5), now in the National Gallery in Washington, which shares with the figure in our painting both its seated position and the posture of the arms, one of which rests on the tail of one of the dolphins. The type of Galatea seated on dolphin tails may have been revisited by academic sculptors in the 19th century as a suitable subject for fountains and nymphaea (one such, Jean Coulon's Triumph of Galatea, dated 1889, graces the Parc des Grandes-Promenades in Wassy), and in this context Holsøe may have freely revisited such works, which he may have come across in prints or publications. We can probably identify the reason for his resorting to this substitution of a real element with an imaginary creation in a view such as this, which is basically faithful to reality, in the fact that a painter from the world of the northern European bourgeoisie is unlikely to have seen any justification for placing a religious work in a public park devoted to the celebration of the patriotic and popular values proper to Italy's new secular administration – and in a context, moreover, that was still very much imbued with the original Neo-Classical spirit of Valadier, a spirit with which the sentimental purism of Brazzà's sculpture did not sit easily.