Other, more conventional uses of the River God icon in Pannini

One example of more conventional River Gods in Pannini is in the following picture, which features the usual citizens who have come from the city to relax among the ruins and tell stories. Their casual poses contrast with the heroic fragments that surround them; their leisure to monuments to ambition. Scroll to right to see full picture.

Off to the right, at the very edge of the canvas, also lolling on a chunk of fallen ruin, lies a nude river god complete with urn and the classic semi-recumbant pose with one arm on his trusty urn (see detail below, to right):

It is hard to tell whether he's flesh and blood or marble, so close is his pose to that of the citizens who dominate the center of the scene. There is one difference with Poussin, admittedly. Here the icononographic figure has no iconographic role to play, even though he is placed in his usual position for commentary and contrast. He provides neither. He signifies no river nor any classical story; there is no central narrative to comment on, only the ordinariness of everyday life and a leisurely afternoon with friends climbing rubble. The pose remains but the meanings have begun emptying out, even as water spills from an urn.

The change that occurs in Pannini's first picture (the one at the top of his page), however, is even more radical: the river god is no longer marginal, a commentary on the main action, but has now become the focus of attention. Yet the increase in prominence for the river god icon is also associated with an increase in mystery, in uncertainty as to his meaning. It is as if the shift in meaning, the loss or decentering of meaning, has been noticed---and is now the center of attention.


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