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When the sea gods wept

Damage control: The tritons after they were repaired and the water ducts routed through a central aluminium pipe. Photo: Times of Malta.

Damage control: The tritons after they were repaired and the water ducts routed through a central aluminium pipe. Photo: Times of Malta.

One of the most photographed landmarks on the island is the Tritons Fountain outside Valletta.

Consisting of three tritons holding up a basin, the fountain is a haven for shoppers with tired feet and for exhausted revellers as the Isle of MTV concert at the Granaries in Floriana a week ago showed.

But alas, the elegant monument suffers from the carelessness of those who litter it and from a lack of general maintenance.

Few would disagree that the fountain needs a good cleanup and a revamp to bring it back to its fine-tuned working order. At the moment, few of the jets are spouting water, as they should, giving the whole edifice a shabby appearance. The fountain could also do with a lighting system like the one that was laid out originally.

The striking tritons holding up a saucer that shoots up a flourish of water was the brainchild of sculptor Vincent Apap.

According to Greek mythology, a triton is a fabled sea demigod, the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite. The upper part of a triton's body is like that of a man, and the lower part that of a fish. The artist, however, equipped the tritons with two limbs looking like human legs with webbed feet, adding to their sleek elegance.

Mr Apap had won the first prize in a government competition announced in January 1953 calling for designs for a fountain. In the opinion of the adjudicating board, Mr Apap's design "was commendable for its simplicity, effectiveness and artistic merit". The first prize consisted of £100.

On May 18, 1959, the Times of Malta (now The Times) announced that "the Kingsgate (now City Gate) fountain came alive at dusk on Saturday - nearly five years after tenders for its construction were called for by the coalition government". The base is made of Carrara marble. It cost about £80,000.

"I used to go with my father to Naxxar where he was a close friend of marquis Joe Scicluna," John Apap, the sculptor's son said when interviewed.

"Because of the huge size of the tritons, the marquis had made available an enormous dovecote at Palazzo Parisio for my dad to work in."

Vincent Apap, who was born on November 19, 1909 passed away aged 93. He married Maria Bencini and apart from John, has two daughters, Nella and Manon.

The Apaps used to live in Qui-Si-Sana and the sculptor had a studio in Tonna Street, Sliema.

The refined sculptor studied at - among other institutes - the British Academy in Rome which at the time was led by that great master sculptor Antonio Sciortino.

Mr Apap had a close working relationship with the British Royal family including Lord Louis Mountbatten, admiral of the British fleet and uncle to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. He did busts for all of them.

"It was fascinating to see my father work. He modelled the hands of the tritons on his own. Those hands were mani d'oro, hands of gold.

"Once he started on a project, he would immerse himself completely in it, cutting himself off from the rest of the world," John Apap said as he unrolled the initial drawings his father had done when creating the tritons design.

The bronze was cast at the Lagana foundry in Naples, Italy.

Despite being proud of his work and extremely knowledgeable about art and casting, the celebrated sculptor was a reserved person.

"I remember when the fountain was inaugurated, my father took us, that is my mother and my sisters, to see the fountain when everyone had gone home and the Valletta terminus was deserted. It was indeed a proud moment for us."

In time, this monumental feat caught the eye not only of tourists but also of the government during the 1970s when national festivities such as on Republic Day used to be held partly on the fountain's basin in a televised programme called Mill-Maltin ghall-Maltin.

A platform was built on the saucer to stage entertainment acts.

The telltale signs of this gross intrusion, however, showed on March 1, 1978 when the basin slipped to one side damaging two of the tritons. The basin pressed onto the hand of a triton and cracked while the arm and wrist of two of the other tritons snapped, ruining the water system.

The fountain was repaired to working order on May 1, 1987. The repairs carried out by the Works Department and the drydocks cost about Lm10,000.

"The way my father designed the tritons, the water rushed through pipes inside the arms and hands of the mythical figures up to the basin on top. But once repaired, the water could no longer follow the old route. So the water pipes were re-routed in the middle of the fountain fitted in an aluminium pipe," Mr Apap said.

The government of the day asked another sculptor to come up with a motif to camouflage the aluminium cylinder.

But the sculptor, true to form, quipped that since that was a creation by Apap, then Apap, by right should do the job.

"My father was devastated when the tritons were damaged. It's an extreme insult for anybody to create an original and then have to repair it to hide such a blemish. The first design my father came up with showed two dolphins buoying up the basin but, for some odd reason, that design was refused.

"Then he drew a cascade of seaweed with three seagulls pecking at it from various angles."

The bronze for the centrepiece was cast in Verona.

The manner in which the tritons were built is similar to the method used for constructing carnival floats. The sculptor had designed several floats. First the sculptor prepares a basic outline made of chicken wire to which sackcloth dipped in plaster of paris is added. Once the sackcloth dries, the artist adds more plaster of paris and manipulates the shapes by the use of tools and his hands.

Other works by Vincent Apap include the monuments to Fra Diego in Hamrun, Sir Paul Boffa and Gorg Borg Olivier at Castille Place in Valletta, Winston Churchill at the Upper Barrakka Gardens also in Valletta and Dante Alighieri near the Malta Environment and Planning Authority offices in Floriana.

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