A Greek God Just Can’t Get Any Respect in Nice, France

Apollo, sun fountain, Nice, France

When a powerful Greek deity arrives in Nice, he is ridiculed, humiliated, and banned from the city.

If you visit Place Massena, in the very heart of Nice, you will see a large fountain called the “Fontaine du Soleil”, the Sun Fountain. There are 5 bronze sculptures in the basin and in the centre stands an impressive marble Apollo.  He is 7 meters (23 feet) tall and weighs in at 7 tons.  He is definitely the king of the square and you would think this giant would be admired and respected… but not by the Niçois.

Not What They Expected

When the Sun Fountain was unveiled in 1956, the people of Nice were not impressed.  Apollo’s “job” according to mythology is to carry the sun across the sky every day and he usually does this in his chariot pulled by 4 horses.  But this Apollo didn’t have a chariot and the 4 horses were on top of his head, forming a sort of crown.

Apollo, Sun Fountain, Place Massena, Horse crown

Car Salesman

The spectators claimed that he looked like an advertisement for the most popular automobile at the time, the Renault 4CV, known as the “4 horsepower”.  So the magnificent Greek deity was saddled with the nickname – “the 4 horsepower statue”.


But there was a bigger problem – and it was located further down the nude sculpture.  Some conservative inhabitants of the city thought that his “manhood” was too large, while some older ladies thought it was too small, and college students took to decorating it as a prank.

Apollo, Place Massena, Sun Fountain, Nice France

Reduction Surgery

In an effort to calm the controversy, the sculptor took a hammer and chisel to his creation to reduce the size of the offending member. This operation earned Apollo a new nickname. Now, instead of being called “4 horsepower”, he was called “the virgin”.

sun fountain, fontaine du soleil, place massenan, nice france, apollo

It’s Not Enough

His embarrassing surgery proved to be insufficient; it wasn’t enough to satisfy the Catholic women’s “League of Feminine Virtue”. He was still nude, as were the bronze statues.  The virtuous women gained enough support that in the 1970s the fountain with its naked sculptures was dismantled.


The bronze figures were stored at the water treatment plant and Apollo went to stand guard over the Mayor’s office for a short time before he was moved out of the city centre to stand near a sport stadium where he was less likely to offend the ladies. He stayed there for about 30 years.

Bronzes Rescued

In 2007 a reporter researching water treatment spotted the bronze statues at the purification station.  He wrote an article about the fate of the Sun Fountain and the public took an interest in it.  The fountain was reinstalled with the bronze sculptures in the basin – but the giant Apollo was still not allowed to return.

Apollo, sun fountain, Nice, France

The Sun God Reappears

Finally in 2011, Apollo was reinstated to his rightful position. Today he stands at the centre of the fountain in Place Massena proudly surveying the plaza and all of the passer-bys.  The Sun Fountain is once again complete and as the artist intended. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for Apollo.  But he is quite an impressive sight, even if there is a little less of him than there used to be.

A bit more info:

  • Alfred Janniot is the sculptor who created the Sun Fountain. He also did some bas reliefs on the War Monument in Nice.
  • The 5 bronze sculptures in the fountain represent: Earth, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, and Venus.
  • Janniot had finished the bronzes but had not started on Apollo when the Second World War broke out.  They were buried in a garden to keep them from being destroyed during the war and then dug up afterward.
  • Apollo was at the stadium Charles Ehrmann for about 30 years.
Curious Histories of Nice w Apollo fountain
You can read more about the history of Nice in my book, Curious Histories of Nice, France.

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A Greek God Can't Get Any Respect in Nice, France
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Margo Lestz
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    1. I think he was probably more in proportion before they took the chisel to him. He is 23 feet tall after all. I agree with you, he is a bit “under endowed” now.

  1. Very enjoyable article..I think I would have preferred Nice when it had a river running through it. Had a bit of character . It’s very plastic to my eyes. Very Julie Andrews.

    1. Glad you liked the article. I’m a fan of Nice as it is – old and new jumbled together. I don’t even mind it at this time of year when it is packed with tourists. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  2. How entertaining! History need not be boring. You make me hungry to visit Nice and eat socca! I adore your humor.

  3. Great post Margo. I for one hope you do write a travel guide- I’d be first in line! Your sense of history and eye for what quirks make things interesting is perfect for a guide that is more than a compendium of “must see” tourist stops. I had never thought of Nice before but now it is definitely on my list, thanks to your lovely writing and sharing.

    This reminded me of a similar fun statue story told to me by my friend when I was in Scotland. Here’s a link and a photo. http://edwud.com/ed-okeeffe-photography/2008/01/09/duke-of-wellington-statue-with-traffic-cone-glasgow .

    1. Thanks for the encouragement and the link to a great article as well. It is another statue with a story. I love the photo because the duke looks so proud of his special “hat”. 🙂

  4. Love your guide to Greek gods in Nice, etc. you do have a great style and think your guide book is a great idea. What a difference from the all the nudes in Italy .

  5. Thanks for a fresh, entertaining and informative look at one of Nice’s favourite landmarks. I remember a few late night attempts to climb the bronze ‘horseman’ – years ago, of course ;). It’s such a part of the Nice identity, so glad it’s been re-instated!

    1. Well, I’ve never been in the fountain myself, but I can see how it would be tempting 🙂 . When I first started coming here in 2007, only the bronzes were in the fountain and I didn’t know there was anything missing. I have to say though, it is much more impressive with the huge Apollo in the centre.

  6. Hi, this is a great article. However please recheck the 5 planets sice the greeks didn’t count earth as a planet (they did not see it in the sky and as far as they are concerned earth was the center of the world, stable and not a “wondering star” = the word planet in greek). You missed Jupiter. Let me know thanks

    1. Hi. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I have rechecked all my sources and they all give the names of planets that I listed in my article. The sculptor, Alfred Janniot, designed this in the 1930s so he might not have been completely faithful to the Greek ideas.
      But one source did call these statues “divinities/planets” and maybe it was on the right track – maybe they were more divinities than planets. It called the Earth sculpture the goddess “Gaïa”/Earth (Gaïa would probably be the French version of this goddess’ name). If you read French, you might want to have a look: http://www.montmartre-secret.com/article-nice-fontaine-du-soleil-les-statues-de-bronze-alfred-janniot-117926905.html I was unable to find anything directly from the sculptor giving his ideas, but I think you have a point. I believe he admired and studied Greek sculpture so probably would not have done anything too out of line with Greek ideology.
      Thank you so much for your interesting point of view. I will be on the lookout to see if I come across anything else that can clear this up. – Margo

  7. Nice to know your readers are so interested in the details of what you write, isn’t it! You have a passionate readership- or maybe it’s the French in us., mon amie 😉

  8. Hi Margo, Thanks for your reply and the reference. I am a tour guide so I am interested. I am aware of the fact that most sources count earth among the 5 planets surrounding Apolo , like you, however it does not make sense to me. I think it must be that one copies the mistake of the other, you know how it goes. If the statue is loyal to the greek mythology then it is Jupiter instead of earth, otherwise where did Jupiter disapear to? I will try to check it further. Too bad we cannot ask Monsieur Janniot who is no longer with us. Have a nice day and keep up the good work. Arnon, Israel.

  9. Margo, as an expert on Nice and lover of History I would appreciate your comments on the following matter to do with Nice. It is related to the Cenrenaire monument celbrating 100 years to the annexation/reunification of Nice with France. The monument with victory godess Nika on top. It seems to me Nice was Italian untill conquerred by the french in 1793 but then returned to Savoi after Napoleon defeat in 1814. If the Nicoise were Italians, speaking Italian why did they vote, in large numbers, for being part of France? 99% voted for France in the referendom. I am trying to figure it out and cannot? Garibaldi said the vote was fixed by the French, I do noy buy that. Maybe France was more appealing at the time? any comments?

    1. Hello Arnon. Thanks for the compliment, but I am no expert on Nice – however, I do love history. Again, you ask a very good question. In fact, I think I will write a post on this subject. It is a bit complicated and I will have to do some more research, but this is what I think: Nice was part of Peidmont-Sardinia, then became French from 1792-1814, then back to P-S. In 1859 when Austria threatened P-S they made a deal w France. In exchange for France’s help, Nice and Savoy would go to France. But only with the consent of the people. France helped drive away Austria and there was a vote. But the people were strongly encouraged from both sides to vote ‘yes’ to go with France. Victor Emmanuel asked the Niçois to vote ‘yes’, all public officials (under orders) were telling people to vote ‘yes’, The French army was in town and the outcome was pretty sure before anyone cast a vote. Many who were against it abstained from the vote. As far as language, the people of Nice spoke (and some still do) Niçoise. That is a short version, but now you have me thinking about it, I will probably write about it. When do you do tours in Nice? I would like to have your details and go on a tour sometime. If you want to send them privately, you can do so through my “contact” page. Thanks for your interest. Best regards -Margo
      Inspired by Arnon’s question, I wrote an article about Nice becoming French. You can find it here: Nice, France: Her Relationship with Italy and how she became French

      1. Dear Margo,

        Where is your contact page? Maybe you can send me your email?

        Your reply was interesting. I did not know about the “pressure” from Vitorio Emanuele secondo. Do you have links to any interesting sites on the subject? I Would like to be in touch. Best wishes. Arnon

        Arnon Sadeh

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