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The Circle of the Dancing Faun

Stowe: The Grecian Valley

The Dancing Faun The Dancing Faun at Stowe was most likely one copied from the original Medici Faun in the Tribuna room of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. A faun is the Roman equivalent of the Greek satyr--both of them woodland spirits with a mixture of animal and human features, often including horns, hooves, and a tail. Fauns are often shown as companions of Bacchus, who presided over drinking revels that included music and dancing. The Medici Faun has cymbals in each hand, and under his right foot is a scabellum, or foot clapper, with which he beats time. Bevington reports that the Dancing Faun was originally located near Lee's Bastion by 1748 before being moved to a site in front of the Temple of Bacchus. He suggests that in 1751 it was replaced there by Coucher's Obelisk and moved to the Grecian Valley.

Located appropriately at the northeast end of the Valley near the Fane of Pastoral Poetry, the Dancing Faun commands the center of a circle of sculptures of shepherds and shepherdesses. The originals of these had surrounded Queen Caroline's Monument when it stood in the Queen's Theatre across the reflecting pool from the Rotunda in the Western Garden.

Pastoral poetry is, of course, all about the lives of shepherds as poets imagined them. English pastoral poetry traces its roots back to the Greek poet Theocritus, the creator of the literary form, and the Roman poet Virgil, who adpopted the form for his ten Eclogues. The shepherds of pastoral poetry live lives free of complexity and corruption, and the poet often uses them to serve as a contrast to city dwellers and members of the court. The shepherds spend their time in singing contests, and much of their singing and conversation is about their beloved shepherdesses. The first English poet to master the pastoral form was Edmund Spenser in his series of 12 eclogues, The Shepheardes Calender (1579). Spencer's poetry was referenced even more specifically in The Temple of Venus, where episodes from his Faerie Queene were depicted in paintings hanging in the interior. Alexander Pope, close friend of Lord Cobham enshrined in the Temple of British Worthies, also wrote pastorals early in his career.

The Circle of the Dancing Faun

The design of the Circle of the Dancing Faun reflects the debt to classical literature owed by British pastoral poets by placing the classical statue of the faun at the center of shepherds and shepherdesses in 18th-Century dress. Two of these statues depict a shepherd and shepherdess weary from their work (or under the influence of wine or ale, as the case may be) and resting with their heads on their hands. The other three statues suggest a country dance, with the shepherdess playing a tamborine and one of the shepherds playing a flute. The traditional contest between shepherds in the pastoral is suggested by what may be a love triangle formed between the two shepherds and the shepherdess. She gazes longingly at the shepherd next to her while he gestures at the other shepherd across the way.

The plinth upon which the faun dances at the center of the circle was once the centerpiece of the Saxon or Sylvan Temple, the original home near Nelson's Walk of the Saxon Deities who now populate a secluded dell in the northeast corner of Hawkwell Field known as Wick's Quarter.

This page was created on 8 March 2018.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,