The Flanders Hotel in Ocean City where we had our 50th high school reunion has a strange upside-down fish decoration on the outside wall, so weird, I took a photo of it at the time. The same fish is also depicted in several places in Longwood Gardens. What is it, and what does it represent?
It is properly called a renaissance dolphin, created in Italy in the 1500s based on Greek and Roman motifs of dolphins. The dolphin is not the familiar bottle-nosed dolphin we know. The artists were not concerned with a factual representation and based their creations on other fanciful depictions. Many show spiny pectoral fins (next to the mouth) found on bottom walkers like sea robins, certainly not dolphins, and prominent scales, also not found on dolphins. “Dolphin” here simply means a large, fish-like sea creature, not to be taken literally.
The renaissance dolphins seem to have faded from favor and were rediscovered in the early 1900s when buildings and articles with any sort of nautical connection often incorporated them into their design. The Flanders Hotel was built in 1923. The main fountains at Longwood Gardens were begun in 1929. The renaissance dolphin in the Peirce-du Pont House, shown below, is at the base of a magnificent carved marble (or perhaps agate) fountain received as a wedding present in 1915.
Dolphins in folklore rescued drowning sailors by lifting them to the surface, so the renaissance dolphins represent comfort, help, and support, all the good feelings of I’ve-got-your-back. The dolphins are diving to the rescue, which is why their tails are high over their heads, and the stylized mouths are more-or-less smiling with confidence. In Christian art, they have symbolized both spiritual salvation and the apostles.
(This is just what I could find, but I am certainly no art authority. If anyone knows more about this, feel free to add your comments.)