Tourists visiting the pretty Grote Markt of Antwerp are always impressed by the extravagant 16th-century city hall and guildhalls that surround the historic main square. And then they take a closer look at the central fountain, which for those unfamiliar with local legend is quite a peculiar sight: a naked man in the act of throwing a huge severed hand.
The Brabo Fountain (Brabofontein in Dutch) is a tribute to the mythical Roman soldier Silvius Brabo. According to legend, there was once a giant named Druon Antigoon who built a fortress along the Scheldt River. The giant forced passing boats to pay a toll, as well as anyone crossing the nearby bridge. If the travelers refused, Antigoon cut off one of their hands and tossed it into the river.
The giant’s reign of extortion came to an end when Silvius Brabo sailed down river. He refused to pay the giant’s toll, and challenged the giant to a duel. Brabo was victorious, and chopped off the giant’s head as well as his hand, which he threw into the river just like the giant once did.
According to folklore, the name Antwerp—or Antwerpen in Dutch— came from this very legend, with Antwerpen in Flemish and hand werpen in Dutch both meaning “hand throwing.” This has been contested by etymologists, but the legend nonetheless is much celebrated in the city, as evidenced by the fountain and Antwerp’s famous chocolate hands.
The sculpture of Brabo depicts the soldier as he throws the giant's hand in the river, water spouting out of the severed wrist like blood. Brabo stands on a tall pedestal decorated with an array of creatures, including fish, a sea lion, a turtle, a dragon-like monster and some mermaids holding up a castle, symbolizing Antwerp. And beneath the feet of Silvius Brabo is the severed head of the giant Antigoon, the slain scourge of the now liberated river.
The statue was designed by the Belgian sculptor Jef Lambeaux and inaugurated in 1887. It was placed at the center of the Grote Markt, in a prime location in front of the city hall. Not only did it represent the legend of Silvius Brabo, it was also a symbolic celebration of the freeing of the Scheldt River. For more than a century, the Dutch had been demanding tolls from ships passing along the river, severely hampering the growth of Antwerp. Finally, in 1863, the Dutch stopped demanding tolls (with no dismemberment necessary), a cause for much celebration in Antwerp.