Piazza Navona - Table of Contents ..............  Architecture Around the World

2002, 2013 photos
Fountain of the Four Rivers

Piazza Navona
, Rome, Italy

Sculptor: Gianlorenzo Bernini  (1598–1680)
An earlier Bernini fountains had been the Fountain of the Moor in the southern end of Piazza Navona erected during the Barberini papacy.

"Gian Lorenzo Bernini dominated the Roman art world of the seventeenth century, flourishing under the patronage of its cardinals and popes while also challenging contemporary artistic traditions. His sculptural and architectural projects reveal an innovative interpretation of subjects, use of forms, and combination of media. Forging a path for future artists, he played an instrumental role in establishing the dramatic and eloquent vocabulary of the Baroque style." - Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History  (online April 2013)
Pope Innocent X (reigned 1644-1655) whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faced onto the piazza as did the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone of which Innocent was the sponsor.
The Four Rivers:
 The Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Río de la Plata representing the Americas.
Considered Rome's greatest fountain.

HISTORY Beneath Illustrations

In the center of the fountain is a 120-ton obelisk that towers over a travertine base.  Bernini’s design exemplified the Baroque tradition of dynamic movement in his sculpture. Each of the figures, with perhaps the exception of the Ganges, appear as if in motion.

Looking east ... Sant'Agnese in Agone
The obelisk was cut in Egypt and brought to Rome by Domitian. The hieroglyphics were carved by order of Domitian, and refer to him as 'eternal pharaoh' and to Vespasian and Titus as gods. The obelisk had lain for centuries in the Circus Maximus until Innocent X decided to use it for his fountain. It was brought here in pieces.


The four large statues represent the four river gods.
Left statue: The Nile's head is draped with a loose piece of cloth, meaning that no one at that time knew exactly where the Nile's source was.
Right statue: The Rio de la Plata, which flows between Argentina and Uruguay, represents America. He has a bag of coins spilling out beneath him, representing the riches of the New World.

The Rio de la Plata is shown with an armadillo, which was believed to be native to the area. However, its ridiculous appearance reveals how little was actually known of the New World.

The horse that is paired with the Danube River.
"The structure itself creates an illusion of instability. Not only is the towering obelisk entirely free standing, but also the base is cut through completely on both axes. Bernini received much criticism and people doubted its stability, especially because of his previous failure at St. Peter’s. In retaliation, Bernini approached the monument and, amidst the large crowd that had gathered, proceeded to inspect the structure and settle upon tying four pieces of twine to the tip of the obelisk and attaching them to the surrounding buildings." - Art History Presentation Archive (online April 2013)

Looking east.
Left statue: Ganges River god
Right statue:The Nile's head is draped with a loose piece of cloth, meaning that no one at that time knew exactly where the Nile's source was.

The Ganges River flows through India, so the figure represents Asia. He is depicted with an oar representing the navigability of the waters.

Piazza Navona has always been the hub of public spectacle -- even as far back as the 1st century when great athletic contests were held in Emperor Domitian's stadium that stood on this site (the stadium entrance door can still be seen in Piazza Tor Sangulgna).

In the 15th century jousts were held here and, in the 18th century, the piazza was transformed into a shallow lake through which coaches of the nobility paraded.

Pope Innocent X commissioned many of the piazza's landmarks in honor of his family whose mansion stood at the southwest end (now the Brazilian embassy). The most famous of these landmarks, at the piazza's center is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed in 1651 by Bernini (who won the commission by bribing the Pope's highly influential sister-in law with a silver model of his proposed work). Its four figures represent the four largest rivers of the 17th century - the Danube, the Nile (whose veil indicates its unknown source), the Ganges and the Plate.

The base of the fountain is a basin from the centre of which travertine rocks rise to support four river gods and above them, an ancient Egyptian obelisk surmounted with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive twig. Collectively, they represent four major rivers of the four continents through which papal authority had spread: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Río de la Plata representing the Americas

"The making of the fountain was met by opposition by the people of Rome for several reasons. First, Innocent X had the fountain built at public expense during the intense famine of 1646-48. Throughout the construction of the fountain, the city murmurred and talk of riot was in the air.

"The street vendors of the market also opposed the construction of the fountain, as Innocent X expelled them from the piazza. The Pamphilij pope believed they detracted from the magnificence of the square. The vendors refused to move, and the papal police had to chase them from the piazza. Roman Jews, in particular, lamented the closing of the Navona, since they were allowed to sell used articles of clothing there at the Wednesday market."

- Excerpts from  Wikipedia (online April 2013)

The main attraction of the piazza is the central fountain, called the Fontana di Quattro Fiumi – the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Originally, the center of the square held a drinking trough for horses, also built by Porta, but Innocent deemed it too simple to glorify the Pamphilj family name. The pope wanted to replace it with a new fountain, grand enough to overshadow the Piazza Barberini’s Triton fountain. Besides Innocent’s own vain desires, a fountain was also required to be the terminal point of the Vergine aqueduct because the previous pope, Urban VIII, never finished construction on the Trevi fountain. So, in 1645, work began on building a costly new conduit from the Trevi to the center of the Piazza Navona where the pope hoped his new fountain would be erected before the jubilee year of 1650.

Photos and their arrangement © 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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