Piazza Navona: An ode to the genius of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

The final element- Water. If you are a Dan Brown fan, and if you’ve read Angels and Demons, you will surely recognize this place. This is the place where Robert Langdon finds the assassin trying to drown his final victim. This is Piazza Navona in Rome.

Rome is full of beautiful public spaces and Piazza Navona is one of its most famous squares. In Rome you will encounter several narrow lanes, and it is almost theatrical to emerge from one of the quiet streets into a bustling dramatic space. The moment you walk into Piazza Navona you notice that it is shaped like a long oval, rather than a square. The reason is that earlier, this place was used as a circus, where Romans used to flock to see games. Legend has it that it was then possible to flood the square and hold naval games too. Around 80 AD, Emperor Domitian commissioned the construction of a stadium for athletic contests. It was called Circus Agonalis. In Greek, ‘piazza in agone’ means ‘piazza in the site of the competitions’. Gradually through the years, the pronunciation of this name changed, and this space began to be called “Piazza Navona”. Piazza Navona represents the inner arena of the original Stadium of Domitian.

Piazza Navona: with its cafes and the stunning fountains

If you have read Angels and Demons, you will be familiar with the name of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini was one of Europe’s foremost sculptors and architects, who challenged conventional artistic traditions of his time. He started the dramatic Baroque style of ornate architecture. He was an affable man and was patronized by the Popes and cardinals in Italy in his time.

Piazza Navona is also an historic centre because this was the site where Saint Agnes was martyred in the ancient stadium of Domitian. Pope Innocent X’s family palace, the imposing Palazzo Pamphili stands in Piazza Navona. These days it houses the Brazilian embassy in Italy. Just adjacent to it is Sant’Agnese in Agone, a 17th century baroque church. It effectively served as the family chapel for the Pope, being next door.  The construction of this church was initially commissioned to the father-son Rainaldi duo. However, several disagreements later, in 1653, the job of designing its façade was given to Bernini’s bitter rival: Francesco Borromini.

Palazzo Pamphili and Sant’Agnese in Agone

Sant’Agnese in Agone and the Egyptian obelisk in Piazza Navona

Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, the Pope’s sister in law, is said to be the force behind all this beautification around the Papal family home. She was rather ambitious and unpopular, and there were rumours about her intimacy with the Pope. It is said that when Pope Innocent X was on his deathbed, she stole as much as possible and slipped away in a carriage over a bridge called Ponte Sisto. When the Pope died, no one from her family spent a penny on his burial and only his butler paid for it. Donna Olimpia was banned from Rome by the new Pope and she died two years later from the plague. Legend has it that on January 7, the death anniversary of Pope Innocent X, her ghost rides a carriage across Ponte Sisto!

Piazza Navona has Bernini’s imprints all over it. It is said that Pope Innocent X wanted to leave his legacy behind and hence began furiously commissioning sculptures all over the city. He wanted a grandiose monument proclaiming the glory of his regime, and so he announced a competition asking for designs to beautify the Piazza. Bernini was not even invited as he was a protégé of the previous papal regime of Barberini. The out-of-favour architect did not lose heart and targeted the person who had the most influence over the Pope. He arranged for Donna Olimpia to see a model of his fountain. She loved it and there was no way the Pope could now ignore his genius. Pope Innocent had to commission Bernini to sculpt the Fountain, remarking “the only way to avoid employing Bernini was not to see his designs”!

The Fountain of the Four Rivers with St Agnes’ Church in the background

Bernini’s masterpiece in Piazza Navona which attracts tourists each day is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or the Fountain of the Four Rivers. The fountain not only shows Bernini’s artistic side but also his knowledge of engineering principles.

The sculpture shows the personification of the Four Rivers- the Nile representing Africa, the Ganges representing Asia, the Danube representing Europe, and the Rio de la Plata representing the Americas- around a basin of water. Each continent is further represented by flora and fauna from that particular continent. The seven animals carved around the fountain are: a horse, a sea monster, a serpent, a dolphin, a crocodile, a lion and a dragon. Animals which were not known in ancient Rome were probably chosen for their exotic nature.

The Egyptian obelisk with the bronze dove on top

At the centre is an Egyptian obelisk which is supported by a rock formation and this creates an illusion of a magically suspended tower. It was initially believed that the structure would not be able to bear the weight of the heavy obelisk. But Bernini’s brother, Luigi Bernini who was a brilliant engineer and mathematician helped with its blueprint. On top of the obelisk is a bronze dove with an olive twig – the emblem of the Pamphili family. It is believed that Bernini carved the rock, palm tree, lion and horse. Bernini completed the fountain with the help of several sculptors: Claude Poussin sculpted the Ganges, Giacomo Antonio Fancelli made the sculpture of the Nile, Antonio Raggi il Lombardo created the Danube and Francesco Baratta sculpted the Rio della Plata.

Bernini’s masterpiece: Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or the Fountain of the Four Rivers

There are several other hidden interpretations to the sculptures. The elements are represented in the fountain by several other carvings. Two large fish in the basin symbolize water, the rocks and flora and fauna represent earth, the palm tree bending over represents the power of air, while fire is represented by the rays of the sun symbolized by the obelisk.

The Ganges

The four rivers are depicted with different personalities. The Ganges is a bearded man holding an oar, probably symbolizing the navigability of the river. The bearded man probably also represents the wisdom of the ancient civilization. An elephant and a serpent are carved beside him. As an Indian, I found it strange, because we have been brought up on a tradition which worships the Ganges as Mother Ganga- a female deity. To see a man called Ganges was unusual to me.

The Ganges and the Nile

The sculpture of the Nile has a cloth covering his eyes. The origin of the Nile was unknown when the sculpture was built, and hence this was the symbolism. Near him, a lion and a palm tree swaying to a tropical breeze, represent Africa.



The Danube is represented by a figure of a man facing the obelisk, with sculptures of a horse and fish beneath him. His arm touches the papal coat of arms. It is not clear why in the heart of Catholicism, Bernini chose Danube over the Tiber, Rome’s river. May be it was because it was the largest river which was close to Rome.

Rio de la Plata

The Rio de la Plata is a river in Argentina and Uruguay. People often wonder how it made it to this list of major rivers. The sculpture shows a man falling over, with his right arm raised over his eyes and an aghast expression. There is a pile of coins representing the riches of the New World. Plata means ‘silver’ or ‘money’ in South American Spanish. The statue faces the beautiful church of St Agnes in Agone. There are several rumours which say that Bernini designed the statue of Rio de la Plata’s to ridicule the work of Borromini’s façade. The expression of horror on its face almost says that the hideous structure designed by his bête noire will crumble over the fountain sculpture. However these rumours are untrue as the fountain was built in 1651, two years before the façade. In all likelihood the sculpture symbolizes submission, as the Americas were colonized in that era.

Bernini’s design of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi is actually a celebration of Christianity. The obelisk stands for Faith, and how it descends across all the continents. Therefore the Danube is shown facing the obelisk embracing the Faith, while the Rio de Plata appears awestruck by this new Faith which is yet unknown in these continents. The Ganges appears apathetic to the light from the Church and looks away from it. The Nile veils his eyes, as the Catholic world probably saw that part as a ‘pagan’ world, ignorant of this Faith.

Fontana del Moro or the Moor Fountain

At the southern end of the Piazza you will find the Fontana del Moro or the Moor Fountain. The fountain, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII was designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1575. It was decorated by carved Tritons, masks, dolphins and dragons. Dragons were the symbol of Pope Gregory XIII. In 1653, Pope Innocent X invited Bernini to embellish the fountain.  Bernini added a central sculpture of man standing on a conch shell and wrestling with a dolphin. The man was instantly labelled a Moor or an African due to its facial features, although it was just another muscular looking Triton. The Moor is designed by Bernini and sculpted by Giovanni Antonio Mari. Due to fears of being damaged by vandals the original statues are now housed in the Galleria Borghese, while these are just replicas of the same.

Fontana de Nettuno or the Neptune fountain

At the northern end of the Piazza is the Fontana de Nettuno or the Neptune fountain. This fountain too was designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1574. Statues of Neptune and the sea nymphs were added in the nineteenth century in an attempt to make the piazza more symmetrical, in line with the Moor fountain. The central statue of Neptune fighting with an octopus is sculpted by Antonio Della Bitta, while the peripheral statues of sea-horses, mermaids and cherubs playing with dolphins (based on the mythological theme of the Nereids with cupids and walruses) are by Gregorio Zappala. Work on this fountain was completed in 1878.

When Pope Innocent X commissioned the beautification of this Piazza he was met with large scale opposition. Rome was in the midst of a major famine, and spending money on this ornate design was considered wasteful. “We want bread, not obelisks and fountains”, was the oft-heard refrain. Further this piazza was the site where fruit and vegetable vendors used to sell their ware. In an attempt to clean up the squalid neighbourhood in front of the Papal home, vendors were chased away from the Piazza, and this led to much antagonism. Around 1870, the square was paved with cobblestones (called sampietrini).

I imagine the astonishment of the onlookers when the fountains might have first been opened to the public. They are such marvelous creations which speak overwhelmingly of the genius of the sculptors of the Renaissance era. As the water cascades down these sculptures made of travertine marble, its splashing sound brings joy to the thousands of visitors who come to see them each day. Seeing these beautiful public spaces made me wish we could have more of these in our times, where people could sit around, people watch, talk, and enjoy being with each other in the midst of such magnificent creativity.

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