Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Piazza Navona and Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain

Veneta Tashev
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

“Bernini, by giving us this unexpected joy, 
you have added ten years to our life!”
~Innocent X
I. Abstract
As you walk through the streets of Rome, between the winding alleys and picturesque houses, you suddenly stumble onto Piazza Navona, a large square, home to three fountains. The very center one, in front of the church of St. Agnes, is the attraction that many come to see today. The locals call it Fontana delle Quattro Fiumi. Sponsored by Pope Innocent X and executed by the baroque mater Bernini, the fountain was inaugurated on the 8 of June 1651. In its day, the fountain not only stood as an emblem of the glory of the Pamphilj family, but also as a symbol of the supremacy of the Catholic Church.

II. Piazza Navona
The site that became known as Piazza Navona was once a stadium of the Emperor Domitian. Build in AD 81-96, the Circo Agonale held up to 30,000 spectators. In the Middle Ages, the piazza had not changed substantially; it was the sight of bullfight and tournaments. Bit by bit, the beautiful masonry was eventually stripped and used for the decoration of the Vatican Gardens and in the building of churches. Any remnants that we have today can only be seen in the basements of the houses surrounding the pizza and in the crypt of St. Agnes. Since the 15th century, the piazza has had the same function as it possesses today - a center for a popular and busy market.

III. The small fountains
Having stumbled onto the piazza, you pause to admire each of the two smaller fountains that lie on the north and south ends of the square. Let your eyes explore them, for once your gaze moves to the Four Rivers Fountain, it would not return to linger here. These fountains were commissioned by Gregory XIII and built by Giacomo della Porta, about seventy years before the construction of the central fountain. The north fountain is called Fontana di Nettuno (1574), while the south fountain bears the name Fontana del Moro (1576). In both fountains, the central figure is a statue of Neptune entangled with a sea monster and surrounded by tritons. The Neptune in the north fountain fights with an octopus, while its southern brother wrestles with a fish. The south statue of Neptune was actually added by Bernini and the question of how it acquired the name Il Moro still remains to be answered.

IV. Description of Four Rivers Fountain
Eventually, you slowly stride toward the center of the piazza and admire one of the most celebrated fountains of Rome – the Four Rivers Fountain. The first thing you notice is the towering obelisk, reaching for the skies and crowned with a dove holding a laurel branch. As you move closer, the base slowly reveals its details. The heavy obelisk is standing on a four sided arch, sculpted to look like a grotto, and through it you can catch a glimpse of the other side, giving the illusion of witlessness. On two sides of the fountain the coat of arms of the Pamphilj family (of Pope Innocent X) is visible, one on a shelf and the other with a cornucopia. The coat of arms reveals the symbols of the family: three lilies and a dove bearing an olive branch. Each arm of the grotto supports a marble figure easily recognizable as a river god. The four statues represent the main four rivers of the world, each linked with a different continent. The Nile, the river god standing for Africa, has a beaded band around his left tight. His identity is clear by the proximity of a lion and a palm tree. His head is covered by draping fabric, in visual representation of its unknown source. Europe is represented by the Danube and he gestures toward one of the Pamphilj crests while sitting on the rock-base from which a horse protrudes. The river of choice for Asia is clearly the Ganges and is embodied by an enormous helmsman with an oar, an article that tells the viewer that the river can be navigated. Lastly, a bald and bearded river god represents Rio de la Plata of the Americas. To help the viewer identify him, this river god holds coins, for the riches of the new world, and an armadillo lies below him, although a modern viewer would have a hard time identifying the dragon-like creature as an armadillo. Rio de la Plata also wears a jeweled band circling his right leg, above the ankle, and raises his arm up to shade his eyes. To complete the composition of the fountain, two fish “swim” in the basin where multiple jets of water empty themselves.

V. History of Four Fivers Fountain

The history of the fountain is just as intriguing as the composition. After becoming a pope in 1644, Innocent X of the Pamphilj decided to transform Piazza Navona into an emblem of the glory of his family. Innocent X was born in the Pamphilj palace overlooking the piazza and thus he had a very personal interest in it. One of the main improvements he wanted to make was to build a magnificent fountain topped by an obelisk and positioned in the center of Piazza Navona. The original architect was supposed to be Francesco Borromini, a favorite of the pope. After all, the water source for the Four Rivers Fountain is the Vergine aqueduct and in 1645 Borromini had already started laying pipes that would bring water to the piazza. Borromini’s design included the obelisk, a high basin, spouts on the side, and a base decorated with masks. His secondary design replaced the masks with a low relief of the Earth’s four main rivers. Thus, the idea of incorporating river gods is Borromini’s, even though there remains some speculation that, considering the symbolic role the fountain was to play, someone close to the donor may have instigated the idea.

Innocent X had asked a select group of architects to submit a design for the new fountain. Despite the fact that he was generally accepted as a master of the Baroque and of the manipulation of water, Bernini was not amongst them. This was due to the fact that Bernini had been a favorite of Pope Urban VIII from the rivaling Barberini family, who reigned before Innocent X. So how did Bernini get the commission when he was not even invited to submit a design and when the current pope had already shown preference for Borromini With the help of Donna Olimpia Maidalchin, sister-in-law to the pope, for whom Bernini designed a model of the fountain. It was built it in silver and was inspired by the idea of the four river gods. On April 23, 1647 the pope stopped for ceremonial lunch at the palace at Piazza Navona. The silver model was placed in a room where Innocent X was to pass and could not miss seeing it. It is said that he exclaimed at perceiving the model and spent some time studying it in detail. He then commented that the designer could be none other than Bernini, and that the only way to avoid building his designs was to never see them. In April of 1647, Bernini received the commission to build the fountain.

The fountain was to be completed in 1650, a jubilee year of the Church. The only requirement given by the pope was the use of the obelisk, which was found in five separate fragments in the circus of Massentius in 1645. For the construction of the fountain, Bernini employed a building crew as well as sculptors from his own school. The Nile was carved by Giacomo Antonio Fancelli, the Danube - by Antonio Raggi, the Ganges - by Claudio Poussin, and lastly Rio de la Plata - by Francesco Baratta. It is said that Bernini himself carved the grotto, the lion, the horse, the palm tree, and put the finishing touches on all the figures. The four figures are carved from marble, while everything else is of travertine. The fountain was once polychrome, and the inscriptions were glided. The north inscription reads: “Innocent X placed the stone ornate with enigmas of the Nile above the rivers that flow here below to offer with magnificence healthy pleasure to those who pass by, drink to those who thirst, and an occasion for those who wish to meditate.”

Two other anecdotes concerning the fountain, have trickled through history to us. When Bernini had virtually completed the work on the fountain, Pope Innocent X came to view it. He was happy with the results, but upon leaving he asked, “Bernini, when will we be able to see the waters fall?” The architect responded, “It takes more time, but I shall serve your holiness with all expedition.” The Pope blessed him and proceeded to leave. Bernini waited until the entourage reached the end of the piazza to give his signal to the waiting workers. Without warning, the water rushed out and cascaded down in numerous paths and sprays down the fountain. The Pope was so pleased to see the display that he declared, “Bernini, by giving us this unexpected joy, you have added ten years to our life!”

After the unveiling of the fountain in 1651, Bernini received much acclaim, but soon enough, rivals of the architect claimed that the obelisk was too heavy for its minimal supports and that it would topple. Hearing this, Bernini showed up one day and spent a considerable amount of time in show of examining the structure. The story claims that he attached strings from the top of the obelisk to four nearby buildings and then departed. The story spread like fire and set Rome laughing. There is no doubt that Bernini knew his fountain was in no danger of falling, his architectural work was supreme and the fountain still proudly stands today.

VI. Symbolism and Propaganda
The complex arrangement of the fountain holds multiple layers of meaning. Starting with the very top, the dove stands for the Pamphilj family, for peace and for the Holy Spirit. The obelisk is an ancient symbol for a ray of sunlight, but in this setting, it can also be interpreted as a jet of water. As mentioned previously, the four statues are linked with the four main rivers of the world from each of the four continents. All four elements, not just Water, are represented in the structure. Air is symbolized by the wind in the palm tree, Earth by the mass of rock and fauna, and Fire by the obelisk in the role of a ray of sunlight.

Having read the symbolism, there are multiple layers and messages interwoven in the fountain. The first and most obvious role was to glorify the Pamphilj family. Observe the central placement of the two coats of arms and the fact that the river god representing the Danube is gesturing proudly towards the south-facing crest. A dove with an olive branch accents both the coat of arms and the obelisk, a symbol that clearly stands for the Pamphilj family.

The next and most important message that the fountain carries is one that emphasizes the supremacy of the Catholic Church. The dove standing over the four main rivers is representative of the Church’s dominance over what were believed to be the four continents of the world. The political climate during the reign of Innocent X was extremely tense. He had taken the papacy right after the end of the Thirty Years War, and the Church needed to take on propagandistic efforts through symbols of power in order to win the support of the people. Bernini cunningly used the figures of the river gods to achieve this goal. The river god representing the Rio de la Plata raises a hand toward the obelisk (the ray of sunlight) to shade himself in the ancient gesture used in divine presence. But even more the giant river god is shading himself from the dove at the top of the obelisk, a symbol of the Holy Sprit, thus further reinforcing the concept of dominance of the church over the continents. A second meaning that can be found in the dove, looking down on the river goods, is Christianity’s conquest of Paganism.

Another interpretation of the configuration suggests that the behavior of the rivers represents the behavior of the continents towards Catholicism. On behalf of Europe, the river god of the Danube proudly supports the papal symbol while the river god of the Rio della Plata is blinded by its might. The head of the river god of the Nile is shaded, showing both that the source of the river is unknown and that Africa knows little of Christianity. Lastly, the river god of the Ganges is looking away leisurely, representing the lack of influence the Pope had over Asia.

Many have commented that, when the representation of the Tiber River is so ubiquitous in Rome, the choice of the Danube as the river to represent Europe seems rather strange. After all, the Tiber winds through Rome, the seat of the papacy. Why, then, does Bernini use the Danube? In an article in The Burlington Magazine, Mary Christian suggests that the choice was not accidental. She argues that the previous pope, Urban VIII, busy with the Thirty Years War, offered little aid to restore Catholicism to the Austrian Monarchy. Thus, it was expected that the new pope should be able to remedy this. In 1644, when Innocent X became pope, Protestant and Catholic negotiations for peace in Osnabruck and Munster began. Even though the Treaty of Westphalia was signed on October 24th 1648 (one year after the fountain was designed), the settlement included decisions that influenced Catholicism along the Danube, but the Pope had to give up influence in the north. However, he regained control of Austria and Bohemia. Bernini was surely aware of this, and thus he chose the Danube rather than the Tiber as the symbol for Europe. Note that the Danube is the one who is upholding the shield of the Papacy.

VII. Today
The Four Rivers Fountain was completed in the seventeenth century, yet today Piazza Navona and its main fountain are as popular as ever. Tourists visit the site constantly. Small coffee shops line the edges of the piazza, offering refreshments and a view of the fountain. Artists display their work, from beautiful paintings to caricatures. Couples wonder through on Sunday mornings. Children run, scream, and laugh. And, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that at one time or another, people glance up at the beautiful fountain. Why is the Four Rivers Fountain still provocative today?

I believe that a part of us is impressed by the power of the sculpture, the height of the obelisk, and the elegance in the design. While river gods are traditionally portrayed lounging and stagnant, the Baroque was about action and movement. Three of the four figures are in mid-motion. Danube is leaning back and enthusiastically gesturing towards the Pamphilj coat of arms, Nile is pulling on the folds of the fabric that hides his head, and most dramatic of all, Rio della Plata is raising his hand up as if, in a moment, he would fall back. Only the Ganges is calmly gazing out. When one approaches the fountain, the figures intrigue the imagination, as we look for an explanation of what they are doing and of what they represent. When one arrives at the base of the fountain, it is then that the details and the masterful execution impress us. It is also then that the true size of the fountain and its figures becomes apparent, causing the viewer to be staggered by how huge they are and how tall and heavy the obelisk must be. Despite the size and the weight, everything still maintains lightness and elegance, as well as unity and balance. Bernini may not have personally executed every part of the fountain, but his hand is evident in very part of it; he was truly a master.

VIII. Conclusion
For those who know the history of the fountain, we are fascinated to visit the site that is connected with the levies of popes and mater architects. In writing this paper, I found that one of the most fascinating parts of my research consisted of the anecdotes and snippets of seventeenth century gossip. The fountain was not only built in the flurry of talent and experimentation, but in the midst of political intrigue, architectural competition, and social manipulation. The rivalry between Bernini and Borromini is legendary, as is Bernini’s love for showmanship and his ability to impress and intrigue those around him.

The Four Rivers Fountain is forever etched in the viewers’ mind. It is not just a monument to the Pamphilj family and the glory of the Catholic Church, but a tribute to the genius of Bernini, the master of the Baroque, and all to the history and intrigue that surrounded its erection.


Prates, Pudovico and Rendina, Lunara. “Roman Fountains by Bernini, the Baroque Master.” Ingegneria per la Cultura. Fratelli Pabombi srl, Rome. July 1999. pp 20-28.

Morton, H.V. “The Fountains of Rome.” A Giniger Book. The Macmillon Company. New York, 1966. pp.176-187, 276-279.

Christian, Mary. “Bernini's Dunabe and Pamphili Politics.” The Burlington Magazine. 1986 The Burlington Magazine Publications, Ltd. pp.354-355.

Feha, Philipp P. “Hermeticism and Art: Emblem and Allegory in the Work of Bernini.”
Artibus at Historie 1986 IRSA s.c. pp.182-184.

Morrissey, Jake. "The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome."