Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008
Piazza Navona was originally a stadium built by Emperor Domitian in 96 CE. Named Circus Agonalis, in antiquity it held a variety of events, ranging from foot races to mock naval battles. Eventually the stadium fell into disuse and was plundered during the Renaissance as a source of cut building stones. Later, the surrounding banks of seats served as firm foundations for newer structures. The open area, which extends 302 yards along the long axis and only 59 yards along the other, housed a busy marketplace from the 15th century until it was later moved to the Campo de Fiori. Pope Gregory XIII had already added the fountains at either end of the piazza: The Fountain of Neptune to the north and what is now the Fountain of Moor to the south. They were originally commissioned to Giacomo Della Porta, but the Fountain of Moor was redone by Bernini in 1653.
The architect of the Fountain of Four Rivers, Gianlorenzo Bernini, had had great success under his great patron, Urban VIII Barberini. Urban VIII, a great patron of the arts, faced much criticism for depleting the papal treasury in order to commission expensive pieces of art. By the end of his reign, Urban VIII had become extremely unpopular. So when he died in 1644, Bernini, Urban VIII’s favorite artist, was left extremely vulnerable. In addition, Bernini had a failure at St. Peter’s where he had been commissioned earlier to design and build two great bell towers. Even though he had the foundations checked prior to construction, as the massive bell towers were being erected, large cracks started to appear because of the weight of the structures. Construction was halted and the bell towers were then torn down completely because of the damage. This, in addition to his close relationship with the Barberini family, left Bernini in a state of public disgrace. Urban VIII’s successor, Innocent X Pamphilj, bore a great grudge against Urban VIII and the Barberini for leaving the papal treasury so depleted. He extended this grudge to include Urban VIII’s favorite architect, Bernini. Because of this, Innocent X chose as his favorite another prominent baroque architect of the time and Bernini’s rival, Francesco Borromini.
Borromini received some great commissions under Innocent X. He was appointed to design the Palazzo Pamphilj in the Piazza Navona, which is now used as the Brazilian Embassy. Later he was also commissioned to redo the small Church of Sant’ Agnese, also in Piazza Navona, which was adopted to be the Pamphilj private family chapel. In order to glorify the piazza where his family palace and chapel stood, Innocent X decided to commission a great fountain to stand in the middle of it. He wanted a design that would incorporate a great obelisk that was found broken along the Appian Way near the Circus Maxentius. Borromini had already been commissioned to engineer the water conduit that would direct water needed to the Piazza Navona. So even though Innocent X held a design competition for the fountain, it was assumed that Borromini would receive the commission. Bernini, on the other hand, was not even invited to submit a design. How Bernini actually won the commission is unclear, however one account credits Nicoló Ludovisi as the engineer behind it. A close friend of Bernini’s, Ludovisi had just recently married pope Innocent X’s niece, Donna Costanza Pamphilj. According to the account, Ludovisi asked Bernini to make a model of a fountain (and since Bernini was currently architect of Ludovisi’s own palazzo, he wouldn’t have wanted to disappoint his powerful patron). Bernini made a silver model of the fountain that was placed by Ludovisi in a room through which the pope would have to pass. Because most models were done in clay or wax, Bernini’s silver model captured the attention of Innocent X. It was said that Innocent, upon seeing the model, was absolutely mesmerized and couldn’t help but stare at it for half an hour. Even though Innocent X recognized Ludovisi’s trick and the model as Bernini’s, he said, “It will be necessary to make use of Bernini despite those who do not wish it, since those who do not want his works need not look at them.” But because Innocent X had already laid eyes on the model, he was already awestruck by it and had no choice but to use it. After this it is said that Innocent X immediately sent for Bernini, offering the commission to make the fountain, which was accepted on July 10, 1648. Borromini, meanwhile, was extremely upset, not only because his rival had regained papal favor at his expense, but also because it was his idea originally to have a fountain with an obelisk and four rivers represented around the base.
Regardless, Bernini’s design of the Four Rivers Fountain is an excellent example of his innovative Baroque style. In the center of the fountain is a 120-ton obelisk that towers over a travertine base. Topping the obelisk is a bronze dove and olive branch, the symbol of the Pamphilj family. At the corners of the base are four allegorical male figures made of marble. They represent the four rivers of the four continents of the known world. The Ganges River flows through India, so the figure represents Asia. He is depicted with an oar representing the navigability of the waters. He is also accompanied by a palm tree and a serpent. The Nile River represents Africa and his shrouded head signifies that the source of the river was unknown at the time. He is also depicted with a lion beside him.
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. He is also 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 Danube, which flows from Germany through present-day Austria and Romania and empties into the Black sea, was chosen to represent Europe. He is accompanied by a horse.
If the obelisk is representative of divine light, then the poses of the figures can be reconsidered in reference to the Catholic Church. The Nile (with his shrouded head) and the Ganges (who is looking indifferently at spectators and across the Piazza) are both oblivious to the symbolic light of the obelisk. The Rio de la Plata acknowledges it, but raises his arm to shield himself from the blinding light. He is also shielding himself from the Pamphilj coat of arms, which hangs next to him. The Danube, however, faces the obelisk and Pamphilj coat of arms, and raises both of his arms in acknowledgement. This picture presents the concept of the authority of the Church over the four continents. The propagandistic message of this design asserts the supremacy of the papacy at a time of political unrest. This is exemplified by Bernini’s choice of the Danube to represent Catholic Europe, instead of the more apparent choice of the Tiber.
This choice that Bernini made is justified when considering the current events of the time. The area surrounding the Danube River was hardly a stronghold of the Catholic Church. Instead, there was a strong Protestant presence in the area. While this fountain was being designed, it was reaching the end of the Thirty Years War, which took place between the Protestants and the Catholics. After Urban VIII’s death in 1644, the Church was looking to elect a pope that would restore peace and reinstate Catholicism in the area of the Austrian monarchy. When the war ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the Church lost certain districts, but gained Austria and Bohemia under the direct jurisdiction of the Church. This ultimately resulted in the collapse of a Protestant stronghold. Therefore, having the figure of the Danube holding the papal crest implies the submission of the area to the Church under Innocent X’s rule.
The choice of the Ganges and the Rio de la Plata to represent Asia and America, respectively, is also interesting. These two rivers were centers of Innocent X’s missionary activity, with the Ganges being a stronghold of Catholic missions in Asia and the Rio de la Plata running through Jesuit establishments in the New World.
Bernini, in his design, was deliberately appealing to Innocent X’s political ambitions. The design of the fountain was politically flattering for Innocent X. Bernini intentionally ventured away from traditional ideas in order to more completely meet Innocent X’s political aspirations. For example, the figure of the Nile River is typically paired with the Tiber River, as is the case with the figures at the Campidolgio. The use of the Danube to represent Catholic Europe, therefore, was innovative at the time. Bernini also caters to Innocent X by including the horse next to the Danube. The horse is a symbol of military power, but it still ultimately placed underneath the Pamphilj symbol of the dove and olive branch, which also symbolize peace. This emphasized Innocent X’s role as peacemaker. In the design of the fountain, Bernini was also able to incorporate the four natural elements. Water is represented both symbolically, with the four figures, and literally, with the gushing water beneath the figures. Fire is represented as a ray of light by the obelisk and the rocky base of the fountain represents earth. Air is represented by the apparent movement of the palm tree in the wind and also the grotto-like space underneath the base.
Although the structure is innovative in numerous respects, Bernini still holds on to many of his traditional Baroque techniques. As with his earlier works, 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. The entire fountain must be circumnavigated in order for a viewer to see all of the parts, as if it’s meant to be experienced scene by scene. 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. He then stepped back, looked at his work approvingly, and then walked away, leaving the spectators astonished. Despite the doubts of his critics, Bernini’s fountain has remained completely stable and hasn’t moved an inch since its erection.
Although the design of the fountain was Bernini’s, he didn’t actually carve most of it. As was customary for successful artists in the seventeenth century, Bernini had his assistants carve most of the structure. The four marble figures were actually done by his assistants Raggi, Poussin, Baratta, and Fancelli. Still others were assigned to carve the travertine base and the bronze dove that tops the obelisk. Bernini is accredited with actually carving only the palm tree, the lion, and the horse.
Completed in 1651, the Fountain of Four Rivers has long been considered one of the greatest public works done by Bernini. When Innocent X was inspecting the fountain before it was unveiled, Bernini informed him that it wasn’t yet complete. Disappointed, Innocent X turned to leave. At that precise moment, Bernini signaled for the water to be turned on. Innocent X was so surprised and pleased with the work that he proclaimed that Bernini had added ten years to his life (he in fact died four years later). Surprisingly, Bernini himself was not proud of the piece. It is said that years later, when he was being driven past the fountain in his carriage, he was forced to close the curtain as he muttered, “How ashamed I am of having done such poor work.” Nevertheless, Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers warranted praise from both his patron and the public, and continues to captivate viewers to this very day.
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