Monday, September 13, 2004

Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain

Alexis Zoulas
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born on December 7, 1598 in Naples. His father Pietro, a talented sculptor, likely introduced his son to sculpture and taught his son the basics of his craft. Considered by many scholars to have been a child prodigy, Bernini caught on quickly to his father's teachings and went on to receive numerous commissions from various popes and other patrons of the arts.

The piece considered to be Bernini's crowning achievement is the Four Rivers Fountain located in Piazza Navona, which was created for Pope Innocent X (1644-55). The Four Rivers Fountain is a spectacular example of Baroque sculpture as well as an example of how the arts can be used as a tool for propaganda. Sokamoto31/navona.htm
Piazza Navona

In ancient Rome, what is now the Piazza Navona served as the field of Domitian's stadium for Greek foot races, circa A.D. 86. The area was also periodically flooded in order to stage re-enactments of sea battles, similar to those performed in the colosseum. Throughout the centuries the Piazza was used for festivals, various other athletic events, and as an open air market.

When Pope Innocent X came to power in the 17th century, he decided to transform the Piazza into a showcase for his family, the Pamphili's. To accomplish this aim, he hired Francesco Borromini, Bernini's rival at the time, to construct a new facade for the family's palace, to rebuild the church of Sant Agnese as a family chapel, and to enhance the Piazza's water supply. Bernini's initial role in ornamenting the Piazza was thus non-existent.

The reason for this snubbing of a man who had previously enjoyed a virtual monopoly of papal commissions under the previous pope, Urban VIII, was due to Innocent X's hostile reaction to the extravagances of the reign of Urban VIII. While he was pope, Urban VIII had raided the papal treasury, both to fund arts commissions as well as to allow his family members to enjoy an excessively high quality of life. Upon his death, Urban VIII's superfluous spending left the papacy nearly bankrupt. Innocent X's resulting animosity toward Urban VIII and the Barberini family was so great that many of Urban VIII's closer relatives found it necessary to go into exile. This hostility also extended to Bernini, who had been a favorite of the Barberini's, and Innocent X refused to have anything to do with the sculptor, thus hiring Borromini for the Piazza Navona.

In decorating the Piazza, Innocent X decided he also wanted to construct a fountain. This desire was partly logistical and partly personal. For one thing, a new conduit was needed to solve the as yet unresolved problem of where the water from the Vergine aqueduct (that fed the Trevi fountain) was to terminate. However, he also wanted a fountain of his own to overshadow the existing Barberini-commissioned fountain in the Piazza. For the commission, Innocent X invited several artists to submit design proposals for a fountain and excluded Bernini from the invitation.

However, with the help (and at the urging) of Prince Niccolo Ludovisi (a nephew of the Pope by marriage) and Donna Olimpia Maidalchini (the Pope's sister-in-law), Bernini made a model and had it displayed in a place in the palace where Innocent X would be sure to come across it. When Innocent X saw Bernini's model, he was amazed and exclaimed that "The only way to resist executing his (Bernini's) works is not to see them". Construction of the fountain commenced in 1647 and the piece was completed in 1651.

II. Description
The fountain is surmounted by an obelisk made of red oriental granite, crowned with a dove and olive branch, symbols of peace, the Holy Spirit, and the Pamphili family. The obelisk is supported by a rocky base of white granite (travertine). The pieces of the base are put together to form a kind of arch, creating a grotto with four openings. The openings give the obelisk the illusion of resting upon nothing, an accomplishment admired by many of Bernini's comtemporaries. It is said that because of this illusion of weightlessness, many of his critics claimed that the obelisk was not adequately supported and might fall. In response, Bernini supposedly tied thin strings from the obelisk to the surrounding buildings in a mocking salute to his critics' concerns. Vasi26na.html
Four Rivers obelisk

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 pharoah' 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.

Sitting on the base are the figures of four reclining river gods, meant to represent the four major continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Each god is surrounded by fauna and flora meant to help identify his respective continent. The Nile, representing Africa, has his head covered by a shroud, representing the fact that the source of the river had been unknown for so long. He is surrounded by a lion and palm tree. ~jfschum/italy/misc/it107.html
Bernini's lion and palm tree
Of these two figures, the palm tree is particularly engaging,
in that it appears to be caught in some warm, tropical breeze. CPH188/224014/
The Nile
The depiction of a river god with his head covered was a
common way to convey that a river's source was unknown.

Asia is represented by the Ganges. He holds an oar, signifying the great extent and navigability of the river’s waters and is accompanied by a serpent. classes/ah111/L19/19-14.jpg
The Ganges
The Rio de la Plata represents the Americas. Next to him lie coins
symbolizing the riches of that continent and an armadillo-like creature. Italy/Lazio/Rome/
The Plata, Danube, and horse
The Plata is the god sheilding his eyes and the Danube is shown on the right.
This picture also illustrates (somewhat) the 'hollow' appearance of the grotto.

Lastly, Europe is represented by the Danube, who is holding up the papal arms and is accompanied by a horse. It is believed that Bernini carved the rock, palm tree, lion and horse, and that everything else was done by Bernini’s assistants, according to his designs. The Danube was carved by Antonio Raggi; The Nile by Giacomo Antonio Fancelli; The Ganges by Claude Poussin; and the Plata by Francesco Baratta.

The fountain personifies the Baroque in its depiction of life and movement. Bernini is able to create the impression of pulsating life and real movement through the illusory movement of the carvings and the rushing, murmuring water. The limbs of the gods project into their surrounding space and their intense facial expressions and tousled locks give them the impression of impassioned movement. There are also elements of contrast, a device characteristic of the Baroque sculpture: the tons of marble of the obelisk versus its impression of apparent weightlessness; and the expansive variance of the bottom versus the hard, uniform, and thin apex.

III. Function
The overall message of the fountain is that of the power and triumph of the Church under Innocent X (particularly over paganism) and the power of the papal family. Innocent X had hoped to have the fountain completed for the Holy Year Festivities in 1650. Completed, the fountain would have been a powerful piece of propaganda with which to greet the incoming pilgrims. piazza_navona_02.htm
The Danube and Ganges
Here, one can see the Danube supporting the papal crest and that, in contrast to the Ganges,
the Danube is directly looking towards the symbolic light of the obelisk.

Such images of triumphalism were especially important for Innocent X given the context of that period of history in the Church. In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, bringing an end to the Thirty Years War, a series of religious and territorial battles between Protestants and Catholics. The terms of the Treaty were that the Catholic Church had to sacrifice important bishoprics in the North in order to keep Austria and Bohemia under its control. The concessions were viewed as a tragic loss to the Church. In light of such a loss, Innocent X had to somehow attempt to overcome the widespread feelings of defeatism and try to improve the image of the vitality of the Church and the papacy.

The use of an obelisk is in and of itself a powerful image of such triumphalism. Obelisks were seen as an allegory to the link between earth and heaven. Looking from bottom to top, obelisks seem to disappear, suggesting a transition from the terrestrial realm up into the heavens. Also, because obelisks were brought back from Egypt after conquests during the Imperial period, they became widely used by the Church as a symbol of the Church’s defeat of paganism. Crosses were often placed at the tops of obelisks to visually signify such a conquest. However, in the case of this obelisk the dove and olive branch take the place of the cross, a detail that further associated Innocent X, and not just the Church, with the triumph because the dove served as both a symbol of the Holy Spirit as well as the Pamphili family emblem.

Obelisks were also often viewed as a representation of the rays of the sun. With this in mind, one way of looking at the fountain is to see the different reactions of each river god to the symbol of holy light and papal government as reflective of each continent’s acceptance of the Church. The Ganges, which looks indifferently across the Piazza, and the Nile, whose head is covered, are both not looking at the obelisk which could therefore signify that those continents are each ignorant of its symbolic light. With respect to the Plata, because he shields his eyes from the light (a common gesture in antiquity used in the presence of divine light) could signify his awe of the divine power of the Church. Lastly, with respect to the representation of Europe, it is significant that the Danube was the river of choice, in the place of, for example, the Tiber located in the capital of the Church itself. Mary Christian suggests that the selection of the Danube to represent Europe and to hold up the shield of the papacy is an acknowledgement of the restoration of Austria and Bohemia to the official jurisdiction of the Church and the collapse of a Protestant stronghold achieved under the watch of Innocent X (and likely to compensate for the feelings of failure in light of losing the northern territories). Such a testament to the triumph of Innocent X would thus have provided a powerful message to the pilgrims flocking to Rome that despite the losses incurred in the Treaty of Westphalia, the vitality of the Church was still as strong as ever.

V. Conclusion
Part of the reason the fountain is able to have such a strong impact on people today, far removed from the political context of the 17th Century, is the way in which it involves the viewer. Bernini’s fountain creates a relationship between its forms and the beholder, primarily through the use of multiple viewpoints and the way the carvings direct the eye. By using such devices as complex axial relationships, broken contours, and protruding extremities, Bernini was able to stress specific viewing places as well as to heighten the effect of momentary motion. This structures the viewing experience so that every space, real and artistic, is ‘charged with significance’. For example, with the lion and the horse, their rears appear in one gap and their fronts in the diagonally adjacent one. This encourages the viewer to walk around the fountain searching to resolve the image. Such encouraged interaction includes the viewer in the action of the sculpture and thus creates a link between real and artistic space. Also, the diagonal, spiraling poses of the gods, as well as their gestures and glances, directs the viewer’s eyes in several directions so that he or she experiences the whole fountain rather than one isolated part. Thus, the beholder becomes intimately involved in viewing the fountain and cannot remain an indifferent bystander.

VI. Personal Observations
The element that surprised me the most was the degree to which art really is political and used as a tool for propaganda. What was especially interesting was the fact that art historians claim that the people viewing the pieces at the time constructed would have understood the intended message. While it's likely that the more obscure messages would have only been picked up on by the more learned groups of individuals, the general iconography would have been more widely understood by the general populace (in contrast to someone today looking at the fountain and not knowing the historical background or iconography commonly used at that time.)

VII. Bibliography
Avery, Charles. Bernini: Genius of the Baroque. Bullfinch Press: Boston, 1997.

Baldinucchi, Filippo. “Life of Bernini.” in Engass and Brown, Italian and Spanish Art 1600-1750: Sources and Documents.

Black, Christopher F. “ ‘Exceeding Every Expression of Words’: Bernini’s Rome and the Religious Background”. Effigies and Ecstasies: Roman Baroque Sculpture and Design in the Age of Bernini. Ed. Aidan Weston-Lewis. National Gallery of Scotland, 1998.

Briggs, Martin S. “The Genius of Bernini”. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. Feb., 1915. 26:143.

Christian, Mary. “Bernini’s ‘Danube’ and Pamphili Politics”. The Burlington Magazine. May, 1986. 128:998.

Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Penguin, 1965.

Morton, H.V. The Fountains of Rome. The MacMillan Co.: New York, 1966.

Wiles, Bertha Harris. The Fountains of Florentine Sculptors and their Followers from Donatello to Bernini. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1933.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. 3rd ed. Phaidon Press: Oxford, 1981.