Saturday, September 23, 2006

City As Theater: Piazza Navona and the Fountain of the Four Rivers

Teresa Peterson
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

Like a novel, a movie, an opera, or a play, the world around us can be manipulated to tell a story. Monuments can be built to express gratitude, churches are built to revere and honor, homes are decorated in the latest style to express wealth and affluence. The world around us is a theater, a stage. Actors tell the story, drama abounds, and messages are related to the masses. In the ancient city of Rome, the Piazza Navona is one such place that, though its façade has changed over the years, remains home to spectacles, propaganda, storytelling; theater.

Piazza Navona as it exists today was built upon the remains of, and gets its long and narrow shape from, what was once the Stadium of Domitian. The stadium was 275 meters long, 106 meters wide, and could house 30,000 spectators who would come to view the agones, or “games”. These games were free for the public and consisted of foot races and mock naval battles. The stadium itself was built in 85 A.D. by the emperor Domitian for the people’s use and enjoyment. Sumptuously decorated with statues, it would have been a popular site for people to come and relax, the opulence of it all reminding them of their benevolent leaders. It functioned as a meeting place, a place of fun, spectacles, and general enjoyment, all at the expense of a loving patron – the emperor. Even in its earliest form, the piazza was used to promote the great leaders of the Roman world and to pacify, appease, and delight their patrons, a function it continues to serve to this very day (“Piazza Navona”, Wikipedia).

In the time of Pope Innocent X the piazza was remodeled and given a new attitude and, of course, a new significance. The Palazzo Pamphilj, which now serves as the Brazilian Embassy, was designed and built during his pontificate, along with its adjoining church Sant’Agnese in Agone. In addition, the most recognizable feature of the piazza today was added, the Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Pope Innocent X was born in 1574 as Giambattista Pamphilj. The Pamphilj family was originally from Gubbio in Umbria and had moved to Rome in the previous century. Since the first record of Pamphilio Pamphilj in the 12th century, the Pamphilj continued to prosper as minor nobles by marrying into families of the declining nobility. It was only in the 17th century, with Giambattista Pamphilj, that the Pamphilj family joined the ranks of the powerful Roman nobility. Giambattista Pamphilj took a degree in law at the Jesuit Collegio Romano at the age of 20 and was later raised to the Cardinalship by Urban VIII. While a cardinal, Pamphilj spent much time working in Spain and Naples and developed close ties to the Spanish. At the death of Urban VIII in 1644, the conclave split. The French and Spanish each began massing troops and the factions within the conclave began looking for a compromise. Pamphilj, with his strong ties to the Spanish and his association with the Barberini, was settled upon on September 15th, 1644.

As Innocent X, Pamphilj had a reputation for uprightness and was a strict and fair administrator, although he was often prone to bouts of foul temper. Unlike his predecessor, Urban VIII, he despised the corrupt system of nepotism in the church that had been allowed free reign and went so far as to exile the Barberini family from Rome for some years – they later reconciled their differences and the Barberini were returned to Rome. During their time in exile, Marforio the river god statue is said to have asked Pasquino, another “talking statue”: “What kind of man is the new pope?” Pasquino replied, “He’s not a man, he’s a fly swatter!” referring to the Barberini coat of arms, the three bees (“Pamphilj”).

Innocent X was known for his hatred of all things Barberini. Upon entering the papacy, Innocent X set about rebuilding his family home in the Piazza Navona, making the paltry palace worthy of a pope and more brilliant than that of the Barberini. In addition to rebuilding the family palace, he took it upon himself to remodel the entire piazza in which it sat. Buildings were demolished to make way for the new palace, Palazzo Pamphilj, and its adjoining church, Sant’Agnese in Agone. The church recalls the ancient stadium of Domitian as it stands where the young virgin Agnese was martyred. The twelve year old, after refusing to marry a pagan, was stripped and brought before the emperor in the stadium, whereupon hair miraculously covered her nakedness, thus protecting her modesty and chastity (“The Basilica”). The piazza itself took its name from the church and over time corruption has changed the name from “in agone” to “navona”. Interestingly, the word “navona” means a large ship in Italian and is a reference to the ancient stadium on which the piazza now lies (“Piazza Navona”, Roma Interactive).

In order to complete the new piazza, Innocent wanted a massive fountain erected as the center figure of the piazza. An obelisk that had been lying in pieces near the Appian Way in the old Circus of Maxentius was to be the focal point of the grand fountain. Innocent invited artists to compete in a competition for the commission in order to ensure that his fountain was the best in Rome. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of Rome’s most famous and demanded artists of the time, was not invited to participate due to his extremely close ties to the Barberini family (Hibbard 116,120).

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Naples in 1598. At the young age of 7 he traveled to Rome with his father, Pietro Bernini, a famous mannerist sculptor, and quickly caught the eye of the Pope Paul V’s nephew, Scipione Borghese. The pope, Paul V, was introduced to the young prodigy and promptly handed over control of his education to Cardinal Maffeo Barberini. Upon his election as Urban VIII, Barberini required Bernini for his exclusive use, allowing him no other patrons, making an exception only once for Scipione Borghese who had been instrumental in his election. Under the patronage of Urban VIII, Bernini was called upon to recreate the city of Rome (Hibbert 179-185). He revolutionized art of the time, revitalizing Rome and becoming one of the most prominent Baroque artists in the world.

In 1647 it seemed that Francesco Borromini, who had thought up the theme of the four rivers of the four continents for the fountain, would win the papal commission. Encouraged by his friends Prince Niccolò Ludovisi, the pope’s nephew-in-law, and Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, the pope’s infamous sister-in-law, often referred to as the “she-pope” due to her outstanding influence over the pope (“Pamphilj”), Bernini created a model to be secretly placed in a room where the pope would be sure to see it. Some tales make reference to the model having been made out of silver. Whatever the medium, when the pope saw the model he was reported to have exclaimed, “We must indeed employ Bernini: although there are many who do not wish it; the only way to resist him is not to see his work” (Magnuson 81). In 1648 Bernini, at age 50, was given the commission for the fountain.

Construction was begun on the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the summer of 1648 with the transportation of the obelisk to the piazza. This journey alone was reported to have cost 12,000 scudi in a time when a single scudi could buy 100 loaves of bread. It is understandable that, when taxes were levied to pay for the fountain’s construction, the people of Rome were outraged. The talking fountain Pasquino spoke for the people when he said,

Noi volemo altro che Guglie e Fontane.
Pane volemo: pane, pane, pane!

We need other than spires and fountains.
Bread we want: bread, bread, bread.
(Magnuson 83)

During the final phases of construction the pope went to see the fountain. The story goes that he asked Bernini if he could see the fountain complete with water. Bernini apologized, explaining that the water was not yet ready, as the water for the fountain was being redirected to the piazza from the Aqua Vergine and the ducts were still incomplete. The pope gave his blessings and understanding, but as he turned to go he heard the sounds of rushing water. Turning back to the fountain he saw that Bernini had signaled an assistant and had begun the flow of water from all sides of the fountain. Delighted with the trick, the pope exclaimed that Bernini had added ten years to his life. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see another five (Hibbard 121-122).

The fountain is made up of a base formed from a large elliptical basin, surmounted by a large mound of marble, on which is elevated an Egyptian obelisk (“Fontana…”). The obelisk rests upon above a watery grotto sculpted of travertine, a hard, strong rock that is easier to sculpt than true marble. What makes the fountain’s obelisk unique is what it stands on. The supporting rock is in no way solid. It is hollowed in such a way that it is possible from all sides to see through the rock under the obelisk to the other side of the piazza. This creates the dizzying illusion that the obelisk is weightless, just lightly resting on the cavern below it.

The reaction of the people when the fountain was unveiled on June 12, 1651 was one of astonishment, apprehension, and fear. The obelisk appeared so much as if it were floating on air that the people who visited it feared that a gentle gust of wind might topple it. One account claims that Bernini, upon hearing of the peoples’ fears, went straight to the piazza. There, looking upon the fountain with worry and apprehension, he attached four strings to the top of the obelisk. After having those four strings attached to adjacent buildings in the piazza he appeared more at ease and left the piazza, ever the showman (Wallace 90).

Below the obelisk there rests a watery cave decorated with various flora and fauna, upon which rest the four colossal figures representing the four rivers of the known world. These giants by Bernini are carved out of marble and each represents a river from one of the four continents of the world. The figure of the Danube represents Europe and is depicted holding up the papal coat of arms, a dove with a laurel branch and three fleurs-de-lis, and is accompanied by a horse in the hollowed cave. The Ganges represents Asia and the Orient and is shown with an oar in his hands to symbolize the great navigability of the river. The Nile, along with the palm tree and lion, represents Africa and is covering his head to symbolize the unknown origins of the river. The final river, the Rio della Plata, represents the Americas and is shown with a bag of overflowing gold to represent the wealth to be found in the New World. Also representing the Americas is a snake high upon the rocks and an armadillo in the water, an animal only found in South America (Magnuson 83).

This fountain is a triumph of Bernini, easily one of the most well-known and acclaimed works of the Baroque age. The figures of the rivers recline on the rocks in a contraposition very reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David. Long, hard diagonals created with arms, legs, animals, and rocks are very characteristic of the Baroque style. The spiral of the Danube corresponds to that of the Ganges on the opposite side, while the same affect is seen with the Nile and the Rio della Plata, thus creating a series of opposing yet balancing movements around the fountain (Magnuson 85). Bernini shows his brilliance in his ability to incorporate movement into the hard marble that makes up the fountain and manages to obtain an atmosphere of live sensations. If you look, you can almost seen a gust of wind passing through the leaves of the palm tree, brushing the mane of the lion and the horse, and hissing through the cracks in the ravine below the obelisk (“Fontana…”).

Bernini often described himself as a “friend of water”. To him, water was just one more medium in which to express the marvels of the world around him. Unlike other artists of the day, his fountains were built in function of their water, not just to be beautiful alone with water added on a whim. His fountains, most especially that of the Four Rivers, were conceived with the interplay of water in mind. The way the water plays against the rocks and interacts with the animals in the grotto was intentional and serves to add movement and a theatrical nature to the fountain (Borsi 208-209). It seems strange then, that at the end of his days, while passing through the piazza in his carriage, Bernini commented to his son, “how ashamed I am to have done so poorly” (Hibbert 197). It is exactly that theatrical nature of the fountain that draws people in, and keeps them in awe, which Bernini despised.

The dramatic nature of the fountain hides a message to the people. The fountain, as the central figure of a piazza whose main function of the time was a market, was placed in a key position for it to be seen. Aside from bringing water to the people, the fountain served as a symbol of strength of the papacy and, in effect, of the Pamphilj family. Pope Innocent X used the fountain as a means of propaganda, imparting to the people a message that would have been easily read at the time. This message was one of power, his own and that of the papacy.

The obelisk, the most striking feature of the fountain upon first glance, was commonplace in Christian monuments and thus served to connect the fountain to the papacy. It was made in Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. Within its hieroglyphs, a goddess presents a Double Crown to the emperor, suggesting that it was intended for the ascension of Domitian in 81 A.D. It was dedicated to the sun gods and then later used in the Circus of Maxentius (Okamoto). Before being added, obelisks were exorcised in a complicated ceremony, making them available to be used in Christian projects. The addition of an obelisk to the fountain, therefore, represents a Catholic triumph over paganism. The shape of the obelisk recalls the sun’s rays and is often associated with divine light (Wallace 93). Its previous association with the sun gods recalls early Christian associations with Jesus and the sun. The obelisk itself is topped with a dove holding an olive branch, instead the more common brass cross. Not only is the dove is a common symbol of peace and of the Holy Spirit, but it is also a symbol of the Pamphilj family.

The figures representing the four rivers each embrace the obelisk, and thus the papacy and the Pamphilj, in a different way. The Danube is shown to be embracing the papal coat of arms and the obelisk above it. It is the only figure to do so, implying that Europe was the only continent completely enlightened by the Church. The Ganges points respectfully towards another coat of arms but looks out across the piazza instead of completely acknowledging the obelisk and Christianity. The Nile is shown hiding his head from the light of the obelisk in ignorance while the Rio della Plata shields his eyes from the blinding light. The interaction between the obelisk and the rivers would have been easily recognized as the people took a turn about the fountain admiring its beauty.

The political climate at the time of its construction was a very large influence on the fountain. The use of the Danube instead of the Tiber to represent Europe was not an accident. It was during the pontificate of Innocent X that the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, thus ending the Thirty Years’ War. The use of the Danube is a direct reference to the treaty’s inclusion of the decision that the once Protestant lands of Austria and Bohemia, which lie along the banks of the Danube, would once again be under the official jurisdiction of the church. Regardless of the gains to the papal state, the Treaty of Westphalia was considered a failure due to the huge losses it afforded the papacy. By using the Danube, the fountain is helping to promote Innocent X as a good military leader a peacemaker (Christian 354-355). The obelisk, in its very nature Egyptian, recalls the conquering of Egypt by the Roman Empire and thus was associated not only with divine power, but also with military power (Weston-Lewis 143). Innocent X used the fountain as a piece of propaganda to mollify the people and assure them of the continuing state of the Church even in times as tumultuous as they were.

Beginning in the year 1652, the year after the unveiling of the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the fountain was flooded every Saturday and Sunday during the hot summer days of August. The market held in the piazza was hung so that business could continue as the people enjoyed the cooling water. The flooding of the piazza was a grand event and spectacle in its day. Nobles would come out dressed in their finest ensembles to watch their carriages perform in a grand parade through “Lake Navona”. Children and dogs were often seen running and splashing through the shallow waters. At the end of the day grand supper parties would be held at the palaces of the rich. Until the year 1867, when the pavement in the piazza was raised, these festivities continued. They brought the people together, rich and poor, for a common purpose. The very theatrical nature of the event, begun by a papal patron, brought people to the piazza to view the sights and made the piazza an ideal place to promote the goals of its patrons (Morton 186-187).

Today, the piazza continues to be a thriving place of business and entertainment. During the day it is a hot spot for tourists looking to see the famous sights, most especially the Fountain of the Four Rivers that proudly stands in its center even now. During the evenings musicians, magicians, jugglers, and artists of all kinds line the piazza to entertain the masses that come to make the piazza one of the major centers of Rome’s nightlife. Though the patrons and messages have changed and been lost throughout the years, the piazza’s functions remains ever the same, to be a place of life, excitement, and drama.


Borsi, Franco. Bernini. Trans. Robert Erich Wold. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 1980.

Christian, Mary. “Bernini’s ‘Danube’ and Pamphili Politics.” The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 128, No. 998. (May 1986): 352+354-355.

“Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.” Wikipedia. 29 Aug 2006

Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1971.

Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: The Biography of a City. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1985.

Magnuson, Torgil. Rome in the Age of Bernini: Volume 2. Trans. Nancy Adler. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1986.

Morton, H.V. The Fountains of Rome. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966.

Okamoto, Shoji. “Piazza Navona Obelisk.”

“Piazza Navona.” Roma Interactive.

“Piazza Navona.” Wikipedia. 30 Aug 2006

“The Basilica of St’Agnese, Rome.” Vatican Exhibit. 2001. The Lubbock-Avalanche Journal.

Wallace, Robert. The World of Bernini: 1598-1680. New York: Time-Life Books, 1970.

Weston-Lewis, Aidan, ed. Effigies & Ecstasies: Roman Baroque Sculpture and Design in the Age of Bernini. Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 1998.

The Photographs:

First picture featured taken by myself from Palazzo Pamphilj

Second picture featured taken from “Filippo Juvarra's Drawings - The coats of arms of Innocentius X by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi”

Other Pictures featured taken from “Piazza Navona”