Honors in Rome - Winter 2006
Water, to the ancient Romans, was more than just an ingredient for survival. It was an essential part of social life, an element of political sway, and a symbol of the great power of the city. Water shows its significance in Rome quite early on. Even in the story of the founding of the city water plays a major roll; Romulus and Remus float to safety on the Tiber where they were supposed to be drowned. There is also a large amount of evidence, both through documentation and physical ruins, to describe just how much the Romans loved their baths and fountains. At its peak, Rome supposedly contained over 1200 fountains. At Ostia Antica, the ruins of the huge bathing complexes demonstrate that the average Roman spent a large portion of his day bathing, doing business and exercising at the baths. On top of this, it has recently been proven that there could indeed have been mock naval battles held in the Coliseum for the entertainment of the populous. Clearly, water was essential to the ancient Roman on many levels.
Because of this perceived necessity of great amounts of water, Romans were very proud of their ability to bring water to their city, sometimes from over sixty miles away. They considered it a right to make lavish use of their laboriously obtained water. At the height of the Roman Empire, the people of Rome were using 250 million gallons of water a day. That is roughly 150 gallons of water per person per day; a large number compared to the 100 gallons used by the average American in a day. Such an end obviously required great means.
Great means (Roman style) consist of sophisticated structures called aqueducts. The Romans have used aqueducts since the 4th century B.C. to bring water into the city to augment the supply from the Tiber and Rome’s underground springs. At one point there were eleven aqueducts servicing the city, with a total length of 260 miles. Despite the modern notion of aqueducts consisting of giant stone arches supporting miles of waterslide-like conduits, only thirty miles of these ancient aqueducts were above ground. Because it was more cost-effective, the pipes carrying the water from fresh sources outside the city were built largely underground. The water was moved without pumps or any outside energy, letting gravity do all the work. Even in moving water up hills, gravity-created water pressure was used. These simple, majestic devices went from being a luxury to being a necessity in the mind of the average Roman, and the indulgent bond between Romans and water caused water displays to become a symbol of status. It became a trend for powerful people in Rome to build aqueducts for their city to solidify and legitimize their standing. People who built aqueducts (Marcus Agrippa, Emperor Augustus, Emperor Claudius and Emperor Trajan are a few examples) made sure that the structures appeared above the ground as they neared the city so they could be seen by the people and connected to their creator. What better gift could one give a populous so enamored with water?
Unfortunately this time of luxury did not last for Rome. Nearly all of the Roman aqueducts were left to fall into disrepair or were cut by the Goths during the Sack of Rome in the early 5th century. The one remaining aqueduct, the Aqua Vergine, supplied the entire city, or what was left of it, up until the end of the Middle Ages. The remaining people of Rome, who had been a million strong in the days of the Empire, retreated to a bend in the Tiber, repairing the Aqua Vergine just often enough to supply their sadly reduced population. In the words of Hibbard, Rome was “shrunken like a nut within the shell of her ancient walls.”
This lamentable water situation lasted until the fifteenth century when, finally, Rome’s savior arrived. Ironically this knight in shining armor came in the form of the church. The papacy had been at odds with the people of Rome throughout the medieval years, with popes being sought out and expelled from the country. However, there came a change in the Roman attitude toward the papacy with the election of Pope Nicholas V in 1453. At the time of his rule, the people of Rome had an idealized image of the grandeur of antiquity. They wished Rome to regain something of her old dignity and power. Thus, in the same year he came to power, Pope Nicholas V began the process of Rome’s journey into the Renaissance by repairing and extending the Aqua Vergine, the lifeblood of Rome. This allowed the population to expand and grow within the walls of the city. Yet this expansion was not the only effect of the restored aqueduct. A change was beginning to be made in the minds of the Roman people. The connection between water and power, which had been so strong in antiquity, was suddenly being used within the context of Christianity. This transition was a smooth one. Through bible stories like Noah’s Ark and the Baptism of Christ, Christianity itself uses water as a powerful symbol. Catholics everywhere use water to cleanse themselves as they enter churches, giving water a connotation of purification. The papal building of the aqueduct was therefore an ingenious move on the part of Nicholas V. The new abundance of water made accessible to the common people through fountains along the new aqueducts effectively connected Christianity and the papacy to the grandeur of ancient times. The Pope looked like a savior to the people of Rome.
Thus began a new age of papal rule in the Eternal City. Popes would use an association with water to win the favor of the people time and time again. Pope Sixtus V, Pope Paul V and Pope Pius IX all built aqueducts during their respective reigns, and the six aqueducts that are still in use in Rome today were built or refurbished by popes. One of these, the Aqua Paola, feeds what has been called the most famous fountain in Rome, Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers.
This fountain was commissioned by Pope Innocent X, another pope who wanted to create a display of water to benefit the people of Rome. He chose to place his fountain in the middle of one of Rome’s oldest and most popular secular meeting places, Piazza Navona. The site of the piazza has been used as an assembly area since 86 A.D. when it became Emperor Domitian’s stadium. Outside of the normal races and games held in such a stadium, Domitian put on mock sea battles because the area was easily flooded. Being built directly on top of its ruins, the current piazza takes the shape of the ancient stadium. From the late 1400’s to the late 1800’s there was a daily open market that filled Piazza Navona with people, and beginning in the 1600’s there was a summer weekend tradition of flooding the Piazza and allowing all of the prominent families in Rome to splash through the water in carriages. By the time Pope Innocent X came to power in 1644, this was the most important assembly space in Rome. It was an ideal place for his family, the Pamphili, to have their palazzo, and the perfect place to erect a monument rife with meaningful symbols and propaganda.
Such a project would require a skilled architect to complete. Gianlorenzo Bernini, the most prominent sculptor at the time, would normally have been the obvious choice for such a project. However, Bernini had fallen from favor with the death of his principal patron, Pope Urban VIII. Pope Urban had been quite unpopular toward the end of his reign because of some questionable habits concerning overspending, and the new pope wanted nothing to do with him or his favorite architect. Thus when Pope Innocent began looking at designs by various architects for his fountain, Bernini was conspicuously left out of the running. Obviously the wily architect did manage to become the sole designer for the fountain. There are several distinct stories regarding Bernini’s eventual success at getting the commission, but all accounts agree on the basics. It seems Bernini made a beautiful design for the fountain, perhaps of solid silver, which was spirited into the palazzo by a member of the Pamphili family and placed somewhere where the pope would see it. The pope is reputed to have said upon seeing the statue; “If one does not wish to carry out Bernini’s designs, one must not see them.”
The design which so amazed the Pope is said to be one of Bernini’s finest works for several reasons. The fountain is adorned with statues depicting four reclining river gods set up at equal intervals around the circumference of the structure, forcing the viewer to walk all the way around the fountain to see all the figures. The four rivers represented signify the four continents known to geographers of the time. Around the base below the gods are carved animals and plants to help the viewer identify the continents represented.
Europe is represented by the Danube River, who twists in toward the fountain to support a large papal coat of arms displaying the Pamphili family iconography with his hand. This symbolizes Europe being the support and home base of the Catholic Church. There is a horse beside this god to help identify it with Europe.
Asia is associated with the Ganges river god, who is seen here holding an oar to demonstrate the navigability of the river. An exquisite palm tree, one of the only figures on the fountain actually carved by Bernini himself, helps to identify this god with Asia. A serpent beneath the feet of the river god further represents the Ganges.
The Nile, the main river of Africa, is symbolized by this statue, whose head is covered by a cloth. The statue is said to be portrayed in this way to signify the unknown whereabouts of the source of the Nile at this time. There is a lion below this statue to help associate it with Africa.
The Rio De la Plata is the river that represents the New World. Not much was known about this area of the world at the time, so the river god is depicted as a bald black man, with an armadillo as a defining animal. The armadillo looks a lot like a spiky teenage mutant ninja turtle because in Europe at the time not much was known about what the animal might look like. The river god is shown clutching a bag of gold coins to symbolize the riches that were being found in the Americas at the time.
Another reason the fountain has been hailed as Bernini’s best work is the striking feature in the center of the four statues. The fountain is surmounted by a 54 foot Egyptian obelisk of red granite, taken from Circus Maximus. Pope Innocent X had the obelisk brought to be a part of the fountain because obelisks were a popular symbol of the triumph of Christianity over Paganism. Obelisks also were used in monuments as symbols of the sun or holy light, because of their tendency to look as though they reached infinitely into the sky. This highly meaningful piece sits upon a chunk of local travertine rock cut to look like raw stone from which all of the figures on the fountain are carved. Bernini was such a talented architect, though, that he added a twist to this travertine base. The middle of the rock underneath the obelisk is carved out in two intersecting arches, leaving the obelisk looking as though it is suspended almost unsupported in the air. Bernini’s technique caused quite a sensation when the fountain was unveiled. Being the jokester that he was, Bernini’s response to the criticism that the fountain was unstable was to tie four strings to the top of the obelisk and attach them to the surrounding buildings for “added support.” Publicity stunts of this nature helped rocket Bernini back into the position of popularity as papal architect that he had enjoyed under the last pope.
On top of being a means of regaining favor for Bernini, the fountain was also a powerful tool of propaganda for the Pamphili Pope. The Pamphili family was the clear patron of the project because atop the obelisk, in the place of the most prestige, Bernini placed a single dove. This was the symbol of Pope Innocent’s family, as well as the symbol of the Holy Spirit and the symbol of peace. This extra tool, taken with all of the other aspects of the fountain, would have been a very potent symbol to the Roman people. The four continents of the world were united in one monument beneath a symbol of triumphant Christianity surmounted by the Holy Spirit and the family of the leader of Christendom. The overall effect of the fountain would have been one of triumph for Rome and for Christianity, especially over Paganism. The people of Rome would have recognized the symbols of the power of the Pamphili family through the use of the dove and the coat of arms. Pope Innocent was very pleased with the fountain, and rightfully so, because it sent such a strong message for his family, for the Church, and for Rome.
Today the fountain still has a strong impact on those who see it, even without the context of the politics of the 1600’s. It is heralded as one of the must-see monuments of Rome, because of this power to transcend time. The fountain is fascinating to viewers still because it remains in one of the most popular piazzas in Rome. Today Piazza Navona is a place for tourists and locals alike to stroll day and night, get a bite to eat, and perhaps buy a watercolor painting of the fantastic Fountain of the Four Rivers. The fountain also has a tendency to come alive to the viewer, engaging them. To see the fountain, a viewer must walk all the way around it, and each figure that they come across is full of life. Each of the four river gods are twisted and full of action. The horse seems in the middle of a panicked escape, startled perhaps by the lion that is leaning down to drink. Even the palm tree exudes life, seeming to sway in the wind. Although the political context of the fountain is fascinating and enlightening, I think the fountain stands on its own exceptionally well, heedless of time.
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