Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Monuments as Symbols: The Piazza Navona and Berini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers

Mark Shi
Honors in Rome - Summer 2007

Since classical times, the symbol of power and prestige in Rome has been marked principally through the building of great monuments. Monuments gave rich men the ability to publicly celebrate their preeminence, but even more importantly, monuments also ensured that they would be remembered long after they had passed away. Ancient Romans believed you were only truly dead when you were forgotten, so they built monuments to themselves, which can be seen today in and around the Roman Forum; the triumphal arches of Titus and Constantine, Trajan’s column, and the Coliseum all stand as a testament to each of their patrons’ dignified status and desire to be remembered. The papacy took to this tradition of building itself up, as we can see with Julius II, who had made grand plans for his own tomb, which was to be adorned with 50 life-size statues. More often, popes used monuments to exalt the status of their own families, like Urban VIII’s renovations to the Piazza Barberini. When Giovanni Batista Pamphilj was elected into the papacy on September 15, 1644, he was no different from his predecessors and decided to renovate his own piazza in celebration of his family’s triumphal rise to the top.

The Piazza Navona, which held the inauspicious Pamphilj family residence, became the focus of Giovanni Batista’s – now Pope Innocent X’s – renovation plans. The piazza had, at one time, been the Stadium of Domitian, constructed in 86 AD to host Greek-style athletic games for up to 300,000 viewers. Over the centuries, it was transformed into a wide, paved square following the exact perimeter of the ancient stadium, which is most noticeable in the curvature of the current buildings on the north side. Remnants of the old stadium can be seen in the crypt of the church and in the basements of the buildings that line the square. By the time Innocent X was elected into the papacy, the Piazza Navona had served as a daily marketplace for over a century, making it the ideal location for him to erect his monument; it was sure to be seen by everyone. Innocent X was about to turn the wide, empty square into a glorious Pamphilj family monument, creating one of the most beautiful piazzas in Rome.

Innocent X’s first priority was to improve the Pamphilj palace on the south side of the piazza, so that he could show off his family’s status and wealth to important guests. The pope avoided using the famous Gianlorenzo Bernini because the artist had close associations with the previous pope, Urban VIII, who many believed were corrupt. Instead, Innocent X commissioned the lesser known Girolamo Rainaldi to enlarge his palace in 1645, the year after his ascension. Innocent X also consulted Francesco Borromini to help decide the best placement for his sala grande (main room) and to help design his gallery in 1646. When the gallery had been finished, Pietro da Cortona was commissioned to fresco its ceiling. Innocent X was so pleased by the ceiling fresco he offered Cortona an ecclesiastical post to show his gratitude. With a palace worthy of the Pamphilj’s newfound status completed, Innocent X began construction on a new church next door, Sant’Agnese in Agone.

Construction on the adjoining church began in 1652 with Girolamo Rainaldi and his son, Carlo, working together on the project. Sant’Agnese in Agone was dedicated to Saint Agnes, a third century Christian who resisted the advances of the son of a Roman official. She was condemned to death by the Roman official, who had her stripped and martyred in the piazza. As the story goes, after she had been stripped, she prayed until her hair grew so long that it covered her body, preserving her modesty and chastity. The second part of the name, ‘in agone,’ does not refer to the agony of the martyred saint, but instead to the ancient name of the Piazza Navona. Translated literally, ‘in agone’ means “in the site of the competitions,” a reference to the old stadium that the piazza now stands upon. The façade of the church was eventually finished by Borromini in 1670. Because of the narrow width of the piazza, Borromini and the other architects designed the church differently than most other baroque-style churches. The broad horizontals and the cupola rising immediately behind the façade allows viewers standing at any point in the piazza a clear view of the church. It is also important to notice the undulating surface of the façade, a key element of Baroque architecture. This theme is echoed in the columns, which pop out of the plane of the wall, texturing the façade. The curvature of the façade, in addition to the broad openness, appear like arms opened towards the viewer, interacting with them and inviting them to come inside.

In the square itself are two additional fountains on the north and south sides, both sculpted by Giacomo della Porta. The Fontana del Moro, constructed in 1575, is the southern fountain, composed of four tritons with a basin made of rose marble. Bernini carved the central figure, Triton riding a dolphin, which resembles a moor in 1654.The Fontana di Nettuno, also known as the Calderari, was built in 1576 and is the northern fountain adorned by Neptune surrounded by sea nymphs.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers
The main attraction of the piazza is the central fountain, called the Fontana di Quattro Fiumi – the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Originally, the center of the square held a drinking trough for horses, also built by Porta, but Innocent deemed it too simple to glorify the Pamphilj family name. The pope wanted to replace it with a new fountain, grand enough to overshadow the Piazza Barberini’s Triton fountain. Besides Innocent’s own vain desires, a fountain was also required to be the terminal point of the Vergine aqueduct because the previous pope, Urban VIII, never finished construction on the Trevi fountain. So, in 1645, work began on building a costly new conduit from the Trevi to the center of the Piazza Navona where the pope hoped his new fountain would be erected before the jubilee year of 1650.

The pope invited skilled artists to submit designs for a central fountain, but did not extend his invitation to Bernini, who had fallen from favor with the new pope. Besides his close ties with the Barberini pope, Urban VIII, Bernini was also disgraced when his two bell towers in front of St. Peters Basilica had to be torn down, due to structural flaws. Borromini, involved with every other renovation project in piazza was chosen instead to construct this central monument. The pope wanted his fountain to include the obelisk found in the Circus of Maxentius and early sketches from Borromini show the obelisk placed on a high base with low–reliefs of the Earth’s four main rivers on the sides of the basin. Meanwhile, Bernini, with the help of his friend prince Nicolo Ludovisi, nephew of the pope, was scheming a way to ensure himself the commission. Bernini constructed a model of the fountain, made in silver, and gave it to Olimpia Maidalchini, the pope’s overbearing sister-in-law who also happened to be Nicolo’s mother. The model was ‘casually’ placed in a room that Innocent X was sure to pass, so that he would undoubtedly see it. It was then the pope exclaimed that ‘the only way for the works of cavalier Bernini not to be built was by not seeing the project!'

The fountain design by Bernini was far superior to Borromini’s original plan so in April 1647, Bernini was officially given the commission to build the fountain and to begin transporting the obelisk to the middle of the square. In need of financing for his new fountain, the pope enacted a special salt tax, which created discontent among the poorer people during a time of famine. Pasquino, the talking statue often critical of the Pamphilj regime, was reported to have said:

Noi volemo altro che guglie et fontane

Pane, volemo, pane, pane, pane

(It is not obelisk and fountains we want,

But bread, bread, bread)

In 1649, the rocky base, which resembles a grotto, was completed, made of interlocking travertine blocks and decorated with an incredible amount of flora and fauna. The obelisk was also raised in that year, crowned by the Pamphilj dove with an olive branch in its beak instead of the usual cross. On the north and south side of the statue, Bernini put two Pamphilj coats of arms, three fleur-de-lis and a dove with an olive branch, one resting between cornucopias (north) and the other on a shell (south). In 1650, Bernini began work on the four river gods, which were to represent the principal rivers on the four known continents. Africa is represented by the Nile, Europe the Danube, Asia the Ganges and America the Rio de la Plata. Because of pressure from the pope to finish as soon as possible, the four figures were carved by other sculptors, according to Bernini’s design, although, there is no doubt that Bernini had touched up all of them. Bernini himself is said to have carved most of the wildlife we see (the horse, lion, palm tree, crocodile, fish, and armadillo).

Giacomo Antonio Fancelli sculpted the Nile, which is represented by the figure whose head is covered, alluding to the fact that the source of the river had not yet been discovered. Beside him a lion, emerging from the hollow grotto is bowing his head for a drink of water, while a palm tree is being blown by the wind. Both these figures were incorporated to help recognize the Nile river god.

The Ganges was the work of Caludio Poussin, who showed the river god holding an oar, a reference to the navigable waters of that river. The river god is entirely European in appearance and reclines like one of Michelangelo’s ignudo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A large sea serpent is wrapped around his oar, helping differentiate the Ganges River.

The Danube, who resembles Michaelangelo’s Moses, points towards the large Pamphilj coat of arms, three fleur-de-lis and a dove with an olive branch, while also gesturing in wonder at the obelisk. Besides him, a horse is protruding from the rock he is seated upon, which helps differentiate him as the river god of the Danube. This figure was carved by Antonio Raggi.

Francesco Baratta’s Rio de la Plata is raising his arm, not to prevent the façade of Sant’Agnese from falling, as is popularly believed, but to protect his eyes. The river god is also shown with a bag of overflowing gold coins, representing the overwhelming wealth found there. Besides him, what should have been armadillo is emerging from the grotto. It appears none of the sculptors were familiar with the animal.

Bernini was unable to finish his fountain by the jubilee of 1650, instead unveiling it a year later, on June 2, 1651. Two widely known anecdotes exist about cavalier Bernini’s presentation of the fountain. When Pope Innocent X came to view the fountain just before its official unveiling, he was pleased to see all the progress that had been done, but was interested to know the soonest possible time the water might begin flowing. Bernini replied by saying, “It takes more time, but I shall serve your holiness with all expedition.” Resigned to wait a little longer, the pope blessed Bernini and proceeded to leave, reaching the end of the piazza when he suddenly heard water cascading from the fountain. The pope was so pleased he said to the sculptor, “Bernini, by giving us this unexpected joy, you have added ten years to our life!”

After the official unveiling, many were in awe, yet again, at Bernini’s abilities. And yet again, jealous rivals were the first to criticize the work, claiming that the support for the massive obelisk, the hollowed out travertine grotto, was too weak. Bernini, ever the showman, returned to his fountain and spent a day observing his creation, apparently considering his rivals’ critiques, until he finally decided the best solution was to tie strings from the top of the obelisk to four nearby buildings. Bernini was confident in his architectural planning, and thanks to his brilliance, it still stands today.

The newly renovated Piazza Navona continued to be a place of congregation. The year after the fountain was finished, in 1652, a tradition of flooding the piazza began. Every Sunday afternoon in August, the drains taking water away from the fountain would be shut and the whole piazza was flooded, which people called the “Largo di Piazza Navona” (Lake of Piazza Navona). Nobles would dress up in their finest clothes and would be led through the piazza in their horse-drawn carriages. The event was also popular with the common people, who would come and play in the cool water. This tradition lasted until 1867, when the ground level in the piazza was raised.

Innocent X began his renovation project with the intention of building a lasting monument to honor the great Pamphilj family name. The location and the grandeur of the Fountain of the Four Rivers ensured numerous viewers, all associating this impressive work of art with the current pope and his family. But Innocent X also used the symbols in his fountain as a propaganda tool, delivering a clear message to the masses; he wanted everyone to recognize the overwhelming dominion of the church, represented by the Pamphilj, over all.

Pope Innocent X had assumed the throne just after the Thirty Years’ War, with Europe divided between Protestantism and Catholicism. The split greatly weakened the pope’s position of power in European politics and in the world. I think Innocent X recognized his decaying power and used this fountain as a propagandistic tool to win the support of the people, reassuring them that Catholicism remained influential. The first thing a viewer would notice is the obelisk, soaring into the sky. Obelisks were ancient symbols of power, representing rays of sunlight. When they were adopted and incorporated into Christian art, they became divine rays of sunlight. The church used obelisks’ connection to power to show that Christianity was even more powerful. The obelisk in the Fountain of the Four Rivers is topped with the Pamphilj dove – instead of the usual cross – representing the church conquering paganism. In addition, in order to even use an obelisk in Christian art, a ritual was conducted to exorcize them of any evil spirits, reinforcing the idea of the Catholic victory over paganism. The gesturing of the river god Rio de la Plata, who is shown protecting his eyes from the divine light of the obelisk, can also be interpreted as another example of the church’s overwhelming power in the world. At a delicate time in history, the pope needed to win the support of his people and his Fountain of the Four Rivers was meant to show them he was the leader of a still influential religion.

Another way to interpret the Fountain of the Four Rivers is by considering the gestures of the four river gods. Their actions can be viewed as a representation of the current state of Catholicism in the world. The Danube is openly accepting the papal coat of arms, indicating that Europe is the only continent that has been saved by Catholicism, the Nile has his head covered, indicating Africa’s ignorance towards the church, the Ganges is looking away from the fountain entirely, showing indifference to Christianity, and the Rio de la Plata is shielding himself from the light, acknowledging its power but still unable to embrace the church like the Danube has. Pope Innocent X may have been reinforcing the popular opinion of religion in the world through his fountain. By making his fountain appealing to the masses, showing Europeans as the only truly enlightened world citizens, the pope would have gained even more popular support. Innocent X even dedicated the fountain to the people as a public work. Although most evidence indicates that the pope had his own agenda for building this monument, the inscription on the north side suggests that he had nothing but love for his people.
“Innocent X placed the stone ornate with enigmas of the Nile above the rivers that flow here below to offer with his magnificence healthy pleasure to those who pass by, drink for those who thirst, and an occasion for those who wish to meditate.”

If we look closely, we can observe that Bernini’s fountain design has also created the perfect unity of elements. Even though the obelisk represents a ray of sun, it also appears in this fountain as a huge stream of water, shooting into the air. The theme of water is continuously repeated throughout the design of the fountain. We see it in the obelisk, the four river gods, the fish swimming in the basin, and the water itself, splashing into the pool below. We also see the three other elements: Earth is seen in the massive rock holding up the obelisk and also in the immense amount of flora and fauna, Air is blowing the palm tree besides the Nile and Fire is in the form of a ray of sun, the obelisk.

Pope Innocent X renovated the Piazza Navona to glorify the Pamphilj name. It was not an uncommon practice at the time and it was expected of those who had achieved great power and wealth. Even though the Piazza Navona was built as a monument for Pamphilj vain self-glorification, it was also a political move. It was important to impress foreign dignitaries, important guests and his own common people in order to gain their favor and support. The Fountain of the Four Rivers was built for the pope’s religious goals, encouraging believers by emphasizing the fact that Catholicism was still relevant in the world.

Today, many of the people who pass through the wide piazza do not recognize the history and symbolism that is incorporated into the square and Bernini’s fountain. Instead, the piazza has become a center for entertainment, with different acts appearing every night. On a few of my visits there, I personally saw fire dancers, finger puppeteers, palm readers, and sketch artists fill the square in hopes of earning a few euro from passing tourists. The original intentions and symbolism integrated into the Piazza Navona by Innocent X have been lost, although the square remains, as it as always been, a congregation area for people to come and be entertained.

Personal Thoughts:
When I first saw the scaffolding surrounding the Fountain of the Four Rivers, I was a little disappointed. The flowing water is an integral part of this monument (it is a fountain after all) and adds an important element to the overall structure, giving it life. Without the flowing water, experiencing the fountain and the entire piazza is a little different. The last time I was here, I got the opportunity to see the fountain in action. The flowing water almost looked as if it was helping support the whole structure, like flying buttresses holding up the obelisk. The most ingenious element of the fountain is probably the large fish at the bottom of the basin, its mouth opened wide so that water can flow in and drain away. The sound of the flowing water also adds to the fun, lively atmosphere of the piazza. Seeing the Fountain of the Four Rivers without flowing water is missing part of the experience of the Piazza Navona, making another trip to Rome essential.

[1] Christian, M. (1986). "Bernini's 'Danube' and Pamphili Politics." The Burlington Magazine 128(998): 352-355.

[2] Gregory, Sharon and David L. Bershad: “Pamphili; (1) Pope Innocent X” Grove Art online. Oxford University Press, July 23, 2007,

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

[4] Pratesi, Ludovico, and Laura Rendina. Roman fountains by Bernini: the Baroque master. Rome: Fratelli Palombi srl, 1999.

[5] Unknown: "Bernini: (2) Gianolorenzo Bernini, §I: Life and work; (iii) The Cornaro Chapel and the Four Rivers Fountain, 1644-55" Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, July 23, 2007,

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

[7] “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.” Wikipedia. 29 Aug 2007

[8] “Piazza Navona.” Wikipedia. 30 Aug 2007

[9] Peterson, Theresa. City as Theater: Piazza Navona and the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Honors in Rome Summer 2006. 31 Aug 2007

Photos courtesy of Julia Troutt. Aqueducts, Piazza Navona and Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. Honors in Rome Winter 2006. 31 Aug 2007