The Piazza Navona and the Four Corners of the Earth

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, my favourite stop on this quick Bernini tour of Rome is in the Piazza Navona, Bernini’s beautiful Fountain of the Four Rivers, constructed over a three-year period between 1648 and 1651, out of travertine and marble. It acts as a base for an antique obelisk (you will notice these are popular in Rome!), so it is supporting no less than 120 tonnes of granite above a hollow space, a testament to Bernini’s adept engineering skills. It is crowned with the symbol of the Holy Spirit as a dove, the personal symbol of its commissioning pope, Innocent X.

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Fountain of the Four Rivers at Night – I walked past here every night in Rome, purely because it felt so magical with street music in the background (the main figure shown here looking forward is the Ganges, oar in hand, above a dragon)

Innocent wanted to make the Piazza Navona an important social focus in Rome again (it used to be a Roman stadium for watching games, hence the shape of it), so invited artists in a competition to submit their design for a fountain as the focal point. At the time, Bernini was out of favour and Borromini was given the commission, but Bernini was encouraged to still submit his idea for the fountain by the pope’s nephew – he must have been confident about his efforts, as he had his model cast in silver. His confidence was clearly justified, as Innocent loved the design and gave the commission to Bernini and his assistants.

The fountain, as its name suggests, represents in the four strong male figures the four main rivers, and thus life-giving waters, stretching across the four main continents: the Nile across Africa, the Ganges across Asia, the Danube across Europe and the Plata across America. Each figure is accompanied by symbols of their part of the world. The figure representing the Nile has its head covered, as the source was unknown, and is joined by a palm tree. The Danube figure has its arms raised and is shown with a horse nearby. An oar and a dragon accompany the figure of the Ganges, and the Plata is joined by an armadillo. I spent forever walking around the fountain and taking pictures at every angle, because the differences between the four, and the way they all balance upon the sculpture with the hollow centre is quite amazing. Bernini actually delegated quite a lot of the carving to his assistants; those who created a figure were paid 740 scudi each. Bernini himself definitely carved the lion.

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The River Nile, with the figure’s face obscured because the source of the river was unknown

This is another piece of overtly Counter-Reformation art, as it also symbolises the four rivers flowing out of Paradise, the salvation of the Church, and the fact that Catholicism had reached the four corners of the earth, therefore was a strong faith. Make sure if you visit, you walk around the whole sculpture, as it is designed to be viewed from all angles and is illuminated by light from around the square. Art historians have speculated that it possibly reflects the medieval concept of the four rivers paradise, but images of river gods survived from ancient Rome; it seems that Bernini has combined this with Michelangelo’s idealised hero figure, but has animated his sculptures with baroque dynamism, with the contorting, twisting movements of the figures emphasised by the movement of the water in the fountain. It is majestic and powerful, and truly dominates the piazza; Innocent was so impressed with it, he recorded it on the reverse of a papal medal. And so he should have, as it bears great testament to the baroque genius of Gianlorenzo Bernini.

VISIT…

  • It doesn’t take a genius to guess that because the Fountain of the Four Rivers is in a public piazza, it’s free to go and see! That’s one of the things I love about Rome (and most cities in general) is that you can wander around and you will find amazing things to look at; Rome is truly a living and breathing museum. Piazza Navona is a busy, bustling square that at night, often has people playing music, so it is completely romantic! Be aware, though, that if you want to eat on the actual square, particularly looking onto the fountain, you will pay a ridiculous amount of money for food – if you want to spent a little less, we found a lovely restaurant called Domiziano’s which backed on to the main restaurant overlooking the fountain (I think they might be the same one having just looked it up on the internet but in separate parts) – and they did a gorgeous lasagne (my favourite food!) and glass of prosecco.

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