Honors in Rome - Summer 2005
Piazza Navona has been Rome’s most popular secular assembly space for generations. It is built on the spot of Emperor Domitian’s stadium that was constructed in 86 A.D. Over the years, the long, nearly oval piazza has been the site of diversions of all kinds from mock sea battles to medieval jousts. From 1477 to 1869, the piazza was used as a marketplace, and from the 1600s to as recent as the 1800s, it was flooded every weekend in August for the entertainment of the Roman citizens. Much of what is seen today in the Piazza Navona is a result of one family: the Pamphilis. In the 1600s, the Pamphili family gave Piazza Navona a major remodel.
The Pamphili family had been a presence in Rome for a long time. They moved to Rome from Gubbio in the 1400s. Over the years, family members had begun to buy property in the area surrounding the Piazza Navona. In autumn of 1644, the nephew and sister-in-law of Cardinal Giambattisa Pamphili (who would later become Pope Innocent X) bought land next to the cardinal’s house with the idea of combining their properties into one large palace that fronted the Piazza Navona. They felt that this would be the perfect showcase to house one of the leading families in Rome in what was then the largest civic space in the city.
As the Palazzo Pamphili began to take shape, Pope Innocent realized that the character of the Piazza was changing. It was no longer merely a market and gathering place, but rather one of the city’s most important squares and home to the first family of Rome. As the buildings around the piazza were being built and refurbished, it became clear that a single unifying focal point was needed. Innocent decided upon incorporating an ancient obelisk that had just been found at the Circus of Maxentius into a fountain to serve as the centerpiece of his piazza. Now all that was needed was someone to design the fountain.
Gianlorenzo Bernini was one of the most well-known, talented sculptors of the time. One might assume, therefore, that he would have been the obvious first choice to design such a grand piece of art. As it turns out, however, this was not the case. During the reign of Innocent’s predecessor, Urban XIII, Bernini enjoyed the position of the pope’s preferred architect. He lost this position, however, when Innocent became pope. Urban XIII led an unpopular regime and spent a lot of the church’s money on personal items and family expenses. Because of this, Innocent decided that he did not want anything to do with Urban, including, therefore, Bernini. Fortunately, however, the fountain that stands today is indeed Bernini’s work; thus it can be assumed that he found a way around Innocent’s initial exclusion.
History tells two stories of how Bernini accomplished winning the commission for the Four Rivers Fountain. In one story, the pope’s nephew encouraged Bernini to create a model. He then placed Bernini’s model strategically in the Pamphili Palace so that the pope would have to walk around it. After seeing the model, Innocent was completely won over and claimed, “If one does not want to carry out [Bernini’s] designs, one must not see them.” In a second story, it is said that while other sculptors were making models out of clay and wax, Bernini made his out of silver. He then presented this model to the pope’s sister-in-law, Donna Olimpia, who was amply impressed and managed to persuade the pope to accept Bernini’s design. In either case, what is known for sure is that Bernini got the commission and created what stands today as a masterful work of art.
The basic design of the fountain is a travertine rock surrounded by four river gods, topped with a large Egyptian obelisk. The four river gods represent the four major continents of the world, as they were known in the 1600s. One surprising element of this fountain is the posture of the river gods. Traditionally, river gods were depicted in a lounging-position; they were hardly ever seen doing anything. In Bernini’s fountain, however, their twists, turns, and muscular contractions simulate the motions of the rivers they personify.
The river god on the northwest corner of the fountain is for the Rio de la Plata and represents the Americas. A bag of coins spilling out under the god’s feet symbolizes the riches of the New World. The river god is depicted as a black man, which reflects the fact that, at the time, very little was known about the Americas.
To the left of the Rio de la Plata god is the god of the Danube River representing Europe. This statue has one of the most energetic poses of all the river gods. His body is twisted to the right and his arms are stretched out in order to support the large papal coat of arms at the base of the obelisk. Between the Danube and Rio de la Plata gods is a large horse. The horse was known to be native to both Europe and the Americas, thus representing a connection between the two continents.
The Ganges River, representing Asia, is seen on the other side of the Danube. This river god straddles an oar to represent the navigability of the river through India.
On the other side of this god is the god of the Nile River representing the fourth continent known at the time, Africa. The face of this god is covered with a cloth to symbolize the fact that the source of the Nile was unknown at the time the fountain was made. In between the Nile and Ganges gods is a lion and palm tree, known to be native to both Asia and Africa. The lion crouches down toward the water ready to drink, and the palm tree sways in the wind. The four gods are situated around a large travertine rock that serves as the base of the obelisk.
The travertine rock was carved to look like the quarry that the stone for the obelisk came from. In order to make the fountain more dramatic and astonish viewers to this day, Bernini carved out the center of the travertine so that a space through both sides of the base is open. The obelisk that rests on top of the travertine base was carved in Egypt and brought to Rome by Emperor Domitian. Domitian had a stonesman carve hieroglyphics that refer to Domian as “Eternal pharaoh” and Vespasian and Titus as gods. Resting on top of the obelisk is a dove, representative of both the Pamphili family and also the Holy Spirit.
The Four Rivers Fountain has an amazing ability to manipulate its viewers’ movement. Its massive size demands the attention of any visitor coming to the Piazza Navona. Once the viewer is drawn in, the fountain then seems to draw the viewer in a circular motion. There is not one single position that offers a satisfactory view of the entire fountain. In order to see all four river gods, or to find the front of the lion whose rear can be seen on one side, an onlooker must continue moving around the fountain. The idea of a circular motion is especially fitting for the position of the Four Rivers Fountain. It is placed in the center of an oval piazza; thus, by circling the fountain, one in turn ends up circling the entire piazza.
The movement of the viewer is not the only effect this fountain imposes on its visitors. Bernini carved the base of the fountain such that one is left to wonder how the giant obelisk is supported at all. He hollowed out the travertine base so that you can actually see through the sculpture from one side to the other. The sense of disbelief that this wonder inflicts adds to the dramatic effect of the fountain. At the time the fountain was complete, many contemporary critics insisted that the base was not stable enough to support the obelisk and thought that it would come toppling down at any moment. Bernini decided to face his critics head-on in order to stop their disapproval once and for all. He came to the Piazza Navona a couple days after a large storm in which everyone was “sure” the obelisk would fall and pretended to make an hour-long inspection of the fountain. After this inspection, Bernini took four strings that were nailed to the tops of buildings around the piazza and tied them to the top of the obelisk, and then, with a look of satisfaction, drove off in his carriage.
As noted earlier, Pope Innocent commissioned the Four Rivers Fountain as a way to add a unifying focal point to the middle of his piazza. The significance of the fountain goes far beyond a simple piece of aesthetic decoration, however. Innocent was deliberate in his rejection of his predecessor’s regime. He wanted nothing to do with Urban XIII, and he used this fountain as one way of showing that. The aqueduct that feeds the fountains of the Piazza Navona also goes on to feed the Trevi Fountain -- a fountain that Urban XIII championed during his reign. Innocent, therefore, decided to divert the water away from the Trevi Fountain to be used in his own piazza. The Four Rivers Fountain served as a perfect outlet for such a diversion of water.
The symbolism behind the fountain also served as a propagandistic tool for Pope Innocent. In a single piece of art, the four continents of the world were united under one giant obelisk. In essence, Pope Innocent was bringing the whole world to the center of his piazza and topping it with an obelisk that carried his family emblem, the dove. The dove also symbolizes the Holy Spirit, so its presence on top of the obelisk additionally serves to exorcise the pagan implication of the obelisk and place Christianity above all. The message transmitted by this fountain is one of power and triumph of the church under Pope Innocent.
The idea of triumph was a particularly important message to be sent. At the time this fountain was being made, there was a widespread feeling of defeatism throughout the Catholic community. During the Thirty Years War that ended in 1648 there was a series of religious and territorial battles between Protestants and Catholics. The treaty that put an end to this war demanded that the Catholic Church sacrifice important bishoprics in the north in order to keep Austria and Bohemia under its control. This sacrifice was seen as a major loss to the Church and left an air of defeatism over the Catholic community. Innocent’s fountain helped to improve the image of strength of the Church and papacy.
V. Personal Observations
In researching the Piazza Navona and Four Rivers Fountain, I was especially interested in both the sheer skill of Bernini and also the amount of symbolism that was worked into the fountain. When I walked up to the fountain for the first time, I was struck with awe and admiration. Life-like movement was extracted from the marble and captured in nearly every element of the fountain. The lion crouched in a position about to drink water while the Ganges River God straddled an oar between his hands. All four river gods were frozen in very energetic poses adding an element of life to the fountain. The talent required to design and create such a work of art is beyond my understanding. Bernini carved the finishing touches on the travertine base, the lion, horse, and palm tree on site. This is an amazing feat considering the cramped, constricted space he had to work in.
The most enjoyable aspect of researching the Four Rivers Fountain was discovering the symbolism behind each figure carved on the fountain. From the covered Nile River God’s head to the lion and palm tree, every aspect of the fountain had a meaning behind it. To see the fountain as more than just aesthetically pleasing decoration and to know its symbols, meanings, and intentions proved to be the most rewarding part of my studies.
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