The Four Rivers Fountain
How would you describe Rome? The Eternal City? The City of the Seven Hills? The City of Love? It could just as easily be called the City of Fountains! Rome has around two thousand fountains, more than any other city in the world. It is almost impossible to wander through Rome without the soundtrack of trickling and splashing water …..you hear this before you even see the fountains.
Of the fountains of Rome, around fifty are on a monumental scale! Many of these were commissioned by the Popes and many were the result of competitions . . . to make sure the Popes got the best artists,sculptors and engineers of the day!
The great flowering of the renaissance took place in the 15th and 16th centuries, and we are familiar with the rock stars of the renaissance . . . the ninja turtles . . MichelAngelo, Raphael, Da Vinci. But shall we move to the 1600s?
The Baroque period in Rome
My definition of the baroque is a style that is theatrical, over the top, in your face! Not great artistic terms but you get the idea… and the best of the best of the baroque was Gian lorenzo Bernini. He became pretty much the artistic director of the 1600s.
The Pope wants a fountain!
Enter Pope Innocent X. Born into the wealthy and influential Pamphili family, he was elected Pope in 1644 and immediately set about creating his own personal empire, with Piazza Navona being his personal Forum . .. a little nod to the great Roman Empire. Today it is one of the most popular tourist attractions and one of the largest piazzas in Rome.
But imagine the 1600s, this was a building site! Built directly over the site of the stadium of the Emperor Domitian, construction began on a palace and a personal family church . . St Agnese in Agone … but what about a centrepiece? What about a fountain? Why not set up a competition? I want a baroque fountain!
Who will win?
Bernini had been the favourite architect of the previous Pope, Urban VIII, but Innocent X wanted to ring the changes and he preferred the other great architect of the baroque period, the arch rival Borromini. So the competition was arranged but Bernini was not invited to take part!!
And think X Factor! The Pope was not the only judge! His sister in law was Donna Olimpia and she had a huge influence on papal decisions. Scary lady!
The story goes that Bernini sneaked in his model for the fountain and made it from silver! All the others were made from wood. We should not let the truth get in the way of a good story here and ….guess what…..Donna Olimpia chose the silver model. Then Pope Innocent X revealed the winner . . . imagine . . . Oh no . . this is the work of Bernini is it not???? And Bernini got the commission against all the odds.
La Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Of all the fountains of Rome, one of the most famous is this fountain of the four rivers. This is a jewel in the crown of the baroque era. How did Bernini achieve this? What was the plan? How could he please the Pope?
Genius of Bernini
Bernini decided to give the Pope the world! To reinforce papal dominion over the 4 known continents. Towering above the travertine basin Bernini creates four river gods, hugely muscular reclining statues… each one representing the major rivers of the continents.
1) The Nile representing Africa… with his face covered, showing that the source of the river was still unknown. Surrounded by the native animals.
2) The Rio Plate representing the Americas, that had so recently been discovered. And spilling forth are coins, to indicate what wealth the papacy would gain from the New World.
3) The Ganges representing Asia . . . the river god holds an oar, to show that it was easy to navigate the river.
4) The Danube representing Europe . . .the closest river to Italy so this statue is touching the Papal coat of arms, the symbol of the Pamphili family.
The symbol of the Vatican is the crossed keys of St Peter with the papal crown above. Below this constant symbol is shown the coat of arms, the heraldic symbol, of whichever papal family was in charge when a building was commissioned. The coat of arms of the Pamphili family is a dove holding an olive branch, so this is visible all over the fountain of the four rivers.
The Crowning Glory
The final flourish of the design was to add a giant obelisk towering above the river gods. Historically the obelisk had been a symbol of Imperial power in ancient Rome and often used as the decoration in the central spine (spina) of the circuses where the chariot races took place. This particular obelisk was transported from the Circus of Maxentius on the Appian Way. Maxentius had constructed his own private chariot racing track as part of his villa complex . . . if you have been keeping up with the blogs you might remember that Maxentius was defeated by Constantine in 312AD ultimately leading to the rise of Christianity throughout the Empire.
Today Piazza Navona is one of the favourite tourist attractions in Rome, and it is the best example of a complete baroque creation. The fountain of the four rivers dominates the piazza and is a fabulous testament to the imagination and capability of Bernini. He designed a monument that would both please the vanity of the Pope and also bring a sense of wonder to the residents of Rome.
Bernini managed to make an important link between papal authority, the amazing diversity of the known natural world and display a gift and a vision as a sculptor and architect that still stuns us all today… almost 400 years later.
Like this post? Then you will love our walking tour of Rome which uncovers the incredible history of Rome’s Fountains, Squares, and Churches. Loving Rome’s sculpture? Check out our blog on the famous statues in Rome.
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