Bernini and the Piazza Navona

Remnants of Stadium of Domitian
photos: Gary Todd

Remnants of Stadium of Domitian

“The Piazza Navona sits over the interior arena of the Stadium. The sweep of buildings that embrace the Piazza incorporates the Stadium’s original lower arcades. They include the most recent rebuilding of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, first founded in the ninth century at the traditional place of St. Agnes’ martyrdom.”
Source Wikipedia

Caspar van Wittel ‘Piazza Navona’ 1699, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid  (google art)
Piazza Navona before interventions in the 17th century
Hendrik Frans van Lint ‘Piazza Navona’ c. 1730

Caspar van Wittel ‘Piazza Navona’

Piazza Navona    Side    Fountain of the Moor    Panoramic
G.B. Piranesi “Piazza Navona” 1748-1778    Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Piazza Navona  Rome
photos: Jean-Marc Fondeur; side: Lorenzoclick; fountain: Nicola; panoramisch: Giuseppe Savo

Caravaggio ‘Urban VIII’ private collection Florence

Caravaggio 'Urban VIII'

 Bernini Costanza Bonarelli mistress of Bernini

The pope saw a new Michelangelo in him and wanted him to paint the narthex of St Peter’s. At the advice of the pope, Bernini painted no less than 150 paintings, some of which we saw at the Villa Borghese. However, Gian Lorenzo did not think he was a good enough painter. Urban VIII was afraid that the unmarried Bernini would die from the number one disease of the time: the French disease. The pope therefore advised him to get married. Bernini replied that “my statues are my children”. He eventually did marry, with Caterina Tezio. They had 11 children. Before his marriage he had carved an intimate bust of his lover Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of one of his assistants.
He had used her face more often. The way that Gian Lorenzo portrayed his lover was unique for the 17th century. Bernini carved the bust purely for his private enjoyment. This is not in any way a heroic or important face. A number of details were of a realism that was unheard of in those days. Her blouse is partly undone, and she looks at you like a common woman that you accidentally meet in the street. Her unwashed hair is combed back. Before Bernini moved to a big house facing the Piazza Spada, he quickly took Costanza’s bust to a friend for safekeeping. Today, this portrait sculpture can be seen at the Bargello in Florence.

Diego Velázquez ‘Innocent X’ 1650

Diego Velázquez 'Innocent X'

Pope Innocent X, successor to Urban VIII, was the only pope that Bernini did not get along with. Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) and Bernini were close friends.
The new pope, Innocent X, awarded most of his commissions to Borromini. This also had to do with the problems with the tower that Gian Lorenzo designed for St Peter’s, as I’ve described earlier. Borromini had already been commissioned to finish the Sant’Agnese facing the Piazza Navona directly in front of the fountain.

Sant’Agnese          Piazza Navona and the Sant’Agnese      Wikipedia

Piazza Navona Sant'Agnese
photos: Wikipedia and Terence Faircloth

A design competition was held for the fountain. One of the pope’s conditions was that the broken obelisk in the Circus Maximus should be used as the fountain’s crowning element. Borromini, who had already designed the fountain’s water supply, was declared the winner (Borromini’s design). And yet his design was never built. A friend of Bernini’s, Nicolo Ludovisi, who happened to be married to a cousin of Innocent X, urged Gian Lorenzo to submit his design.

Model 56 x 98.5 cm c. 1649-50     Rio de la Plata
Model Fountain c. 1647-1650
“So strong was the sinister influence of the rivals of Bernini on the mind of Innocent that when he planned to set up in Piazza Navona the great obelisk brought to Rome by the Emperor Caracalla, which had been buried for a long time at Capo di Bove for the adornment of a magnificent fountain, he Pope had designs made by the leading architects of Rome without an order for one to Bernini. Prince Niccolò Ludovisi, whose wife was niece to the pope, persuaded Bernini to prepare a model, and arrange for it to be secretly installed in a room in the Palazzo Pamphili that the Pope had to pass. When the meal was finished, seeing such a noble creation, he stopped almost in ecstasy. Being prince of the keenest judgment and the loftiest ideas, after admiring it, said: “This is a trick … It will be necessary to employ Bernini in spite of those who do not wish it, for he who desires not to use Bernini’s designs, must take care not to see them.” Source: Filippo Baldinucci ‘The Life of Cavaliers Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini’ 1682 (pdf).

Accademia di Belle Arti, Bologna


Algardi ‘Olimpia Maidalchini’ face      ‘Olimpia Maidalchini’ bust

According to another version of Francesco Mantovani, it was the pope’s sister in law, Olimpia Maidalchini (Algardi), who smuggled a silver model of the fountain into the papal palace at the behest of Bernini.

Four rivers fountain    Fountain and Obelisk

Bernini Four rivers fountain
photos: Hervé Simon and obelisk: Enrico Strocchi

Bernini expanded the plinths of Algardi and Borromini into an impressive mass of rocks. He placed four sculptures, each of them representing a river, in each of the four corners. The boulders were roughly carved on purpose. It seems like the mass of rocks sprang from the ground to support the obelisk. The rocks split open along the central axis directly under the tall obelisk. The river god with his big paddle (navigable river) represents the river Ganges. This sculpture was based on a design by Algardi.

Danube    Rivergods    Ganges

Bernini Four rivers fountain
photos: Rodney

Nile       Rivergods    Rio de la Plata

Bernini Four rivers fountain
photos: Sjaak Kempe and Sailko

The Nile

The sculpture of the Nile has its head mostly hidden behind a cloth. The Egyptians did not know the source of the Nile. The Rio de la Plata represents the New World, its riches represented by coins.

Bernini Four rivers fountain: Nile
photo: Rodney

Bernini: Rio de la Plata Sant’Agnese
photos: Teggelaar and Sailko

Plata and Sant’Agnese        Rio de la Plata       Clay model

Behind the four personifications Bernini placed all kinds of plants, a lion, a snake and an armadillo. The raised hand of the Rio de la Plata and the cloth covering the head of the Nile were reportedly intended as a protest against the facade of Borromini’s Sant’Agnese in Agone. This, however, is a persistent myth that should be dispelled. When Bernini completed his design Borromini’s facade had not yet been built.


Ever since the days of Sixtus V (1585-1590), the obelisk had been seen as the symbol of Christianity’s victory over the heathen world. This of course fits perfectly with the four rivers, over which the obelisk rises triumphantly. The obelisk is also often associated with the sun’s rays, as a symbol of Christ: de ‘digitus solis’; the finger of the sun. On top of the obelisk sits a dove with an olive branch (Pamphili dove) in its bill. And yet the meaning of this fountain is not undisputed, there are many interpretations.
There is the interpretation from 1650 by a man named Kircher, a German who worked at the papal court. According to him, the obelisk is a divine light shining down from heaven, illuminating the four continents (Click here for Athanasius Kircher Wikipedia).

Four rivers fountain Obelisk
photo: Enrico Strocchi

Workshop Bernini ‘Bernini’

Workshop Bernini 'Portrait Bernini'
Hermitage St.Petersburg

The critics said the mass of rocks would not support the obelisk. In light of the cracks in St Peter’s bell tower, which prompted its demolition, there was some logic to their reasoning. Bernini mocked his critics. The critics had failed to understand that the obelisk’s narrow base had been intentional.

Narrow base obelisk    Coat of Armes

Four rivers fountain
photos: Wolfgang Moroder and Wikipedia

Whenever Bernini as an old man would drive past the Piazza Navona in his carriage, he closed the curtains. Not because he feared his work might collapse, but because he felt it had been poorly executed.

Continuation Rome day 4: Piazza di San Pietro and Bernini