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Piazza Navona, Rome
Piazza Navona history
The site for today’s square is built on the ancient Stadium of Domitian. The stadium was also known as “Circus Agonalis” – “the competition arena”. It was built by Emperor Domitian in year 86 AD and was mainly used for festivals and sporting events. Today’s square follows the same shape as the old stadium, hence the long, oval look of Piazza Navona.
The square is not only built on the same site as the old stadium, but it has most likely also attained its name from it. Over time, the name “Circus Agonalis” is believed to have changed towards “in Agone”, later “Navone” and eventually to today’s “Navona”.
The site was paved in the 15th century and became officially the Navona square – one of the city marketplaces. The three fountains and the square church were added later in the 16th and 17thcentury.
The man responsible for the way the piazza looks today is mainly Pope Innocent the 10th. He was the pope in mid 17th century and ordered the restoration and construction of the main features of today’s Piazza Navona.
Why visit Piazza Navona ?
Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s most beautiful squares. It houses several Baroque masterpieces; each one of them impressive on their own. The square is dominated by three large fountains, which together with a church and its harmonious surroundings, creates an enchanting and vibrant oasis in the heart of Rome.
One of the features is the beautiful church Sant’Agnese in Agone. The church is dedicated to Saint Agnes who is said to have been martyred here at the ancient Circus Agonalis. It also served as a personal chapel for Pope Innocent the 10th, as his family palace was adjacent to the church. The stunning church is designed in true baroque style by one of the masters of the time – Francesco Borromini.
The central fountain
While the great church certainly draws attention, the focus of the square is on its three magnificent fountains. The central fountain is known as “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi”, meaning “the fountain of the four rivers”. This beautiful fountain was constructed in mid 17th century on request of the pope and created by the famous Italian artist Bernini.
The fountain is based around four figures. Not surprisingly - when considering its name - these figures are meant to honor four major rivers from different continents. The rivers are; the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio della Plata.
The fountain also incorporates the pope’s coat-of-arms as well as a large obelisk, originally located at the Massenzio Circus.
During their active time, the architect behind the church, Borromini, and the fountain sculptor Bernini, were two bitter rivals. One little fun fact, which a lot of people don’t know about, is that this rivalry has left a trace in fountain of the four rivers.
It is often said that Bernini sculpted the figure of the "Rio de la Plata" cowering, as if he thought the facade designed by his rival Borromini could crumble atop him. By look at the figure, it’s easy to understand why.
The southern fountain
The fountain to the south is known as Fontana del Moro – the Moor fountain. It is centered around a large statue designed by Bernini, depicting a Moor holding a large fish. This statue was added in the 17th century while the surrounding tritons are 19th century additions.
The northern fountain
The fountain to the north is called Fontana di Nettuno – the Neptune fountain. It was originally built in late 16th century. The fountain is dominated by a statue of Neptune fighting an octopus, surrounded by several statues depicting sea nymphs.
The Neptune statue was added as late as in 1878, in order to make that fountain more symmetrical with the Moor Fountain to the south.
Piazza Navona location
Piazza Navona resources
Fontana del Moro. (GFDL) Remi Jouan.
Figure at the main fountain cowering. (public domain)
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