The beautiful Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Fountains play quite an important part in Rome and its history, and today a huge number can be seen across the whole city – but my favourite by far is the beautiful Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.
In the Baroque era, fountains were a symbol of the generosity associated with the papal families and how well they were integrated with the local people; not only a secure and safe water supply, but the beauty of these fountains played an important part to the Roman society.
Pope Innocent X Pamphilj who reigned in the 1600’s set about to commission a fountain in one of the most important squares in Rome – the ancient stadium of the Emperor Domitian and the site on which the Pamphilj had their palace. He started a competition for the design of the fountain, with many important artists of the time submitting their ideas – with the exception of Bernini, who at the time was out of favour due to his close association with the previous papal regime (the Barberini family).
But Bernini wasn’t discouraged, and after designing a model for his idea for the fountain, he arranged for it to be seen by the pope, who immediately ordered Bernini to start the construction with his winning design. The fountain was unveiled to the public on the 12th of June 1651, much to the publics delight.
The fountain depicts four river gods, from the four great rivers of the continents which were then recognised at the time. The Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Rio de la Plata in America, and using clever iconography, Bernini made it nice and clear to depict who is who…
The Nile; the head of the god is covered with a piece of cloth, referencing to the fact that at the time no one knew where the Nile’s source was. But it is also suggested that it refers to the fact of the pagan beliefs of the area had not seen the “light” of Christianity at the time.
The Ganges; the god carries a long oar, which expresses the rivers navigability. The god looks away for the Church, which also is said to represent the ignorance of hedonistic Asia.
The Danube; the god touches the Papal coat of arms, since this is the river closest to Rome, it also represents the fact that Europe was considered the most cultured and civilised area of the world.
The Rio de la Plata; the god sits on a pile of coins, which represents the riches America were to offer Europe (Plata is the Spanish word for silver). He throws his hands as if to seem surprised, which is said to represent the newly converted land of America – they have just seen the light of Christianity.
But there is also another story to this god, according to legend the statue raises its right arm to protect itself from the collapse of the church of Saint Agnes in Agone, just opposite. The rumour was started due to a well known bitter rivalry between Bernini and Francesco Borroimi (who designed the church), and the statue was an interpretation of Bernini’s belief that the church was bound to collapse and destroy his fountain. In fact the construction of the church wasn’t started until a year after the unveiling of Bernini’s statue (1652) but it’s still a nice story!
The fountain surrounds an Egyptian obelisk (built in AD 81) surmounted by a dove, which is a symbol of the church and the Pamphilj family.