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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Piazza Navona in Rome

What is Piazza Navona?

Piazza Navona is a picturesque baroque-style square built within the contours of a 1st-century imperial stadium that had a capacity of 30,000.

Fountain of the Four River at Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona History

Piazza Navona provides the perfect opportunity to grasp the complexity of 2,000 years of Roman history. A spectacular Baroque composition, this pedestrianised oval lies within the contours of an ancient Roman athletics stadium. Today, residents and tourists flock here to relax, socialise, have an aperitivo or an afternoon meal, all against a magnificent backdrop of historical art and architecture.

In AD 86, Emperor Domitian completed and dedicated a stadium as a gift to the Roman people, the Circus Agonalis, located on this very site. The piazza itself sits above the arena’s interior, hence its shape, whilst the outer buildings incorporate the stadium’s 2,000-year-old arches. In fact, the square’s current name is derived from this pre-existing stadium, for Navona is a corruption of the Greek word agôn, meaning ‘contest’.

Though a magnificent showpiece in the ancient world, the arena’s ruins were left untouched until the mid-15th century, when Pope Sixtus IV moved the city’s central market here from its historic location on the Capitoline Hill. The market remained here for nearly 400 years, and its legacy survives today in the traditional Christmas stalls selling toys and decorations set up by local merchants every December.

The modern Piazza Navona dates from the mid-17th century, when Pope Innocent X, a member of the papal Pamphilj family, designated the square as the site of his new family residence. He had a grand vision for the piazza, which included elaborate fountains and, of course, a spectacular church. The Palazzo Pamphilj, completed in 1650 and located at the southwest of the square, and the church Sant’Agnese in Agone to its north, completed a couple of decades later, were designed as a combined effort by Francesco Borromini, his architectural rival Girolamo Rainaldi, and Rainaldi's son, Carlo.

Moor Fountain at Piazza Navona

The piazza’s magnificent Baroque fountains conceal yet another chapter in the legendary rivalry between the renowned architects, Bernini and Borromini. Bernini managed to win the commission for the central Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’, even though he wasn’t favoured by the pope. The story, related by 17th-century biographer Filippo Baldinucci, goes as follows:

‘So strong was the sinister influence which the rivals of Bernini exercised on the mind of Innocent X that when he planned to set up in the Piazza Navona the great obelisk brought to Rome by the Emperor Antonino Caracalla… for the adornment of a magnificent fountain, the Pope had designs made by the leading architects of Rome without giving an order for one to Bernini… Prince Niccolò Lodovisio, whose wife was a niece of the Pope and who was at that same time an influential friend of Bernini, persuaded the latter to prepare a model.

Bernini made the model and the Prince arranged for it to be carried to the [Palazzo Pamphilj] in the Piazza Navona and secretly installed there in a room through which the Pope, who was to dine there on a certain day, had to pass as he left the table. The Pope appeared and when the meal was finished he went through that room and, on seeing such a noble creation and the sketch for such a vast monument, stopped almost in ecstasy. Being a Prince of the keenest judgment and the loftiest ideas, after admiring and praising it for more than half an hour, he burst forth, in the presence of the entire privy council, with the following words: “…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.”’

Fountain of Neptune at Piazza Navona

At the base of Bernini’s fountain sit four marble deities, each representing a river. The one that lies on its back beside a pile of coins, symbolising the riches of the New World, is Río de la Plata, or the ‘Plate River’. The story goes that Bernini gave the statue a raised arm to block out the sight of Sant’Agnese, whose façade was designed by his rival Borromini. An enjoyable story, however unfortunately not true; the fountain was completed in 1651, years earlier than Borromini’s façade.

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