The Piazza Navona and Bernini

Piazza Navona  before interventions in the 17th century
Piazza Navona  before interventions in the 17th century
Piazza Navona during the mid-17th century Piranesi and Piazza before the renovations of Innocent X 1625 and livecam
Piazza Navona Piranesi ca.1650

Bernini built a famous fountain in this square: the Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Piazza Navona     Youtube  Stadium van Domitian and the Piazza Navona (1.40-3.58)
Aerial picture    Map surrounding Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona Piranesi ca.1650

pictures: Maurizio Capolupo and mouseover lorenzoclick

Caspar van Wittel ‘Piazza Navona’ 1699, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid and large size  google art project
Piazza Navona i1699 Caspar van Wittel


Hendrik Frans van Lint ‘Piazza Navona’ c. 1730 large size
Fountain of the Four Rivers
Bernini Fountain of the Four Rivers Piazza Navona

picture (mouseover): wineprincess44

Bernini model fountain big size (privately owned)
Second model (Accademia di Belle Arti, Bologna)
Bernini model Fountain of the Four Rivers

Bernini fountain of the four Rivers:
1. Youtube lecture  Alexander Smarius (Dutch spoken starts at 8.95 minutes)
2. Youtube  Bernini Piazza Navona Tod Marder (33.53 minutes)

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.

Caravaggio ‘Urban VIII’

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 V 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.

 Bernini Costanza Bonarelli
Youtube Sarah McPhee  Bernini’s Beloved – A Portrait of Costanza (59 minutes)
Bernini ‘Costanza Bonarelli’ Bargello Florence
Sala della Scultura barocca e del  Medagliere
Bernini Costanza Bonaerelli

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.

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.

Agnese in Agone in the Piazza Navona
S. Agnese in Agone in the Piazza Navona

picture: Riccardo Caputelli

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 (click here for 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. The model that Bernini made of the fountain was smuggled into the pope’s private quarters by his friend. When Innocent X saw the model, he was very enthusiastic. He learned that Bernini was the designer and commissioned him to build the fountain. The pope reportedly sighed that ‘if you don’t want to build this design, you have to make sure you don’t get to see it’. According to another version it was the pope’s sister in law, Olimpia Maidalchini, who smuggled a silver model of the fountain into the papal palace at the behest of Bernini. (Domenico Bernini, ‘The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini‘, A translation and critical edition, with introduction and commentary, by Franco Mormando, The Pennsylvania State University Press University Park, Pennsylvania, 2011 page 162 and 351).

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:

Bernini fountain of the four Riversi Ganges
Río de la Plata
Bernini fountain of the four Rivers Río de la Plata
Nile      Detail
Bernini fountain of the four Rivers Nile

This sculpture was based on a design by Algardi. 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 detail money Fountain of the Four Rivers
Bernini Fountain of the Four Rivers

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 Santa’Agnese in Agone. This, however, is a persistent myth that should be dispelled. When Borromini completed his design Borromini’s facade had not yet been built.

The raised hand of the Rio Plata and Sant’Agnese’s facade
The raised hand of the Rio de la Plata and Sant’Agnese’s facade

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.

Pamfili duif op obelisk vierstromenfontein Piazza Navona

picture: valix by valix

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).

Obelisk vierstromenfontein Piazza Navona Bernini

picture: pjink11

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.

‘[…] it happened that Rome was struck by a fierce storm. The violence of its wind caused several houses to collapse and seemed, as well, to threaten the destruction of those that remained standing. This storm gave greater impetus to the rumor already circulating about the imminent collapse of the obelisk and as a result an urgent cry rose throughout Rome that the structure was already tilting over and was going to collapse at any moment. At this point, even the wisest in the population began to find reason for concern, and so one of their number immediately sent a word of warning to the Cavaliere. […]  the Cavaliere, in a somewhat perturbed state, descends from his carriage and with measuring instruments inspect the obelisk from a safe distance, as if he truly feared that it would collapse upon him. […] Bernini gave orders for four pieces of thin rope to be tied, on one end, to the obelisk at the point where it rests on its pedestal and, on the other, attached, with the same number of nails, to four nearby houses. Once this was accomplished, a serene expression came over the Cavaliere’s face and he departed the scene […] Through this amusing contrivance, the people realized the error of their belief […]’

Domenico Bernini, ‘The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini‘, A translation and critical edition, with introduction and commentary, by Franco Mormando, The Pennsylvania State University Press University Park, Pennsylvania, 2011 pages 165-166).

Bernini mocked his critics. The critics had failed to understand that the obelisk’s narrow base had been intentional.

The obelisk on the tip of the mass of rocks
Pamphili coat of arms
the obelisk on the tip of the mass of rocks fountain of four rivers Piazza Navona Bernini

picture (mouseover): tentonbricks

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.

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