Architecture Around the World

Piazza Novona
Rome, Italy

Style: Baroque

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

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Looking south

Sant'Agnese in Agone, by Bernini

Looking south

Fountain of the Four Rivers, by Bernini

Fountain of Neptune

Fountain of Neptune at the north end of the piazza

Fountain of Neptune

Fountain of Neptune

Fountain of Neptune

Buffalo's Sophie Gordon just before she was reprimanded by a nun for wading in Piazza Navona on a 90 degree August day in 2010.

Piazza Navona has always been the hub of public spectacle -- even as far back as the 1st century when great athletic contests were held in Emperor Domitian's stadium that stood on this site (the stadium entrance door can still be seen in Piazza Tor Sangulgna).

In the 15th century jousts were held here and, in the 18th century, the piazza was transformed into a shallow lake through which coaches of the nobility paraded.

Pope Innocent X commissioned many of the piazza's landmarks in honor of his family whose mansion stood at the southwest end (now the Brazilian embassy). The most famous of these landmarks, at the piazza's center is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed in 1651 by Bernini (who won the commission by bribing the Pope's highly influential sister-in law with a silver model of his proposed work). Its four figures represent the four largest rivers of the 17th century - the Danube, the Nile (whose veil indicates its unknown source), the Ganges and the Plate. The fountain is considered a masterpiece, though Bernini himself hated the outcome, once stating, "I am ashamed to have done so poorly."

At the piazza's south end is the Fountain of the Moor, also by Bernini, and at the north end is the 19th century Fountain of Neptune. At the mid west side, facing the Fountain of the Four Rivers, is the pope's family church, St. Agnese in Agone (the inside is unexceptional but the facade was done by Borromini).

Gianlorenzo Bernini

Although Baroque architecture was to spread all over Europe, it was born in Rome and its founding father was Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). This precocious sculptor was selling his work at age sixteen to the Borghese family. By twenty, Bernini was so famous, the pope commissioned him to sculpt a papal portrait. Not content to excel in the plastic arts, Bernini was the greatest scene designer of the age. When he created a stage set, the illusion was so convincing, people in the front row fled in terror, convinced they would be drenched by flood or scorched by fire.

Bursting with talent doesn't begin to describe Bernini's abilities, for he was also an esteemed painter, poet, and composer. An English visitor recalled attending an opera in 1644 where Bernini "painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, wrote the comedy and built the theater." If they had had popcorn, Bernini would have popped and buttered it.

In 1623, Bernini began his career as an architect. For the next fifty years, his fingerprints were all over Rome. His vision, skill, personality, and art shaped the grandeur, flamboyance, and emotionalism of Counter-Reformation Vatican City, and of the Baroque era in general.

Photos and their arrangement 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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