Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s most stunning piazzas. It was not built, but was rebuilt in the middle of 17th century on the former Stadium of Domitian. This was a horseshoe-shaped venue for foot races, built in the 1st Century AD.
The grand renovation, which Pope Innocent X carried out, was primarily an attempt to raise the status of his family, Pamphili, who owned large portions of the land surrounding the plaza. He also gave them the largest piazza in Rome. The work included the rebuilding of the Sant’Agnese church by Bernini and Borromini and the creation of the Pamphili Palace. It also gave the opportunity to create one of the most amazing fountains ever made, the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
It is home to many other outdoor spaces, including shops, fountains, the Museo di Roma and even a Pasquino statue, where Romans can make lyrical comments about powerful people.
What can you see at Piazza Navona
The Fountain of the Four Rivers
Bernini’s most renowned work was not intended to be his. Borromini was the first sculptor to come to mind when Innocent X wanted to make his piazza even more beautiful by adding a fountain.
Bernini was not only the arch rival to Borromini but he was also vilified by the Pamphili because of his connection with Pope Urban VIII, Innocent’s predecesor, and member of the rival Barberini families. Bernini’s friend Prince Niccolo Ludovisi (Bernini had many influential friends) heard about the situation and suggested that Bernini create a model of his fountain design.
Borromini was still in love with Bernini so he took Borromini’s idea of four rivers. Bernini also added an Egyptian obelisk at the top. It was almost like frosting on a spectacular cake. When the model was complete, Prince Ludovisi plotted to place it in a room at Pamphili palace where Innocent often passed by. Innocent X saw the model and uttered the immortal, if possibly apocryphal words “…he must not see Bernini’s designs.
They say the rest is history.
The fountain is literally overflowing in allegory and features four titans that represent four rivers from four continents: Africa, Americas, India, Europe. An Egyptian obelisk, salvaged from the Appian Way, rises from the middle of them. It is a symbol for eternal Roman power, set on a plinth made of travertine. It is adorned with an extensive list of animals and symbols that make the fountain a source for legend, legend, study, and conjecture.
Bernini was more involved in project management than actual carving, but he is believed to have carved the horse and lion, palm trees, and the creature that is thought be an armadillo. However, this is basically a fabrication. Blindfolded, the figure of the Nile appears that way because it is not possible to see the facade of Sant’Agnese which Borromini designed. The figure of the Danube could be actually holding his hand up to block the view from the same work.
It is undisputed that the feat of placing a massive stone obelisk (weighing several tons) on top a stone arch is a marvel. It’s an amazing feat of engineering, and the perfect topping to an already extraordinary cake.
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The Pamphili Palace in Agone
The Pamphili Palace was an ensemble of buildings that abutted the original (unrenovated) Piazza Navona. After Giambattista Pamphili was elected Pope Innocent X, he began the renovation of the piazza and built a palace. A series of buildings, all separate, were merged under the supervision of Girolamo Rainaldi (the Chief papal architect in Rome at that time), and united under one grand façade. The building today is known as the Brazilian Embassy, although it’s a bit quaint.
Rainaldi was also involved in the reconstruction of Sant’Agnese’s church. It is believed that it was built on the site of a brothel, where Agnese was taken after she was exposed as a Christian living in Pagan Rome. The site has been a pilgrimage spot for many years. However, the Pamphili’s felt that it needed some sprucing up. They brought in Rainaldi, Borromini, and Bernini to finish the job.
The building is often overlooked by historians, despite the fact that it was influenced by three of Rome’s greatest architects. It is fascinating that you can identify which section each man designed. This is because cooperation was impossible in a single area. Borromini designed the facade from the ceiling to Bernini’s pediment. Everything above is Rainaldi.
Museo di Roma
The museum is dedicated to the history and art of the eternal city. It was established in Rome. It was established in 1950s by various collections that were displayed in Palazzo Braschi (a 19th-century palace which has served as a mayoral residence, Fascist headquarters and refugee center).
It houses a collection that includes paintings, sculptures, and photographs that are specifically related to Rome, its history, and its people. The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00am to 7:00pm. The last entry will be one hour before closing. Adult tickets cost EUR11.oo For more details, please check their website.
Fontana del Moo and the Fountain of Neptune
Giacomo della Porta built these two smaller fountains to balance the piazza. Although the original designs weren’t particularly Baroque in style, they were modified over time to include the necessary gods, cherubs and stylized sea creatures.
The first “talking statue” of Rome, a.k.a Pasquino, is located just off the piazza’s southwest end. He is an old, battered statue dating back to the 3rd Century B.C. He was placed in the small piazza in 16th century.
Soon after, pieces of paper started to appear on his base, denouncing various moves by rulers and politicians of that day. Sometimes in verse, they were intended to make public many of the complaints people normally only share among themselves. It was an opinion section in a newspaper before Romans had newspapers, and it quickly became very popular.
Despite the fact the original satirist, who is now lost to history, was caught and sentenced pretty severely (let’s just be honest writing satirical poetry is difficult when your hands aren’t working), the tradition survived and you can still find notes at the base Pasquino’s statue mocking everything and everyone in the city.
Tips to Visit
Piazza Navona, a public space, is not closed. However, it can get very crowded throughout the day, regardless of the season. This is especially true during high season (usually from May to September). You can find intimacy if you go early in the morning before the buskers and street artists, as well as hawkers and caricaturists.
Don’t forget the fun and bustle of the piazza at night. You can feel a carnival-like vibe by going around sundown on a summer night to experience the feeling of being in a party that has been running for more than 500 years.
You should not attempt to plunge your feet in the water fountains. Italian authorities have tightened their control over interactions with the fountains, and those who do so could face severe penalties.
Keep in mind that most restaurants in the area of Piazza Navona tend to be more concerned with quantity (of covers), than quality (of food). You don’t have to eat poorly, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. All you need is some research. Avoid any restaurant with a tout.
Continue reading What to Eat in Italy.
When is the Best Time to Visit
Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s most popular attractions, is a must-see. From around 10:00am to well after midnight, there is always a crowd. It has been a meeting place for people from all walks of Rome since it was renovated by Innocent X.
The best time to visit the piazza at its busiest is in this sense. If you prefer to be able to view it in peace, you can take a walk early in the morning.