IT must have been as lively in the past as it is today. The famous square of Piazza Navona, located west of the Pantheon, is one must-visit area when touring the historic center of Rome. This bustling square can be reached on foot from a designated Hop-on-hop-off tour bus stop, although it’s a bit of distance (more noticeable at summer when the Roman sun’s heat is pounding on you). Of course you can always hail a cab to get there but that eliminates the fun in the exploration and discovery department of your visit to this ancient city.
Piazza Navona used to be the site of the Domitian Stadium where the games or “agones” where held, thus it was also known as the “Circus Aganolis” or the competition area until it was converted into a public square. If there is any competition transpiring within the square today, it would be between the street artists and peddlers selling wares at the square’s central area and the numerous café and bars that surrounding it. Their presence adds a modern day charm to the old world-designed piazza.
Piazza Navona was turned into remarkable example of Baroque Roman architecture and art during Pope Innocent X’s reign, and these important sculptural and architectural creations that took form of three fountains and a church, to cite a few, are the magnificent artworks— the visual treats— that we get to feast on at Piazza Navona now.
The three fountains is the main attraction of the piazza. Of the three, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers) in the center is the most striking and the largest. Commissioned by Pope Innocent X, Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the fountain that features four figures, each representing four of the most important rivers of the Old World—the Ganges, Nile, Danube and Rio de la Plata in the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe and America— set at the base of the Obelisk of Domitian which was transported in pieces from its original location, the Circus of Maxentius.
Flanking the great fountain are two more fountains originally built by Giacomodella Porta made impressive by the additions of statues centuries after. The Fontana del Moro (Moor fountain, 1575) on the southern end of the square features four Tritons and a 1673 Bernini-designed statue of the Moor wrestling a dolphin. On the opposite end towards the north is the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune fountain, 1574) that features an 1878 addition of Neptune’s statue by Antonio Della Bitta.
The 1670 Baroque church behind the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, is another highlight of the area. It was built after the completion of Bernini’s fountain in 1652 with a façade designed by Francesco Borromini (said to be Bernini’s rival). According to legend, the site the church was built on was where St. Agnes was stripped naked and was saved from disgrace by a miraculous growth of hair that cloaked her.
Piazza Navona can be one cool oasis on a hot, hectic day of touring Rome. You can sit by the fountains and enjoy a gelato (pizza or espresso, too) while the sound of the flowing water relaxes you, and perhaps ponder on which direction you want to head to next.
How about taking a cue from Robert Langdon? The pagan angel at the top of the Fountain of the Four Rivers pointed him to the secret temple of the Illuminati—to Castel Sant’Angelo, a short distance from the piazza. That’s exactly where we went to on our next stop. Now, you ask, “Did you walk or did you run ala Langdon?” I will say, “Did you walk” ala Ate Vi.
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