Georgia Darell - Featured Travel Writer

Unraveling Piazza Navona

One of the many beautiful scenes in Piazza Navona in Rome Italy. (Photo: © Iakov Kalinin | Bigstock.com)

Piazza Navona is pretty much my favourite piazza of Rome, and indeed the world!

It sits bang in the epicenter of the Eternal City and is justly famous for all sorts of reasons. I love to see the expressions on people’s faces as we approach it from a little alley way with a random ancient 2000 year old pillar that sticks up out of the cobbles. You turn the corner and suddenly there she is, Piazza Navona gleaming white in all her majestic glory. The gasps of wonder from my friends and clients get me every time – it’s why I love my job, I always get a kick out of people’s first time reactions. It’s what keeps Rome, that most ancient of cities, so new for me.

Navona is firstly a rather odd shape – a stretched out oval – surrounded by a baroque palace, which is now the Brazilian Embassy, a Baroque church by Francesco Borromini and a line of old palazzos that are now shops and restaurants. In the centre stands one of Rome’s famous fountains, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, or as I like to call him Rome’s Rock Star.

Because it is such a famous piazza, its many secrets often go unremarked by the casual visitor, and indeed the local Romans. But like the rest of Rome, which was built layer upon layer, Piazza Navona is no exception. And thanks to recently opened excavations you can even see the layers beneath. The reason for its odd shape is that it was built on top of an ancient 2000 years old horse racing stadium. The emperor Domitian commissioned it (one of the Flavian Emperors who built none other than that little known monument of the ancient world… the Colosseum). You can view that ancient entrance way at the Northern end of the piazza – where you’ll see the street level of ancient Rome was a good 20 feet lower down than the present street level today.

How is this possible? I hear you ask.

This takes me to this next unremarked, yet remarkable secret. If you walk up to the Brazilian Embassy, on its left you might notice a little plaque on the side of the building that is just out of my reach, about 7 feet off the ground. It is a flood marker from the year 1870. Yep – the stories of the raging Tiber are true. Usually an innocent, calm looking trickle of water, the Tiber used to flood its banks regularly. Finally the flood walls were built after the last great flood of 1870. It is somewhat flabbergasting to imagine Rome under so much water when you visit. Over the years the silting of the river, as well as the Roman propensity to recycle building materials led to the city being built literally on top of itself.

Next the Church and the Fountain

Bernini and Borromini were the arch rivals of Baroque Rome. Both were highly talented architects and Pope Innocent X cunningly threw them into direct competition when he commissioned his favourite man, Borromini to design and build the Church of Saint Agnes in Agony, and Bernini (who was everyone else’s favourite) to design and build the Fountain of the Four Rivers.

These two men were not friendly rivals.

And this was too good an opportunity not to insult each other. And this is where we put on our detective hats.

Firstly, which four rivers did Bernini depict in his fountain? The clues are all there. The rivers are personified as muscular men in white travertine stone. One is covering his head with a cloth as a lion growls at him from under a palm tree. One navigates using a long, straight wooden pole as an oriental dragon like creature peers at him. One holds up the papal coat of arms as a white horse gallops beneath him. And finally, one wearing shackles around his ankles and wrists leans back with his arms raised above his face, a cactus plant is just above him and a snake hisses down at him*.

The fountain falls in the shadow of the church. Now then, this is sometimes scoffed at as an urban myth or an old wives tale. But come closer. Bernini finished the fountain before the church was completed, yes. It was a far smaller work of course it was finished sooner. But the two men were commissioned at the same time – and the church was under construction when the fountain was finished. Just look at the statue of the shackled man and the gesture he is making as well as the horrified look on his face as he stares up at the church…

Then swivel your gaze to the church. It is truly a majestic masterpiece. One of the principles of Baroque architecture was to achieve perfection and beauty in balance and symmetery. Now let your eyes travel from left to right, left to right as you let your gaze rise from the bottom to the top of the church. You might see that something just isn’t quite symmetrical. Can you spot it? A statue of lady on the right hand side directly above the fountain… and no matching lady on the left hand side. Whenever you spot a discrepancy like this in art and architecture of this era, you know there’s something afoot! Look at the gesture she is making… she is turning away from the fountain in disdain. The very image of Lady Disdain.

This is Bernini using his fountain to show his horror and disgust at his rival’s work. And Borromini’s retaliation – his disdain for Bernini!

Another thing to spot around piazza Navona – are the “fake” windows. Windows that have in fact been painted onto the buildings! Again for the purposes of maintaining symetery, even when the building doesn’t in fact require a window.

During the summer months Navona is also a thriving art market; a gorgeous hustle and bustle and kaleidoscope of colors. As you can imagine it is also full of restaurants. My top tip for you whilst you visit Rome is to avoid eating and drinking on the piazzas like the plague. Overpriced and bad quality – especially on Navona. Luckily all the little streets leading off Piazza Navona lead you to some of the cities best little hidden gems for food and vino and picturesque cobblestreets with hardly anyone else around…

*answers: the Nile – the lion and palm tree for Africa, his eyes are covered because no one then knew the origin of the Nile, the Ganges – a long, straight easily navigable river in the orient – they slightly confused India and China back then!, the Danube – the closes river to Rome and the Papacy and a white horse of Austria and the Rio della Plato – a slave from the new world, with the cactus and snake of South America.