The history of Piazza Navona

piazza navona foto

Baroque masterpiece in Rome, Piazza Navona it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and fascinating places in our city. It is no surprise that tourists and Romans alike are attracted by the beauty of the fountains, churches and ancient buildings that populate it. It is the unmissable stop on Sunday walks, on guided tours by international groups and photographers who love to immortalize the wonders of the city, but how many really know the history of Piazza Navona? Certainly few, except for great history buffs. So let's try to know something more about one of the most famous places in Rome, which will allow us to better appreciate the buildings that are part of it.

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Piazza Navona history: the Stadium of Domitian

Although it may be unknown to most, we know one thing about Piazza Navona: it is a place with very ancient origins, which date back to the emperor Domitian (81/96 AD). For a moment, then, let's try to forget the square as it is today and try to imagine this gigantic space occupied by Stadium of Domitian – or “Circo Agonalis” -, commissioned by the emperor himself in 86 AD to host athletics competitions held on the model of Greek competitions.

Clearly, the structure of the building fully satisfied the required sporting needs: one giant rectangular arena 275 meters long and 106 meters wide, with the northern end shaped like a hemicycle and the two main entrances opening in the center of the long sides. A shape that the square has preserved still today, even though the buildings now occupy the space that was once intended for the auditorium, which apparently could accommodate up to 30 thousand spectators. The entire stadium was built in blocks of travertine and brick, then covered with molded and colored stucco. On the outside, however, the facade was embellished with two orders of arches which rested on travertine pillars with Ionic semi-columns in the first order and Corinthian in the second.

An architecture truly created with mastery, but which unfortunately did not reach us intact due to a series of unfortunate events. At the time of the emperor Marcus Opellius Macrinus (217/281 AD), the stadium was in fact destroyed by a fire, and then restored in 228 AD - in the era of Alexander Severus, so much so that it then took the name of Circus Alexandrinus -. The entire structure remained in use until the 5th century AD, when the structure began to decay, the space was even used (like other ancient monuments) as a quarry for materials and entire parts of the stadium were incorporated into the construction of new buildings. In any case, even today it is possible to see the remains of the stadium of Domitian, the only one in masonry to have survived to the present day.

Piazza Navona, a Baroque masterpiece between Bernini and Borromini

After the stadium of Domitian was abandoned, the square began to come back to life only during the 15th century, when the urban market which was once housed in the Market Square of the same name. Over the years, to encourage this activity the square was completely rearranged from an architectural point of view: it was Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572/1585) who brought here well three fountains, complete with a drinking trough, serving both the market and the transport animals that used to move around the area.

But the real renewal of Piazza Navona took place at the beginning of the seventeenth century, thanks to the work of Giovanni Battista Pamphili, who became Pope with the name of Innocent in 1644. He was, without a doubt, the proponent of the baroque revival of one of the most beautiful places in Rome. In fact, it was Innocent X himself who commissioned a Gian Lorenzo Bernini the realization of the famous fountain of the Four Rivers, now one of the most beautiful monuments in the entire square. But not only. As many of you already know, the Pope commissioned a Francesco Borromini the project of Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, and then entrusted Girolamo Rainaldi with the construction of the so-called Pamphili Palace, a sort of family residence, directly overlooking the square. In fact, it seems that, during the summer months, Innocent famous naval battles of the Romans (the Naumachie, precisely).

Finally, in the 18th century Pope Pius VI gave his contribution to the urban planning of this area by building the famous Braschi Palace  today home to the Museum of Rome -, thus giving the square the appearance we still see today. But once Piazza Navona Rome's history has been concluded, let's try to discover some more curiosities about the buildings that are part of it.

What to see in Piazza Navona: the fountains

As anticipated, most of the historic buildings found in the square were built by Pope Innocent they designed, Bernini and Borromini.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers

Built in the center of Piazza Navona, in an enviable position to say the least, the Fountain of the Four Rivers is the largest and most notable of the three that adorn this enormous public space. Built by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1647 and 1651, it stands out for its marvelous white marble sculptures, 5 meters high and resting on a travertine base, representing the allegories of the four major rivers in the world known at the time:

  • The Danube, represented by a figure spirally wrapped around itself and facing a horse
  • The Rio de la Plata, rendered by a man holding an arm raised to demonstrate the colonization of the American continent (rather recent for that time)
  • The Ganges, which has the appearance of a bearded figure holding an oar in his hands
  • The Nile, depicted by a statue covering her face with a veil, representing that its sources were still unknown. Popular rumors, however, claimed that Bernini had wanted to create a figure with a covered face out of contempt for Borromini, who was responsible for the project of the nearby Church of Sant'Agnese. The same was said of the raised arm of the figure representing the Rio de la Plata, which some said was intended to express the fear that the dome of the church could collapse at any moment. All unfounded rumors, given that Borromini finished his work long after Bernini completed this fountain.

It seems that initially this project had been entrusted by the Pope to Borromini, but it was his mother-in-law Donna Olimpia who convinced him to change his mind, who managed to get a silver model of Bernini's project into the hands of Innocent Not even a pontiff could oppose such beauty, and so he decided to change his mind and entrust the task to this sculptor.

The Moro Fountain

Located on the southern side of the square, just below the windows of the splendid Palazzo Pamphili, the Fontana del Moro is the oldest of the three. This was in fact built in 1574 by will of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni, with a completely different layout compared to what we see today. Originally, the fountain was placed on a base made up of two travertine steps and characterized by a stone basin decorated with sea monsters, a dragon, an eagle and four tritons, placed at the corners alternating with sculptures representing masks.

But with the advent of the Baroque, Innocent . The project was not particularly liked by either the Pope or the people, who gave it the nickname "Snail Fountain", and so it was decided to replace the sculpture group with a figure representing a Ethiopian fights with a dolphin, the so-called “Moro” who gave a new name to the fountain.

The Neptune Fountain

And here we are at the last architectural wonder of this square, the Fountain of Neptune, otherwise called "dei Calderari" due to the high concentration of copper basin and vase manufacturers in the area. Unlike the other two, the history of this fountain proves to be truly unusual: built at the behest of Pope Gregory XIII, and created by Giacomo Della Porta together with the so-called Fontana del Moro, this remained completely undecorated for over 300 years.

In fact, only in 1873 did the Municipality of Rome decide to organize a tender for the creation of sculptures to adorn it. The winner was Gregorio Zappalà and Antonio Della Bitta, who respectively created the sculptural groups of sea horses led by young people, mermaids fighting with sea monsters and winged cherubs playing with dolphins, the first; and the central figure of Neptune defending himself with his trident from an attack by an octopus, the second.

As you can imagine, the fountains are just some of the architectural beauties of Piazza Navona. If you want to see Bernini's wonderful sculptures and Borromini's incredible designs more closely, then arm yourself with patience and go to the center to admire them. After a long walk, you can satiate your appetite from 'Taste, a restaurant located just a few steps from one of the most beautiful places in Rome. In short, a perfect combination for those who want to treat themselves to a bit of relaxation after a guided tour or a cultural walk.