Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s great public spaces and one that people have been flocking to for nearly two millennia - although for different reasons. Emperor Domitian built his Circus Agonalis (‘agone' meaning games or competitions) here in 85 AD: a giant stadium that would hold 15-20,000 people and which was occasionally flooded, like the Colosseum, for mock aquatic battles. In the 15th century the ruin, long left to deteriorate after the fall of the empire and looted for its marble and stone, became a marketplace, and a grand rebuilding plan added palaces and churches to its perimeter in the 17th. Three splashing fountains were commission for the center, their drains plugged on hot summer days to overflow and fill the square with cool water for the enjoyment and relief of citizens and their 4-legged friends.
The marketplace was moved to Campo de Fiori in the 1800’s and today this beloved of Rome’s public ‘living rooms’ is ringed with trattorias and shops and buzzing with artisans, musicians, tourists, locals, and vendors hawking goods of dubious quality. Circus Agonalis may be long gone but the square retains the distinctive oval shape of the arena and vestiges of its name: Navona is an evolution of ‘in agone’.
Sant’Agnese (St. Agnes) in Agone towers over the west central side of the piazza: a 17th-century baroque church with the fingerprints of Borromini, Bernini and several other architects in its design. It harbors the grisly skull of a virginal, 4th-century martyr - who stubbornly survived burning first - thought to have been beheaded in the square. There are said to be ruins of the old circus under its foundations but we’ve never found the doors unlocked.
The fountains? Still splashing merrily away with Bernini’s gorgeous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) taking center stage. It’s crowned with a obelisk old Domitian had made and shipped from Egypt for a temple complex in Campus Martius and which later ended up in Maxentius’ circus out on the Appia Antica. Some 1000 years hence, Bernini collected the broken bits and pasted them together again for his masterpiece. This bit of efficient recycling was probably a good move as the thing had been commissioned by Pope Innocent X during a time of severe economic stress: his flock were pretty cranky about spending money on fountains.
Grab a gelato and a bench….
Note: the ULR below links to a nice shot of the piazza from above so you can see the shape.
In the center of the Piazza Navona is one of Bernini’s most magnificent fountains, built at the base of an Egyptian obelisk - Fountain of the Four Rivers.
While the piazza is set on the site of the ancient stadium for Domitian (1st century AD), the redesign of the piazza into a local community spot didn’t occur until the 1600s when Pope Innocent X decided to fix up the piazza that was home to his family palazzo. Innocent decided to commission a fountain to support the obelisk that had been laying around for centuries in the Circus Maximus, broken into five pieces.
Bernini was the leading sculptor in Rome during this time, but the story is that Pope Innocent purposely would not allow Bernini to put in his bid to create the statue – not sure why, perhaps to give some up and coming artists a chance or maybe he felt Bernini was overwhelmed with all his other projects). Anyway, Bernini did come up with a design and the pope’s nephew found a way to get his uncle to see the design and, as they say, the rest is history.
The fountain is designed around the concept of four large allegorical statues at the base of the obelisk, which appears to be a large rock. These figures represent four rivers of the world – not necessarily the longest or the most famous rivers as we think of them, but remember the time of the sculpture and the geography known in the 1600s. The rivers of the fountain are the Ganges, Danube, Nile, and the Plate.
The obelisk was brought to Rome by Emperor Domitian (same guy who built the stadium where the Piazza Navona is located). The hieroglyphics on the obelisk aren’t really Egyptian since Domitian paid some Romans to carve them and refer to Domitian as the ‘eternal pharaoh’ and record his father and brother as gods. At the top of the obelisk is a dove, which represents Pope Innocent X.
The fountain is a very popular place with tourists and, where lots of tourists are, you can bet the salesmen of cheap sunglasses, knock-off purses, and silly toys will be there. Unfortunately, they were all around the base of the fountain itself so that if you wanted to get up close and look at the fountain, you had to run through the gauntlet of these never-accept-no-for-an-answer guys. Just walk through them, don’t make eye contact, firmly say no, and enjoy Bernini’s fountain!
We wandered over to Piazza Navona mainly because I wanted to see Bernini’s famous Four Rivers fountain. What we found was a neat piazza that, while it recognizes the many tourists that come here, it still seemed to have a local feel to it.
Piazza Navona is big – or rather I should say long. It gets it shape from the ancient stadium that was built by Domitian in the 1st century. Over the years, various popes have added to the surrounding area, but the general shape remains the same. In fact, you can see the footprint of the ancient stadium’s northern curve under the modern buildings of the next piazza to the north of Navona – the Piazza Tor Sanguigna. While the piazza is set on an ancient site, the redesign of the piazza into a local community spot didn’t occur until the 1600s when Pope Innocent X decided to fix up the piazza that was home to his family palazzo.
The Piazza Navona is famous for Bernini’s fountain, which sits in the center of the long plaza (see my separate Fountain of the Four Rivers tip about this fountain) and its obelisk for which the fountain was built around. At either end of the piazza are two additional fountains, each attracting tourists as they sit along the edges and enjoy a pleasant care-free moment.
At the northern end of the piazza is the Fontana di Nattuno, which depicts Neptune fighting with some sort of sea monster or giant squid like thing. This fountain is more recent, being built in the late 1800s.
At the southern end of the piazza is the Fontana del Moro, built in 1576, although what you see today are replicas with the originals on display at the Villa Borghese. The main focus of this fountain is the Moor standing in the center with mermen blowing through their shells on either side.
While we wandered along the piazza, we just enjoyed watching the people. Children chasing the pigeons, people having lunch or just soaking up the warmth of the sun, and tourists taking photos of everything (yeah – I was one of them!). As we sat on a bench to relax, we listened to the two boys on the next bench calling out to anyone that would listen to them to buy their fresh squeezed orange juice. Chatting with them (and getting their photo), we learned that they were two American students in Rome for school who decided to make a little extra cash. I’m not sure how much they made from their bench since I didn’t see anyone else come to their make-shift juice stand, which consisted of a flimsy tray, a juicer, and a bag of sugar. But they were enjoying the day and having fun so all was good.
At the northern end of the piazza was an art show – easels displaying the works of local artists. It fit my idea of Rome – so much fine art in this town that they should have a vibrant local art scene. Cafes were all around this end of the piazza (not so much on the southern end) and the homes as well as the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone that line the piazza were beautiful. Sadly, I wasn’t able to get into the church, which is supposed to be built on the site where in AD 304 St. Agnes was exposed in efforts to get her to recant her faith. Next time in Rome (I guess I need to throw that coin into the Trevi Fountain with all this thinking about my next time in this city…)!
Piazza Navona is not far from many of the wonderful churches of Rome. It is just around the corner from the San Luigi dei Francesi (home to three magnificent Caravaggio paintings) and a couple blocks away from the Pantheon. And be sure to stop by for a quick look at one of Rome’s talking statues, Pasquino, which rests right around the corner from the southern tip of the Piazza Navona.
St Ives, when you lived among us
You were the advocate of the poor
The defender of widows and orphans,
Provider for all the needy.
Listen today to our prayer!
Help us to love justice as you loved it!
Help us to know how to defend our rights
Without prejudice to others,
In seeking above all reconciliation and peace.
Rouse up defenders to plead the cause of the oppressed
So that “justice may be done in love.”
St Ives, pray for us!
Pray for those whom we love!
Pray for those whom we find it difficult to love!
The Church of St. Yves of Brittany at Palazzo della Sapienza (Italian: Chiesa di Sant'Ivo alla Palazzo della Sapienza, house of knowledge) was designed by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). A hallmark of Boromini’s designs is the absence of color, on the interior and exterior. That does not mean these churches are dull. Alternating concave and convex surfaces carry the eye around the centralized nave. The structure of the geometry of the church is a symmetric six-pointed star.
Stars and putti decorate the dome (see photo #1), as well as the coat-of-arms of Pope Alexander VII, a member of the powerful banking Chigi family, six mountains beneath a star (see photo #2). The altarpiece (see photo #4) is by Pietro da Cortona, portraying St. Yves.
This busy square hosts a Christmas market during the festive season. There is a central fountain depicting the four rivers. Personally I thought it was rather hideous. I did however like the smaller fountains at either end of the square. There is also a large church here - the Church of St Agnes. On this occasion we did not go inside.
Everybody meets in Piazza Navone.
A masterpiece of baroque, this place with the shape of a roman stadium, is dominated by the three fountains, with evidence to the Fontana dei Fiume.
The permanent crowds, the stalls, the street performers, make this place one of the liveliest in Rome.
The Piazza Navona is a good 20-minutes walk from the Spanish Steps. You enter it from an alley and suddenly the wide, spacious city centre hits you in the face. Your first impression is of a stadium and that was what it was earlier. It covers the area where Rome's first stadium was built (81 to 96 AD) by Emperor Domitian. It was then known as Circus Agonalis or an area set aside for competitions where ‘Agones’ or competitions were held in honour of Jove. Over the years, the name was shortened to 'in Agona' and then finally, 'Navona'. It was Pope Innocent X who revamped this piazza by erecting the Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi in the centre and flanking it by restoring the two fountains, one on either side of the piazza.
This area, like other areas in Rome, is vehicle-free. So you have a huge place in which to stroll, ‘people watch’, get your caricature sketched, stop at any of the numerous cafes for a lazy coffee or an equally leisurely lunch. We had packed out hamper, so we selected a shady spot, spread our food and wine and then proceed to do full justice to a morning well spent. It is in the evenings, however, that this place comes alive with street performers, music and the parade of life.
The imposing fountain of the Four Rivers dominates the centre of the piazza and that is where your gaze is immediately drawn. The four giant figures are representative of the four mighty rivers known at that point in world history: the Rio de la Plata of the Americas, the Ganges of Asia, the Nile of Africa (veiled head statue as the source of the river had not been discovered till then) and Danube of Europe. Seven animals adorn the fountain - crocodile, dolphin, dragon, horse, lion, sea monster and a serpent. A dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, sits atop the huge obelisk rising from the centre of the fountain and is a reminder of the Pope who commissioned the work.
The two fountains, one on either end of the piazza, were built by Giacomo della Porta. One is the Fountain of the Moor (owing to the statue with African features) while the other is the Fountain of Neptune. The two together add harmony and balance to the piazza with the main fountain in the centre.
The church, Sant'Agnese in Agone, designed by Borromini, sits right in front of the fountain. It was built much after the fountain. So don’t be misled by the apocryphal story of the figure facing the Church raising its hand for fear that the structure would fall on him.
Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do near the fountains as there are security cameras around. Check this out:
“In the early hours of Saturday, 3rd September 2011, the Fontana del Moro was damaged by a vandal. Police later found the man, who had been captured on security cameras climbing in the fountain, wielding a large rock and decapitating some of the larger and smaller figures, after they recognised him by his sneakers.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piazza_Navona)
First Written: Sep. 3, 2012
“Civis Romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen)
— Cicero (106BC - 43 BC)
Palazzo Braschi owns a splendid collection of 2,000 pieces of pottery from Ancient Rome and several more thousand pieces of Roman ceramics dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. During our visit a marvelous exhibit of majolica ware (see photos #3 & #4) was the highlighted show.
Rome being the seat of the popes, much of what is on display has to do with the Holy Fathers and their families, especially those grand pontiffs of the Renaissance. Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644, his ponticate lasted from 1623 to 1644). Born a member of the Barberini family, Mateo, his given name, was a great patron of the arts. One project he collaborated on with Gianlorenzo Bernini was the great bronze baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica. An engraving of the baldacchino (see photo #5) is on display at Palazzo Braschi.
An English audio guide is available for hire; take note, the museum’s captions is only in Italian.
The foot print of Palazzo Braschi in the shape of a trapezoid. The longest side extends between Piazza Pasquino and Piazza Navona; and the shortest side faces Piazza San Pantaleo, where the entrance is.
%t“Wealth conquered Rome after Rome had conquered the world”
— Italian Proverb
Palazzo Braschi, a lavish palazzo overlooking Piazza Navona, houses Museo di Roma .
This extensive collection, dedicated to the history of the Eternal City from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, cannot be display in its entirety. Only a fraction of its drawings, paintings, sculptures, frescoes, costumes and more is on display at any one time. There is an eclectic feel to the collection. I was very amused by a series of portraits, completed between 1667 and 1669, of Pietro Banchieri, a young boy dressed up in a range of costumes: a dancer, Cupid, a Swiss Guard and a lady.
From busts of popes (see photos #1 to #4) to paintings of peasants (see photo #5), the range of Roman life are on view throughout the stately rooms of Palazzo Braschi.
The marble portrait bust of Pope Clement XII (see photo #1) is the work of Filippo della Valle. It is one of many portrait busts of popes and cardinals in the Museo di Roma’s Palazzo Braschi. A terra cotta version can be seen at Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent Belgium.
Shown in quarter length, the portrait bust of Scipione Cardinal Borghese (see photo #2), wearing his robes and biretta as a cardinal of the Roman Church. More well-known portrait busts of Cardinal Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V, by Gianlorenzo Bernini are in Rome’s Galleria Borghese.
“Cease to admire the smoke, wealth, and noise of prosperous Rome. [Latin, “Omitte mirari beatae Fumum et opes strepitumque Romae.]”
— Horace (65 BC-8 BC, Ancient Roman Poet)
The man who built Palazzo Braschi was Luigi Braschi Onesti (1745 – 1816), nephew of Pope Pius VI. The Holy Father created his nephew duca di Nemi (duke of Nemi, a town in central Italy, in the Alban Hills overlooking Lake Nemi, a volcanic crater lake). Luigi’s mother Giulia Braschi was the pope’s sister, and his father was Count Girolamo Onesti.
Luigi married a rich lady of the Falconieri family. At this time the pope allowed the newly wedded husband to build Palazzo Braschi off Piazza Navona, as well as another neoclassical Palazzo Braschi at Terracina (a town in the province of Latina, southeast of Rome), as a private residence the pope himself.
Beginning in February of 1798, as the Napoleonic forced occupied the city, until 1802, construction on the palazzo in Rome was suspended. The French occupied the incomplete house and confiscated the antiquities from the the duke’s collection. Some of the duke’s antiquities were bought by the Crown Prince of Bavaria, later King Ludwig I and are on exhibit at the Glyptothek, built by Ludwig in Munich.
Remember to look up when visiting museums housed in former palazzi; the ceilings are often works of art, such as the stucco ceilings (see photo #5) at Palazzo Braschi.
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