It is one of the most beautiful fountains in Rome and it stands in one of the city's most beautiful piazzas.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) was commissioned by Pope Innocent X (r. 1644-55), whose coat of arms (three fleur-de-lis and a dove with a sprig of olive tree in its beak) is prominently displayed.
As a cardinal, Giambattista Pamphilj had moved into a palace on the west side of the piazza (now the Brazilian Embassy). When, in 1644, Cardinal Giambattista Pamphilj became Pope Innocent X he decided to stamp his papal presence on the piazza by commissioning a fountain to grace its centre.
And the pope wanted the fountain to incorporate in its design an ancient obelisk, which had recently been unearthed in the Circus of Maxentius, which lies outside the city walls.
Bernini rose to the challenge magnificently and created an ensemble in which the huge weight of the granite is borne, seemingly effortlessly, by hollowed out blocks of travertine. The obelisk is surmounted, not by the usual cross, but by a bronze dove, bearing in its beak a sprig of an olive tree.
At the base of the fountain, sit four giant marble statues symbolising four major continental rivers, namely the Ganges, Danube, Plate and Nile.
Bernini completed the fountain in the space of three years, not alone, but as the head of a well-organised studio. The master made the designs, while his pupils did the actual carving, supervised and, if necessary, revised by the master, himself.
The completion of Bernini’s fountain led to the introduction of an unusual practise, the creation of the Lago di Piazza Navona (Lake of Piazza Navona), which lasted for three centuries. Each Sunday during the month of August, generally Rome’s hottest month, the Piazza Navona would be artificially flooded to a depth of a foot or so. The coaches of the nobility would then enter the piazza in pairs, one line moving right the other left. The windows and balconies surrounding the square would be crowded with spectators. This all came to an end in 1867 when the ground level of the piazza was raised.
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My name is David Lown and I am an art historian, writer and guide