Rome – Art and Architecture – Piazza Navona

Rome – Art & Architecture – Piazza Navona


Piazza Navona is probably Rome’s most famous example of continuity in town planning. Its long ground plan, with a curving narrow side to the north retains the form of the stadium (240 by 65 meters) built by the emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96) for games and sporting competitions, later to include animal fights and gladiatorial combats. The buildings around the square stand on the terrace of the old “cavea”, which could seat over 30.000 spectators.
The name also still indicates the purpose for which the piazza was originally used, for Navona is said to derive from “in agone” (on the place of combat). However, if the popular tradition is to be believed, the name comes instead of “navis” (ship), because the shape of the square, with its rounded end, resembles a boat. As the largest square in one of the most densely populated quarters of Rome, it featured prominently in the plans for renovation work undertaken during the Renaissance.

Pope Sixtus IV (pontificate 1471-1484) had the market moved here from the Capitol in 1477, and the construction of several noblemen’s palaces (such as Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne and Palazzo Madama) made the Piazza Navona a favourite residential area for the upper class of Rome.Its architectural development culminated under Pope Innocent X (1644-1655), who began rebuilding here after his election. He had his family palace and the church of S. Agnese in Agone renovated, the two fountains placed outside by Gregory XIII (1572-1585) restored, and he erected in the middle of the square the huge Fontana dei 4 Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).

Through the centuries, Piazza Navona was the scene of magnificent tournaments and festive procession. Water festivals took place here until the 19th century, and the square was flooded to a certain level for them in August. Prosperous citizens drove through the water in their carriages, while ordinary people paddled around in it.To this day is one of the liveliest squares in the city of Rome, with street traders and performers offering entertainment until late into the night. As the roman author Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli wrote in the early 19th century: “Ah Piazza Navona! It cares not a whit for Piazza di Spagna or St. Peter’s Square. It is not a square, but the great outdoors, a festival, a stage, and wonderful fun.”


Palazzo Pamphilj Together with the church of S.Agnese in Agone, Palazzo Pamphilj built for Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, Pope Innocent X (1644-1655), dominates one of the longer side of Piazza Navona. The architect of the building, constructed between 1644 and 1650, was Girolamo Rainaldi, who combined sevaral buildings into a single complex, incorporating S.Agnese as the family church and palace chapel. Architect Francesco Borromini, whose rival design were not accepted, was commissioned to design only the great hall and build the gallery that would be painted by Pietro da Cortona.

Cortona’s frescoes show scenes from Virgil’s national epic, the “Aeneid”, in iconographic reference to the mythological descent of the Pamphilj from Aeneas himself. Later, Innocent X gave the palace to his sister-in-law, Olimpia Maidalchini, who was given the nickname olim-pia (formerly pious) by the “statua parlante” (speaking statue) of Pasquino, who spoke out about the people’s dissatisfaction, denounced injustice, and assaulted misgovernment by members of the Church. Today Palazzo Pamphilj in Piazza Navona accommodates the Brazilian Embassy.


Front of Palazzo Pamphilj in Piazza Navona, Rome – Embassy of Brazil in Rome


S. Agnese in Agone – This church rises on the remains of the foundations of Emperor Domitian’s circus (they are built into the crypt), as the name “in agone” indicates. According to legend, it occupies the site where St. Agnes was martyred. When she was stripped naked before the crowd, her hair suddenly and miraculously covered her, preserving her modesty. In 1652 Pope Innocent X commissioned architect Girolamo Rainaldi to begin building S.Agnese as the palace church of the adjoining Palazzo Pamphilj in Piazza Navona. Later, Francesco Borromini, the leading actor of the Roman Baroque architecture, took over work on the building.

Borromini began a much more innovative approach to the facade which was expanded to include parts of the adjacent Palazzo Pamphili and gain space for his two bell towers. He was responsible for most of the Baroque facade up to the cornice level and the dome and the concave line is typical of his style. The church was finally conceived on the ground plan of a Greek cross, a centrally planned structure with arms of equal length and deep niches. On the interior, he placed columns against the piers of the lower order which was mainly completed. The tall dome is the focal element here, and rises up to the columns with a projecting entablature.

In 1656, Innocent X died and in 1657, Borromini resigned. Carlo Rainaldi, son of Girolamo, took his place and made a number of significant changes to the original design, including an additional storey to the flanking towers and simplifying their uppermost parts. In 1668, further large scale statuary and coloured marbling were also added; again, these are not part of Borromini’s design repertoire which was orientated to white stucco architectural and symbolic motifs.



Fountain of the Four Rivers – Pope Innocent X planned to make a large fountain, crowned with an obelisk from the Circus Maxentius, the focal point of Piazza Navona. Great architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, has interpreted the will of the Pope planning the magnificent Fountain of the Four Rivers, which was commissioned in 1647, a masterpiece in its presentation of a complex iconographic concept and one of the great achievements of Baroque sculpture.

The pictorial program pays tribute to the pope for bringing new glory to the square, originally laid out by a Roman emperor. The centre of the mighty basin is an artificial rock with personifications of four great rivers at its four corners: the Nile, the ganges, the Danube and the Rio de la Plata. They symbolise the known continents of the time which were under the influence of papal power, and they are surrounded by such specimen of flora an fauna of their respective parts of the world (lion, horse, dragon, snake and palm tree).

In reference to the papal donor, his coat of arms – a dove carrying an olive branch – appears on the rock and on the top of the obelisk. It also alludes to the ancient founder of the square, because is an Egyptian artefact but a roman monument originally erected by Domitian in the temple of Isis on the Fields of Mars.




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