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|Dating back to 86 AD the word Navona is derived from the old Roman word for "large boat"... the origins of this name are due to its’ former use as the Stadium of Domitian which is still buried underneath the square. The buildings now surrounding the square would have been the marble seats of the stadium which was frequently filled with water in order to stage mock sea battles. The stadium once had a capacity of 30 thousand spectators and was originally used for Olympic sports including track and field events like javelin, discus, shot putt and wrestling - this is why the Piazza still retains an Oval Shape. Unfortunately, these games were not bloodthirsty enough and so the stadium lost many of its’ spectators to the Colosseum. Eventually the Roman Empire Authorities moved them out of Rome and they were replaced with horse racing and sea battles. In the 15th century jousting in Piazza Navona became very popular.
The centre of the square is dominated by the Fountain of the Four Rivers which was completed by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651 and is one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Rome.
The 4 rivers represent the 4 corners of Christianity and the 4 corners of the known civilised world which are The Danube (Europe), The Ganges (Asia), The Nile (Africa) and The Plate (Americas).
The obelisk that is in the centre of the fountain was brought to Rome from Egypt by Emperor Maxentius in the early 300s and was formerly housed at his circus, the Circus Maxentius, it disappeared for about 1300 years and then showed up on the Via Appia Antica... It was brought to Piazza Navona in the 1600s to decorate this fountain. Under the Obelisk is a huge empty grotto which is a much studied architectural wonder in Rome.
The animals and plants which represent the four rivers look a little bit weird, believe it or not the animal for Africa is supposedly a crocodile! The reason for this is that Bernini had never seen any of these animals so he would have sculpted from information and bad sketches drawn from other people.
The fountain was commissioned by Pope Innocent X who declared a competition for the design. Bernini had been the favoured architect under Pope Urban VIII and Pope Innocent X was not keen to use him. There was a feeling of “out with the old and in with the new”. Popes very rarely used architects used by previous Popes each preferring to be known for being the Patron of their own artist. So he excluded Bernini from entering this competition. However, the only other architect, of any worth, at that time was Borromini. The Pope had seen Borromini’s design and didn’t like it very much. Bernini quite cleverly didn’t give up and made a model anyway. He cleverly arranged to have the model of his design to be placed in a very strategic position in the house where he knew the Pope would be going to dinner. Of course the Pope saw it , liked it so much, that he declared the competition over and awarded the project to Bernini. The fountain cost so much that Pope Innocent X had to impose a Bread Tax in order to pay for the fountain – for this Pope Innocent was reviled by the Romans and nasty slogans written about him all over the city.
Borromini’s Church of St Agnes in Agony was completed in 1657. The church was built as the family chapel for Pope Innocent X and named in honour of the young 13 year old Agnes who was martyred here in 304 AD. Agnes was bethroed to the son of a Roman Emperor whom refused to marry saying that she was already married to Christ. This was the site of a brothel so she was brought here and forced to undress and renounce her faith. According to legend her faith was so strong that 3 miracles occurred. The first miracle was that her hair started growing suddenly so much so that it completely covered her nakedness. The Romans fixed this by simply chopping off all of her hair. This was when the second miracle occurred – the Sun started shining so brightly that all the people were blinded and couldn’t see her nakedness. By this point the Romans had had enough, they decided to burn her at the stake... As the son of the Roman Emperor lent forward to light the fire, the third miracle occured as the wind suddenly started up and blew out the flame not once but every time they tried to light the fire. Livid the Romans lost the head and so, sadly did she.
Agnes is buried in the Catacombs on Via Nomentana that bear her name. Every year on her Feast Day 21 January – Festa di Sant’Agnese they have a special ceremony where 2 lambs are blessed and when they grow up their wool is used to weave a sacred garment of the Pope to wear.
Bernini vs Borromini
The rivalry between these two great Baroque Architects is legendary. Bernini came from a very good family, mixed in all the right circles and always enjoyed the patronage of Pope Urban VIII. Borromini on the other hand was a renegade, a manic depressive who eventually took his own life.
You can see the evidence of their rivalry by comparing the Church and Fountain which are directly opposite each other.... Looking at the fountain you will notice 02 of the River Gods with their backs turned contemptuosly towards the Church. Of the fountain figures which face the church one of them is cringing and has his arm raised up across his face in a pleading gesture “oh please don’t let me look at that horrible church” The other figure facing the church actually has a cloth over his head so he doesn’t have to look at this monstrosity of a church (Click Here to see a virtual tour of The Fountain and Church in Piazza Navona).
Borromini’s church features a statue of Saint Agnes at the top. She is clearly looking away from the fountain and has her hand on her chest in righteous indignation as if to say “how dare they put that thing in front of me”. The church was completed in 1657 and the fountain in 1651 so make up your own mind on whether the above legends are true. The other two fountains at either end are also by Bernini the Fountain of Neptune and the Fountain of the Moors which was originally designed by Giacomo della Porta and later modified by Bernini.
During the 17th century the Piazza Navona was used for public spectacles. Believe it or not they could flood the piazza in about 2 hours every weekend in August. The wealthy, nobility and papal dignataries would them have themselves driven around here in their gilded carriages to escape the searing heat of Summer. Today, Piazza Navona is still a public spectacle, there are buskers, jugglers, street sellers and lots of artists. NB if you do decide to buy some the artwork on sale make sure you know your art as some of it is simply cheap copies.
Did You Know? Borromini, the architect of the Church of Saint Agnes in Agony, was a manic depressive and eventually took his own life...