Rome, Piazza Navona. The battlefield of the two giants of Baroque
Rome. The city of squares
If there is a city that can be called the city of squares, this is Rome. Squares are so integral to its image that without them the former capital of the ancient world would not be what we know.
And not by accident. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome, from the largest city in the world with huge monumental complexes all over its surface, was transformed into a medieval city that looked more like a large cluster of villages, since within the ancient walls where once 1,5 million people lived, there were no more than ten thousand in the worst times. Among its poor and poorly built districts, there were vast uninhabited areas where the brilliant works of the emperors rose once.
Rome resumes its imperial aspect
In the Renaissance, however, Rome became once again a major cultural centre, thanks to Pope Julius II, who called here the artists who remained unsupported after Florence ’s capture by the French in 1494 and the fall of the Medici.
From then on, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, Rome has begun to take rapidly the form we know today. The main ingredient being the squares.
In order to connect the scattered districts between them and fill again the empty space among them, these urban ensembles were built, with monumental palaces and magnificent churches around them.
And in the middle, they put the columns of ancient Rome that were still standing, between heaps of soil. Columns made by emperors or brought from Egypt. Only now, instead of emperors, statues of saints were placed on their top.
Below or around the columns, the greatest sculptors of the time made the famous fontane, the countless fountains that remind of ancient Rome of the many aqueducts, which was also full of them.
And as the terrain is uneven (let’s not forget that Rome is built on seven hills), these ensembles are often placed on different levels, connected to each other by monumental stairs.
Thus, the so picturesque and so characteristic image of today’s Rome emerged: an endless series of outdoor theatre scenes where the daily life of the Italian capital unfolds like a theatrical performance in a set of unique richness of forms and colours.
So let’s wander in this wonderful outdoor scenery. Very close to Piazza della Rotonda (http://culturehikes.com/en/rome-squares-piazza-minerva-pantheon/), we find Piazza Navona.
Piazza Navona is in the site of the stadium of Domitian, built in the 1st century AD, and follows the shape of the stadium’s open space. The ancient Romans went there to watch the ‘agones’, and for this reason, it was known as the ‘Circus Agonalis’ (arena of the games). It is believed that over time the name changed to in avone, then navone and eventually navona.
It was defined as a public space in the last years of the 15th century when the city’s market was moved there from the Capitol. Piazza Navona was transformed into a remarkable example of Baroque architecture and art during the papacy of Innocent I (1644-1655), whose family palace, Palazzo Pamphili, faces the square.
Piazza Navona has very important artistic works. In its centre is the famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers, 1651), by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the two leading artists of the Roman Baroque.
The fountain is crowned by the Domitian Obelisk, which was transferred to pieces from the Circus of Maxentius. It is crowned by the emblem of the Pamphili family: a pigeon with an olive branch.
The four statues represent four great rivers from the four continents through which the papal power had spread: the Nile represents Africa, the Danube Europe, the Ganges Asia, and Río de la Plata America.
Piazza Navona, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers)
A palace and a church to the glory of the Pamphili
Opposite the fountain is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, built in the place where Saint Agnes was put to death, at the Domitian stadium. In fact, her remains are preserved here. The church, built in the place of a medieval one, was to be a family chapel of the Pamphili, annexed to their then newly built residence (therefore, an opening was formed in the drum of the dome so that the family could participate in the religious ceremonies from their palace).
The first plans were made by the family architect of the Pamphili, Girolamo Rainaldi, and his son Carlo Rainaldi in 1652. The next year they were replaced by Francesco Borromini, the other leading artist of the Roman Baroque and a great rival of Bernini.
But after the death of Innocent X Carlo Rainaldi returned and later Bernini took over and then again Rainaldi. Each change of architect was associated with the change of sponsors, who were successive members of the Pamphili family.
Piazza Navona, Sant’Agnese
The aforementioned Palazzo Pamphili, a work of Girolamo Rainaldi, is the palace of one of the most important families of Rome. It includes a gallery designed by Borromini and painted by Pietro da Cortona.
Piazza Navona, Sant’Agnese. In the background, Palazzo Pamphili
Piazza Navona has two other fountains. At the southern end is the Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) with four tritons, designed by Giacomo della Porta (1575). In 1673, Bernini added a statue of a Moor fighting with a dolphin.
Piazza Navona, Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor)
At the northern end is Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune, 1574) also created by Giacomo della Porta. The statue of Neptune was added in 1878 to create a balance with Fontana del Moro.
Piazza Navona, Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune)
The Legends of Piazza Navona. The rivalry between two giants
It was believed that the name Sant’Agnese in Agone was associated with the agony of the martyr Agnes (from the Latin agnus, ie lamb), but, as we have said, it’s associated with the games of the ancient stadium.
Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers is in front of the church of his great rival, Borromini. It is often said that Bernini sculpted the statue of the “Nile” covering his eyes as if he thought the façade designed by his rival might collapse on him.
This story persists because it sounds authentic due to the known rivalry of the two giants of Baroque, despite the fact that the fountain precedes the façade by a few years. It is said, moreover, that the church was assigned to one of them and the fountain to the other so that by the rivalry between them they would create their best works.
Borromini and Bernini became rivals, and more so because of the architectural assignments. During the papacy of Innocent X, an official committee was created to study the problems that had arisen in the foundations of the bell towers at the façade of Saint Peter’s Basilica, built under Bernini’s supervision.
Testifying before the committee, Borromini was one of the many harsh critics who attacked the project’s engineering. Finally, in a serious blow to Bernini’s prestige as an architect, the bell towers of the façade were demolished and never rebuilt.
Santa Maria della Pace. An early model of urban space arrangement
Next to Piazza Navona is the very elegant church of Santa Maria della Pace (Virgin Mary of Peace). It was built in 1482 on the foundations of a pre-existing church.
Santa Maria della Pace (Virgin Mary of Peace). The monumental effect of the plasticity of forms and chiaroscuro lighting effects belies the actual scale of this urban intervention, giving it a monumentality that it could not otherwise have in such a limited space
In 1656-67, Pope Alexander VII assigned to Pietro da Cortona the church’s renovation. He added the famous Baroque façade projecting from its concave wings. The church presses forward almost to fill its tiny square. Several houses had to be demolished by Pietro da Cortona to create even this tiny trapezoidal space.
This newly built square, focused on the façade of the church even in its architectural detailing, had the additional benefit of facilitating the turning of coaches that had become so fashionable with the Roman nobility of the time and creating an ingenious unified ensemble of the church in its urban setting.
The play of concave and convex forms in various scales in and around the dominant main façade masks the neighbouring buildings, extends the apparent breadth of the facade and so increases the visual impact on the spectator physically confined by the small trapezoidal piazza.
The monumental effect of the plasticity of forms and chiaroscuro lighting effects belies the actual scale of this urban intervention, giving it a monumentality that it could not otherwise have in such a limited space.
And since this analysis can confuse and tire non-experts, the conclusion is that here we have a masterpiece of coupling of architecture and urban planning.
Santa Maria della Pace (Virgin Mary of Peace)
Next stop: Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Farnese. Stay tuned…
About the author
Hello! I am Denis, an architect based in Athens, Greece. I teach history of art and architecture in higher education. That’s one passion of mine. The other one is hiking, in and out of town. If you follow me, I’ll share my discoveries with you.
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