Piazza Navona is a beautiful, bustling square located in the city centre of Rome filled with modern day entertainment and historical legends. The square is built on the former site of the Stadium of Domitian. Emperor Domitian had the stadium built in 86 AD, and it was mainly used for athletic contests and games (agones). In the 15th century, the stadium was paved over and Piazza Navona, or Navona Square, was created.
Remains of Domitian’s stadium can be viewed today in the undergrounds of the church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone, located in the piazza, and an original arch can be seen from the street in Piazza di Tor Sanguigna, just a few meters from Piazza Navona. The area once lined with a stadium, theatre and thousands of spectator seats turned to more of a rundown, dreadful area over time with multiple brothels. Today the square is lined with outdoor cafes, restaurants and gelaterias. It is one of the most visited and liveliest squares in the city, with street performers providing various types of entertainment daily and different festivals held in the square throughout the year.
The piazza showcases three ornate fountains and a grand Baroque church. The center and main fountain is Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers, with the Moor Fountain on the south end of the piazza and the Fountain of Neptune located on the north end.
Fountain of Four Rivers
The Fountain of Four Rivers, or Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Italian, is the center, largest and main fountain in Piazza Navona. It was built by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1647 and 1651, and commissioned by Pope Innocent X. Borromini was first given the authorization to design the fountain, but the task was later granted to his rival, Bernini, who designed and completed the magnificent fountain.
The fountain depicts gods of the four rivers from the four continents known at the time: the Danube in Europe, the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia and the Rio de la Plata in the Americas. Each river god emits symbolism. The Danube is shown with a horse and touches the Papal coat of arms showing it is the closest to Europe and the Church. The Nile is shown with a lion, and his head is covered with a loose cloth representing the unknown. The Ganges is shown with a snake and carries a long oar representing navigability. The Rio de la Plata is shown with an armadillo and is seen sitting on a mound of coins to represent the riches America could possibly hold for Europe. In the center of the fountain stands a large Egyptian obelisk, originally built in 81 AD. It is crowned with a dove, the symbol of the Pope’s coat of arms. It represents each region being centered around the church.
The fountain sits directly in front of the church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone, built by Borromini, Bernini’s rival. Legend has it that Bernini sculpted the Rio de la Plata to hold up his arm in an attempt to shield himself from the unstable church built by Borromini because he did not trust his workmanship. It is also said Bernini designed the Nile to not only represent the unknown by covering his head with a cloth, but to also shield his eyes as to not see and bear the work of Borromini. Although in actuality, Bernini finished the fountain several years prior to Borromini beginning work on the church. Perhaps Bernini knew in advance of what was to come and posed a statement and sent a message to his archrival on a daily basis. His possible statement has been etched in time as his message has been passed along for centuries.
The Moor Fountain
The Moor Fountain, or Fontana del Moro, is located at the southern end of the piazza. It was built by Giacomo della Porta in 1575, and featured a dolphin and four Tritons. The famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini added the statue of the Moor, or African, holding a dolphin in the late 17th century. The original statues were moved to Villa Borghese and replaced with replicas after a restoration of the fountain in 1874. The original statues are still housed in Villa Borghese today.
The Fountain of Neptune
The Fountain of Neptune, or Fontana del Nettuno, located in the northern end of the piazza was also built by Giacomo della Porta. It was built in 1574, and remained without statues for more than 300 years. In an effort to balance the piazza and to make the fountains more symmetrical to each other, statues of Neptune and sea nymphs were added by Antonio della Bitta in 1878.
Sant' Agnese in Agone
The grand Baroque church facing the piazza is the church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone. The current church was built at the same location as the original church dedicated to Saint Agnes, which was built on the site of her martyrdom. The name of the church derives from two things – Saint Agnes the martyr and ‘in Agone’, the name referring to the location and originating from the games played in the Stadium of Domitian during the 1st century AD.
According to legend, Saint Agnes was a young girl at the age of 12 or 13 when she was martyred in 304 AD. She was born to a noble Roman family and was raised as a Christian. Sempronius, a pagan Roman, insisted she marry his son and reject Christianity. When she refused, he ordered her death. Roman law did not permit virgins to be executed, so he had Agnes dragged to a brothel area (the once Stadium of Domitian) to be raped. Legend has it she prayed, and as she prayed her hair miraculously grew to cover her body in order to preserve her virginity. She was then to be burned at the stake, but the fire would not ignite. Brutally furious, the officer in charge drew his sword and beheaded Agnes. A church was erected on the site of her martyrdom, and Agnes became the patron saint of young girls.
In 1652, Pope Innocent X commissioned Borromini to rebuild the church located next to his family’s palace, Palazzo Pamphilj (which has housed the Brazilian Embassy since the 1920’s). The new church was completed in 1670. The skull of Agnes is preserved inside the church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone.
One more thing not to miss when you visit Piazza Navona is the Pasquino statue. Located at the southwest end of the piazza, and erected in 1501, this ancient statue has been termed the first ‘talking statue’ of Rome. From the 16th century, Romans have attached their letters, poems and writings to the statue in an attempt to express their opinions and feelings of government dissatisfaction and incidents of injustice.
If you are visiting around Christmas time, be sure to visit the Christmas market held in Piazza Navona daily for a magical experience. The square is lined with booths selling an array of sweets, candies, roasted nuts, ornaments and holiday trinkets. It’s a holiday delight in a magical setting!
The piazza is always open for visitors, and there is no admission fee.
Piazza Navona, located in the center of Rome’s historical district
By Bus – From Termini, take bus 40, 64 or 70. From the Coloseum, take bus 87. From Piazza Barberini, take bus 492. You can also take the mini electric bus 116.