How Piazza Navona Became a Symbol of Rome

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is a place that truly embodies the city’s character. This former ancient circus has undergone a stunning transformation and adapted flawlessly to the modern urban landscape.

At the heart of the square is Bernini’s renowned Fountain of the Four Rivers, which draws crowds of people to bask in its beauty and take in the lively atmosphere. The surrounding area is studded with grand palaces and churches, and the fountain sits majestically in the center of it all, lending the square a sense of grandeur and timelessness.

What makes Piazza Navona truly unique is its preservation of the dimensions of the Stadium of Domitian, a massive structure that once held up to 30,000 spectators. This remarkable piece of history has survived through the centuries and remains largely unchanged to this day, as evidenced by the numerous paintings and prints of old Rome that depict the square in its present-day form.
The square is always bustling with activity and is beloved by locals and tourists alike. Cafés and restaurants spill out onto the streets, allowing patrons to enjoy their meals and drinks in the fresh air. Street performers, artists, and musicians are a common sight here, adding to the vibrant and eclectic atmosphere.

Piazza Navona in Rome

The square owes its name to the ancient athletic games, the Agones Capitolini, that were once held here after the stadium was built in AD 86. Even the name itself has a rich history, as it evolved from “agone” to “nagona” to “navona” over time.
Throughout the ages, Piazza Navona has served as a venue for festivals, jousts, open-air sports, and even markets. In the Middle Ages, it was known as the Campus Agonis, a nod to its sporting heritage.

Piazza Navona Christmas Market

Piazza Navona Christmas Market
Day and night Piazza Navona is a large merry-go-round of markets of all kinds with curious gifts for children and adults including the new decorations for the Christmas tree.

And even today, the square continues to serve as a hub of activity, with Christmas markets and the Befana toy fair drawing crowds during the holiday season.
All in all, Piazza Navona is a remarkable testament to the enduring spirit of Rome. Its unique blend of ancient history, modern culture, and vibrant energy make it a must-visit destination for anyone looking to explore the city’s rich past and dynamic present.

Piazza Navona Fountain

Piazza Navona
A stunning view of Piazza Navona with the Fountain of Four Rivers in the background.

The piazza is home to three beautiful fountains, each with its unique design and story.
The central fountain, called the Fountain of the Four Rivers, is the most famous one. It was created by the great artist Bernini, and it represents the triumph of his Baroque style. Interestingly, Bernini wasn’t even supposed to create the fountain at first. It was Innocent X who had the idea to put a fountain in the piazza to support the tall obelisk, but he left Bernini out of the list of sculptors he asked for designs. However, Bernini decided to create a model anyway, and a nephew of the pope showed it to Innocent. He was so impressed that he gave Bernini the commission to create the fountain in 1648.

Piazza Navona Facts

Piazza Navona Facts
Piazza Navona Facts

The Fountain of the Four Rivers features four large allegorical figures, each representing a famous river from a different continent. The Ganges is depicted as a bearded figure with a punt pole and an elephant beneath him, while the Danube is shown as a figure with his hair tied back, a huge fish beneath him, and a horse below. The Rio della Plata, holding his arm up, has a pile of coins beside him, referring to the riches of the New World. Lastly, the Nile is veiled, with a lion on the rocks beside a palm tree.
You might have heard the story about the rivalry between Bernini and Borromini, where it’s said that the Rio della Plata is holding up his arm to block the sight of the Sant’Agnese church. However, this story is false. The fountain was finished in 1651 before Borromini even started work on the church.
The obelisk in the center of the fountain is also an interesting piece. It was originally from Egypt and was brought to Rome by order of Domitian. Roman stonemasons then carved hieroglyphs on it, referring to Domitian as the “eternal pharaoh” and to Vespasian and Titus (his father and brother) as gods. For centuries, the obelisk lay in five pieces in the Circus of Maxentius on the Via Appia until Pope Innocent had it moved to the piazza. It is now crowned with a dove, which is the emblem of the Pamphilj family, to which Innocent X belonged.

Piazza Navona Fountains

Moving on to the other fountains in the piazza, there’s the Fontana del Moro at the south end. It was designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1576 and featured sculptures by Taddeo Landini and others. However, in 1874, these were replaced by copies made by Luigi Amici, and the originals were moved to the Giardino del Lago in Villa Borghese. The fountain was later altered by Bernini in 1653 when he created the central figure, Il Moro (the Moor), which was executed by Antonio Mari.
Finally, there’s the Fontana di Nettuno at the north end of the square. This fountain shows Neptune struggling with a marine monster or giant octopus, surrounded by nereids and sea horses. It was created by Antonio della Bitta and Gregorio Zappalà in 1878.

What did Saint Agnes do to become a saint?

So, the story goes that there was this young woman, St Agnes, who caught the eye of a powerful praetor’s son. But she wasn’t interested and turned him down flat. Unfortunately, this guy didn’t take rejection well and had her publicly exposed in the Stadium of Domitian, which is now known as Piazza Navona. But wait, there’s more! In a miracle straight out of a fairy tale, her hair started growing like crazy and covered her nakedness.
But the drama didn’t end there. She was then sentenced to be burned alive, but somehow the flames didn’t harm her at all. Eventually, she was beheaded by the infamous Emperor Diocletian. Today, the wool from blessed lambs on her feast day (January 21st) is used to make the pallium, a stole worn by popes and archbishops. Plus, her name is pretty much “lamb” in Latin (agnus), which is a cool connection.

Guide To the Church of Sant’Agnese in Rome

This ancient church has a fascinating backstory that’ll make your jaw drop.
So, get ready to take some notes, because this church is not your average place of worship. First off, it’s located on the ruins of a stadium where Saint Agnes was exposed (yikes, right?). And if that’s not enough to pique your interest, the church was reconstructed in 1652 for Pope Innocent X by two architects named Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo. But wait, there’s more! The following year, another architect named Francesco Borromini took over and designed the incredible concave façade that emphasizes the dome.
Sadly, Borromini fell out of favor with the pope’s successor, and by 1657 he left the project. But don’t worry, his collaborator Giovanni Maria Baratta stepped up to complete the façade and twin bell towers. And trust me when I say, this small Baroque interior is a work of art. The intricate Greek cross plan gives off a spacious effect thanks to the cupola, and the decorations are adorned with Innocent X’s family crest, a dove.
If you’re an art lover, then you’ll be in heaven at this church. The dome fresco was painted by Ciro Ferri, a talented pupil of Pietro da Corona. And if you look closely at the pendentives, you’ll notice they were painted by Baciccia, a famous artist known for his Baroque ceiling paintings.
But let’s not forget about the altars! Instead of paintings, you’ll find 17th-century bas-reliefs or statues, including an antique statue of St. Sebastian that was altered later. These were created by Algardi’s followers, including Ercole Ferrata and Antonio Raggi.
And if you’re a fan of history, then you’ll love the fact that Innocent X is buried here. Above the main west door is a monument that was created in his honor in the early 18th century. On the left side of the church, you’ll also find a chapel that houses the skull of St. Agnes (yes, you read that right).
But the surprises don’t end there. The sacristy (which is used for concerts) was designed by Borromini himself, and beneath the church lies the Oratory of St. Agnes, which was built before 800 in a vault of the Stadium of Domitian. It contains badly-damaged 13th-century frescoes and the last work of Alessandro Algardi, a bas-relief of the Miracle of St. Agnes.
And if you’re still itching for more, take a stroll over to the church of the Madonna del Sacro Cuore, which was rebuilt in 1450 and restored in 1879. It has a peculiar alignment since you enter through the façade but emerge at the east end. Plus, the chapel off the north side is by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.
So, there you have it, folks. The church of Sant’Agnese is a must-visit if you’re in the area. It’s bursting with history, art, and surprises around every corner. Don’t forget to snap a few photos while you’re there (and maybe a selfie with St. Agnes’ skull, if you’re feeling brave).

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