Bernini – Fontana dei quattro fiumi

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. If you are new on the channel you can be surprised that today we are going to talk about a fountain. If you already know me, you are aware that, if I pick a work of art, there is always a lot to discover.

And that’s true even with the Fontana dei Quattro fiumi (or Fountain of the 4 rivers) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Fontana in Italian means fountain, but, if one of the greatest sculptors in the world made it and it is located in one of the most important squares in Rome, there are probably good reasons to stay with me until the end of this post.

Fontana_dei_Fiumi_Piazza_Navona_Roma
ARTIST: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
NAME Fontana dei quattro fiumi
LOCATION Piazza Navona, Rome
YEAR 1648 – 1651
TYPE Sculpture
DIMENSIONS 30 meters (98 ft) high
MATERIAL Marble

The Great Bernini

We learnt about Bernini in my previous videos. This guy has been able to give life to the cold marble like in the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa or Apollo and Daphne. Unbelievable right? So, if you missed the videos and posts, I highly recommend to watch them: click here.

Fontana dei quattro fiumi (Fountain of the four rivers) Bernini
Fontana dei quattro fiumi (Fountain of the four rivers) detail - Bernini

Who could afford to hire the greatest Baroque sculptor in Rome of the 17th century? The pope of course: precisely Pope Innocent X whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faced onto Piazza Navona as well as the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone of which Innocent was the sponsor. So, the Pope just wanted to make the square nicer adding a “little” fountain in the middle. And, since he was the Pope, he didn’t have to ask permit. Actually, he got in trouble with the people in Rome, but it’s a fun fact that we’ll see later.

First let me be serious saying that actually fountains were very popular in Rome and you can still see many of them walking in the city. It was a way to show off the wealth of the sponsors, but also to make the city nicer and make water available among the population.

Just this fountain is particularly beautiful and not little at all, it is 30 meters (98 ft) high. The base of the fountain is a basin from the center of which four river gods sit on travertine rocks that support a copy of an Egyptian obelisk surmounted with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive twig. Just to be precise: the obelisk was quarried in Egypt and transported to Rome around the I century AD where the hieroglyphs were added.

The Fountain meaning

The four river gods represent the four major rivers of the four continents through which papal authority had spread: the Nile for Africa, the Danube for Europe, the Ganges for Asia, and the Río de la Plata for the Americas. And that’s why the name (translated) Fountain of the 4 rivers.

By the way, Río de la Plata for the Americas since Mississippi and Amazon were not known for their entire length.

The four river gods are of course allegories and each of them carry symbols, animals and plants that help to identify them without using names. And so we have the Ganges carrying a long oar, representing the river’s navigability. The Danube touching the Pope’s personal coat of arms, probably to symbolize that it is the large river closest to Rome.

The Nile is draping his head with a piece of cloth, meaning that no one at that time knew exactly where the Nile’s source was. And next to him we can see a palm: a common plant in Egypt. And then the Río de la Plata is sitting on a pile of coins, a symbol of the Americas’ richness, and he looks scared by something. A funny legend says that Bernini positioned the Rio de la Plata River like if the sculpture was fearing the facade of the church of Sant’Agnese that is in front of the fountain and it was made by his rival Borromini. We learned about this great artist in one of my previous videos, check here if you would like to know more. The truth is that the church was built after the fountain and the Río de la Plata is scared by the snake on the top of the rocks.

The snake is just one of the 7 animals and mythical figures that are part of this great work of art. There is a crocodile, a lion, a sea serpent, a horse, a weird dolphin and even a dragon.

Rio de la plata - Fontana dei 4 fiumi detail
Rio de la plata - detail

The Fountain secrets

A statue is, by definition, an object that we can admire in 3 dimensions. But here even more because we have to walk around this majestic fountain to admire all of it and, the more we look, the more we can identify beautiful details.

The fountain was started in 1648 and finished in 1651 and, to be precise, Bernini worked for sure on some parts, but he mostly directed a team of sculptors since he was involved in many other projects (mostly for the Pope). However, we shouldn’t be surprised because it was something really common among famous artists.

During the three years the work has been kept covered and for the unveiled a big event was planned. According to a report from the time, the celebrations were announced by a woman, dressed as the allegorical character of Fame, being paraded around the streets of Rome on a carriage and inviting the people to the square Piazza Navona.

Once there, the citizens were overwhelmed by the fountain beauty and magnificence. To amplify the effect, it seems that Bernini added gold paint in some parts.

Fontana dei quattro fiumi (Fountain of the four rivers) Nile detail - Bernini
Fontana dei quattro fiumi (Fountain of the four rivers) Nile detail - Bernini

Conclusion

And the stupor of the people of 4 centuries ago is the same we are still feeling today when we step in this beautiful Roman square.

However, not everyone was happy. The Pope in fact wanted the statue, but he didn’t pay for it. He increased a tax during the intense famine of 1646–48, so you can imagine how the locals were happy about it. Plus, it seems that the Pope forced also the street vendors of the market to move because they were compromising the magnificence of the square. So he made more “friends” even with that decision.

We cannot imagine the inconvenience he created, and probably he didn’t even care, for sure we can say that we cannot imagine Piazza Navona without this statue and, if it is considered one of the most beautiful squares in the world, it’s thanks to this fountain that complete it and thanks to the Pope who pushed to make it like this and all the masters that designed and realized it.

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