6. Piazza Navona
“Nights in Rome, like those in the desert, can be surprisingly cool, even after a warm day. Langdon was huddled now on the fringes of Piazza Navona, pulling his jacket around him. Like the distant white noise of traffic, a cacophony of news reports echoed across the city. He checked his watch. Fifteen minutes. He was grateful for a few moments of rest. The piazza was deserted. Bernini’s masterful fountain sizzled before him with a fearful sorcery. The foaming pool sent a magical mist upward, lit from beneath by underwater floodlights. Langdon sensed a cool electricity in the air. The fountain’s most arresting quality was its height. The central core alone was over twenty feet tall —a rugged mountain of travertine marble riddled with caves and grottoes through which the water churned. The entire mound was draped with pagan figures. Atop this stood an obelisk that climbed another forty feet. Langdon let his eyes climb. On the obelisk’s tip, a faint shadow blotted the sky, a lone pigeon perched silently.” (Angels and Demons Dan Brown Ch.102)
Dan Brown was clearly a fan of Bernini as he based his conspiracy detective novel around sites in Rome where Bernini’s sculptures could be incorporated into his zany plot. Before the hero of his novel reaches Piazza Navona, bodies of Cardinals have already been found in the centre of his Piazza San Pietro, in the Chigi Chapel at Santa Maria Del Popolo, around his statue of Saint Teresa in ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria and finally in his famous fountain in the Piazza Navona.
It was Pope Innocent X (1644-1655) who transformed this space into the design masterpiece it is today. We shouldn’t be surprised that his family home (Palazzo Pamphili) faces the piazza. The most famous of the three fountains stands in the centre of Piazza Navona, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1651). It consists of four giant statues representing the four corners of the globe with their major rivers; the Nile, the Danube, the Ganges, and the Rio della Plata. In the centre of the fountain is a Roman Obelisk (A copy an Egyptian Obelisk!) that has the usual complex back history. Commissioned by the Emperor Domitian, it had been moved twice in antiquity. It was almost sold to an English nobleman in four pieces before this was barred by Urban VIII and eventually used by Bernini to surmount his majestic fountain.
There are many curiosities about this fountain. For example, in the image to the right above, the figure representing the Nile has two surprising details. One is the towel over the head of the giant and the other is the large garter that goes around his upper leg. Many explanations have been developed for these minor details but the following two seem the most sensible. The towel over the head is meant to represent the fact that in the 17th century, the source of the Nile was unknown. The attractive garland is simply a disguise to cover up a major join in the leg, hidden underneath the garland.
While the fountain at the southern end of the Piazza, the Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor), was sculpted by Giacomo della Porta in 1575, Bernini also contributed to this project a hundred years later by adding a moor grappling with a dolphin between his legs. My sympathies are with the dolphin who looks like he was headed for the Moor’s table but his destiny was to be frozen in time to forever gush water out his mouth for the relaxation of passing Romans.
The fountain at the other end of Piazza Navona is called the Fountain of Neptune and was also built by Giacomo della Porta. He didn’t put a centrepiece statue in this fountain either but it was decided three centuries later to add a Neptune fighting a giant octopus to create a balance with the Fountain of the Moor.
Around the corner from Piazza Navono is the minor basilica and parish church Sant’ Agostina in Campo Marzio. It is a more important stopping place for those doing a Caravaggio tour of Rome rather than a Bernini tour; it houses the Madonna of the Pilgrims (1604–06) which was a controversial painting in its day given the manner in which the Madonna was depicted. Like all the churches in Rome there are always curious back stories; for example, the façade shown in the image of the church below is made from travertine marble, said to have been sourced from the colosseum. Roman church builders were very big on recycling.
Bernini is said to have contributed the design for the second chapel on the left aisle and a detail of this work is shown below.
Michelangelo is also said to have worked in this church and started painting his ‘Entombment of Christ’ but it remained uncompleted and ended up in the National Gallery in London.
THE TRAIL OF THE SECOND HALF OF THE BERNINI TOUR
8. Santa Maria sopra Minerva
(See article ‘Travelling to Rome?’ for an introduction to this church).
The interesting thing about churches in Rome is they are generally very old, but even the oldest ones are not built on virgin soil. Anything built in the area of the seven hills of Rome in the last 1500 years has been built over buildings from the Roman era. The depth between modern buildings and the remains of Roman buildings is often around 5 to 7 metres due to the annual floods that brought large amounts of silt into the city before river embankments were built in 1875. The one exception is the Pantheon as it has been in continuous use since it was built; the silt has been swept away each year. Santa Maria sopra Minerva, despite the intervening layers of flood soil, was built over a Roman temple. The title of the church literally means ‘over’ Minerva, the suggestion being that it is built on the remains of a Temple of Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom. However recent research has made it clear that this name is in error and in fact the original temple in this area was to the Egyptian goddess Isis.
The curious obelisk-wearing elephant of Bernini’s has been mentioned in another article on this site. For me, the obelisk itself is another one of those buried treasures of Roman archaeology that is encountered so often in this city. It is the shortest obelisk to be found in Rome but it is very old having been carved in Egypt in the reign of the Emperor Apries (589-570 BCE). It was already around 900 years old when it was brought to Rome by Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century CE for placement in the Temple of Isis. The convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva overlay parts of this ancient temple and it then becomes clear why Dominican monks (in approx. 1650), when building a new guest house there, accidentally dug up the old obelisk after its long sleep underground (1000 years) was over. Bernini’s great patron, Alexander VII suggested its use on the monument in front of the church. He composed the inscription on the plinth which reads in English; “Whoever you are, who sees here the figures of the Egyptian wise man carved on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of wild animals, understand the symbolism to be that a strong mind supports firm wisdom.”
There are a number of great names from history associated with Santa Maria sopra Minerva. It is here that the body of the great saint of the church Catherine of Sienna is buried (minus head which is in Sienna!). She is remembered for her part in convincing Gregory XI to return from Avignon to Rome and being the voice of wisdom in advising the pope after his return. She is held in such high regard by history that she is one of the Patron Saints of Italy and Europe.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva was a Dominican Church for a few centuries and so it was used for a time as the base for the Roman Inquisition led by the Dominicans. One of the people tried for heresy here was Galileo Galilei and in 1633 he was forced to recant some of his theories about heavenly movements that weren’t in line with Church teaching.
This church has many other great artists associated with it apart from Bernini. A chance to see the work here of Michelangelo (Christ the Redeemer) and Filipinno Lippi should not be missed.
On the internal walls of the Church there are two more examples of Bernini’s work for you to admire. Both are associated with funeral monuments; the Memorial to Maria Raggi and the bust of Giovanni Vigevano on his tomb.
9. Galleria Doria Pamphili
A visit to the Palazzo of the Pamphili family on the Via del Corso in Rome can’t help but raise the issue of Bernini’s great financial success as a sculptor/architect in the Rome of his day…for a time he employed most of the great sculptors in Rome as part of his school. This was mainly because his patrons were the main source of finance in Rome, the Popes. Cardinal Scipione Borghese who was another great patron of Bernini’s did not quite make it to the top job. Bernini’s greatest patron was the Barbarini Pope, Urban VIII (Pope from 1623-1644), who gave Bernini over 30 commissions, most famously the ones in St Peters. When he died and Innocent X became Pope, the Papacy’s treasury was badly depleted by Urban’s patronage of great art around the city and so its main proponent, Bernini, fell out of favour with the new Pope. Urban VIII’s Barbarini nephews (two were cardinals, Urban liked to keep success in the family) also fled Rome accused by Innocent of helping themselves to treasury funds.
It is at Galleria Doria Pamphili that we encounter Bernini’s work with Innocent X (Pope from 1644-55) after his talent became so obvious to the pontiff that he came back into favour. The major work Bernini did with Innocent was the Fountain of Four Rivers in the nearby Piazza Navona. The story goes that he wasn’t considered for this commission but created a model for the fountain anyway and placed it where the Pope would happen upon it. He won the commission. There are two striking busts of Innocent X in this Galleria. The original bust developed a crack early in its life so Bernini completed another one; both are still on display. There is also a very famous portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velazquez (who was the court painter of Philip IV of Spain) on display Galleria Doria Pamphili.
10. Fontana del Tritone
When I first visited Bernini’s Triton Fountain, I had a day to myself in Rome and I had decided to make a Bernini day of it. My goal was to start the day off by visiting the fountain, move on to the nearby Palazzo Barbarini and finish the morning off by finding Santa Maria della Vittoria. I have to confess it was a very satisfying morning. I took the Metro to Barbarini Station and it wasn’t far to the fountain. Despite the fact that it was in the middle of a busy Rome intersection, Bernini’s first public fountain was a joy to behold.
The fountain was built in 1642/3 and was the last commission from his old patron, Pope Urban VIII who was to die a year later and Bernini’s career slowed down a little before he gained the favour of Innocent X. Roman fountains before this one were generally plain functional basins providing water to the population. This fountain was linked to a restored aqueduct to provide water for the locals but there was nothing plain about it. Urban even gave Bernini the theme he wanted for the fountain, a passage from Ovids poem, ‘Metamorphoses’.
Already Triton, at his call, appears
Above the waves; a Tyrian robe he wears;
And in his hand a crooked trumpet bears.
The sovereign bids him peaceful sounds inspire,
And give the waves the signal to retire….
The Barbarini pope ensured that his contemporaries and subsequent history would know who had organised this fountain. The Papal Tiara, the Keys to the Kingdom and the Barbarini bees are all being held up by the dolphin tails that are supporting the fountain’s Triton and his conch.
11. Palazzo Barberini
The Palazzo Barbarini is just up the road from the Triton fountain in Via delle Quattro Fontane. The story of this Palazzo continues the story of the conflict between two of Bernini’s patrons, Urban VIII and Innocent X. The free spending Barbarini bought the land before he became Pope and no expense was spared on building the Palazzo. Bernini was the third architect hired to work on the project which he completed in 1633. After Urban’s death in 1644, Innocent X in his fury at how much money Urban had drained from the Pontiff’s treasury, confiscated this Palazzo but was forced to return it to the Barbarinis in 1653. In visiting Palazzo Barbarini, we can see examples of Bernini’s sculpture, painting and architecture. Today this building houses the important collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica
It is here we meet the first likeness of Bernini himself in an oil self-portrait from very early in his career when he was around 27. The subject matter of the portrait, David holding the head of Goliath, perhaps gives us a hint of the strong views Bernini held about his own destiny.
The other two pieces of art that we have come to see are the busts of Urban VIII himself, the builder of the Palazzo and the man that although a spendthrift, left Rome an extraordinary legacy by his promotion of the prodigious genius that was Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Like other sites of our tour of Bernini’s works in Rome, we visit places for Bernini and stay for so much more. A gallery that houses one of the finest collections in Italy has got to be good.
Check out this amazing image of a painting of Palazzo Barbarini in the mid seventeenth century.
12. Santa Maria della Vittoria
There is always a great back story to churches in Rome and Santa Maria della Vittoria is no exception. When building the Church, a sculpture (not an obelisk!) was dug up of an Hemaphroditus statue around 1608. It was presented to our old Friend, Cardinal Scipione Borghese who in return provided his architect and paid for the façade of this new church.
How do ancient masterpieces turn up in Roman gardens? This is a similar issue to the discovery of an obelisk by the Dominicans digging up the garden of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Rather than an ancient temple, the area where Santa Maria della Vittoria was being built had been part of the Imperial gardens called the Gardens of Sallust. These gardens were famous for their statuary and presumably after the destruction of the garden by the Goths in 410, the statues were broken and discarded or just left to sink into ground, only to reappear again when the area was built over a 1000 years later. The Hemaphroditus wasn’t the only ancient masterpiece recovered from the Gardens of Sallust; in visiting the Capitoline Museum earlier in our Bernini tour, you will have no doubt inspected the amazing ‘Dying Gaul’ statue that is one of the highlights of that museum. It too returned to the world in the early 17th century from the Gardens of Sallust. The Hemaphroditus enters our Bernini story when Cardinal Scipione asked him to sculpt a mattress for the reclining figure in 1620 when he was still a very young sculptor.
Come the invasion of Italy by Napoleon between 1796-1802, both statues, the Hemphroditus (with mattress) and the Dying Gaul went to France. Bernini’s mattress and its attached Roman Hemaphroditus is today in the Louvre because it was sold to the French. The ‘Dying Gaul’ returned to Italy in 1816 as it had simply been taken.
On my own visit to Santa Maria della Vittoria (98 via XX Settembre), I had dawdled at my earlier stops and so by the time I got to the Church, midday mass was in progress and I didn’t want to disturb the faithful. I had come to see the ‘Ecstasy of St Teresa,’ a piece that Bernini himself had believed was one of his greatest works. When the parishioners came out after Mass, I sidled inside to see if I could have a look at Saint Teresa and perhaps get a photo. To my dismay, the priest was in a hurry for his lunch and was closing the Church; myself and other similar minded tourists were being hussled out the church door! My quick photo of Saint Teresa was blurred so I have to thank Wikipedia for my photo of Bernini’s masterpiece from late in his career when he was no longer the ‘go to guy’ for Pope Innocent X. It was Bernini’s good fortune that he was paid a fortune for this work of the famous saint in the process of religious ecstasy that she had described in her autobiography.
13. Galleria Borghese
Refer: Walking Rome from Piazza del Popolo
14. Santa Maria del Popolo
Refer: Walking Rome from Piazza del Popolo
15. Spanish Steps
Refer: Walking Rome from Piazza del Popolo
Walking Rome from Piazza del Popolo