The Roman Empire has brought an unparalleled development all across Europe, and later also to the rest of the world. It will not come as a surprise that Rome is still the city with the largest number of architectural monuments in the world. At nearly every step we take in the Italian capital, we can encounter a work of art. One of the places for which this certainly holds is Piazza Navona, a square that belongs to the most beautiful of the city.
Today Piazza Navona is a place to admire stunning churches and Baroque fountains, whilst in ancient times the square was occupied by a stadium for athletic competitions. The unusual elongated shape of the square is one of the most obvious hints of this athletic past.
In the year 80 AD the Stadium of Domitian was built here, a name which still can be seen on the plates of buildings located on the square. The sports arena was a gift from Emperor Titus Flavius to the residents of the capital. Another name for this stadium was the Agon Arena, derived from the ancient Greek word "άγών", which means competition. It was this name that transformed in the Middle Ages into "n’agone", before locals simplified it to "Navona". The antique stadium measured an impressive 275 by 106 meters, accommodating up to 15 thousand spectators!
Competitions were held on Piazza Navona until the 4th century. When the Christian era began, the stadium gradually ceased to be used for its intended purpose. In the 12th century, the stadium no longer existed, with some of its parts being reused in the construction of residential buildings, and other parts even for the construction of the beautiful church of Saint Agnes. The sports pitch became the square as we see today, keeping the rectangular shape of the stadium and its dimensions.
The sporty side of Piazza Navona revived between the 17th and 19th century, when it became the place of traditional sea battles or "naumachia" – as derived from the ancient Greek word "ναυμαχία". During these spectacular events, the drain holes of the fountains were blocked and the area got flooded with water, for it to become the stage of the chariots and carriages of high-ranking residents of Rome. Their vehicles, with noses mimicking famous vessels, were swept across Piazza Navona amidst the splashing sounds of water.
In the days of the Baroque, the square blossomed for real, thanks to the efforts of most notably the Pamphili family and two outstanding architects, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini, who decorated the square with their great works.
In 1470, the tax commissioner of the Apostolic Chamber, Antonio Pamphili, bought a small house on the adjacent Piazza di Pasquino. His son Angelo, reaching the age of marriage, married the daughter of a noble and wealthy Roman, whose family owned several buildings on Piazza Navona. Several adjacent houses, obtained as a dowry of the bride, were subsequently merged with the small Pamphili House on Pasquino Square. When one of the Pamphili descendants was elected Pope in 1644, the time had come for a more magnificent building which duly reflected the prestige of the Pamphili family of those days. The newly elected Pope Innocent X wanted this palace to be completed before the anniversary year of 1650, which meant that the work had to be carried out in emergency mode. One of the family’s favorites, the architect Francesco Borromini, got in charge of the interior of the palace.
During those days Piazza Navona became the main construction site of the city, with not only the construction of the palace, but simultaneously the reconstruction of two fountains in the north and south of the square, as originally built by the architect Giacomo della Porta in 1576. In addition, Bernini started his construction of the monumental Fountain of the Four Rivers in the centre of Piazza Navona.
A tender for the best design was announced for the central fountain, with, remarkably enough, Bernini not being allowed to participate in this competition. In those days Bernini was leading the construction of the bell towers on the facade of the St Peter’s Cathedral. Due to cracks appearing in the towers and financial problems, the construction work needed to be halted and the bell towers were demolished. And although further investigation proved Bernini’s innocence, his reputation was undermined. The victory was practically in the hands of Francesco Borromini, but fate decided otherwise. Bernini still made a design and his patron, the husband of Innocent X's niece, brought a model of one and a half meters high into the papal dining room. The Pope was stunned by the beauty of that architectural design, the tender was canceled and Giovanni Lorenzo set about building a masterpiece.
The idea of the fountain reveals the Grace of God, flowing onto the four known parts of the world. The giants at the foot of the obelisk represent the great rivers in every part – the Danube in Europe, the Ganges in Asia, La Plata in America and the Nile in Africa. Each of these rivers, treasures more than interesting details. The Danube holds a scroll in its hand with carved emblems of the papacy and heraldic symbols of the Pamphili family. Under the statue of La Plata there are coins, symbolizing the prosperity of America. Ganges holds a paddle, as a symbol of advanced navigation in India. And the Nile treasures the most interesting feature – a closed face. With this detail the artist reflected the unknownness of the river's source.
The fountain is crowned by the magnificent Agonale Obelisk of 16.53 meters tall. This version from the 1st century AD resembles an old Egyptian obelisk which was brought to Rome in the days of Caracalla, but got heavily damaged over time. Alike its Egyptian predecessor, this obelisk was carved out of granite on the territory of Egypt, and brought to Rome, where pseudo-Egyptian inscriptions were added. On top you can see a heraldic sign in the form of a dove with an olive branch.
From the very start of the construction of the fountain, people have exposed references to the creative duel between Borromini and Bernini by looking carefully at its details. It was rumored that Nile closes his head, so as not to see the church of Saint Agnes which was being built directly in front of it by Borromini. And the god of La Plata, as the Romans thought, raised up his hand, as if he were afraid that the church would collapse. Their rivalry seemed to have brought the best in Borromini and Bernini, as both created masterpieces here. And since we have just mentioned Saint Agnes, let's talk about her now.
According to the legend, Agnes was a 12 year old girl from Rome who served the Savior by taking a vow of chastity. Therefore she also refused to be intimate with the son of the prefect of Rome, who had fallen in love with her. For not going with the prefect's son, Agnes was thrown into a brothel at the stadium of Domitian. There, none of her clients were able to deprive her of her virginity, as they all suddenly appeared to lose their masculinity. To console the self-esteem of these rich patricians, the girl got accused of witchcraft, and was led out, completely nude, into an arena filled with spectators. However, another miracle happened in the arena, as her hair started growing instantly to her feet, hiding her naked body from the thousands of eyes. After being accused of publicly demonstrating acts of magic, Agnes was sentenced to be burned at the stake. And there the miracles continued, as the flames of the fire faded away immediately when reaching the body of the girl, not doing any harm to her. In an attempt to speed up the execution, an evil soldier ran up to the martyr to cut off her head with a blow of his sword. After the execution, the girl's body was buried in the catacombs which are known today as the Catacomba di Sant’Agnese.
On the site of the tragic death of the young Agnes there stands a magnificent Baroque church, built by the architects Rainaldi and Borromini. The interior of the Sant'Agnese in Agone is dominated by a dome located atop an octagonal space. Some say that if you look up in it for long enough, you’ll start to feel dizzy. It could well be the hypnotizing effect of its beauty. Amidst the rich and impressive interior of the church you'll find an altar not surrounded by paintings, but by marble bas-reliefs. By far the most valuable item though, is the skull of Saint Agnes.
In the north of Piazza Navona there's another beautiful fountain, the Fontana del Nettuno, as originally designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1574. The very first version of this fountain was modest, barely containing any decoration. It was only by the end of the 19th century, that the simple stone pool filled with water was decorated. A powerful depiction of the sea god, smashing an octopus with a trident in the centre of the fountain, added the desired character to this urban reservoir. The fine sculptural group came from the hands of the architect Antonio della Bitta.
Also the southern part of the square is enriched by a fountain of Giacomo della Porta, although also this fountain was initially very modest, with only four stone tritons standing in the fountain's waters. The male figure in the centre represents Neptune fighting a dolphin, and was added in 1654 by the master himself, Bernini. Due to the African facial features of the Neptune sculpture, the fountain became known as the Moor Fountain – a result not specifically intended by Bernini.
Like in the old days, Piazza Navona is still a centre of life, with thousands of tourists exploring all the magnificence every day. All of its beauty is open to the public, except for the Pamphili Palace, which currently houses the Brazilian embassy. The striking interiors of the church of Saint Agnes can be seen every day, but be aware of the afternoon break between 13-15h.
For all who admire the history of the ancient Rome there's another unique opportunity, though a bit more hidden. It is possible to have a look underneath the square! Since 2014 the underground levels have been opened to the public, and tours are provided. During the tour you will learn more about the history of the stadium, see the ruins and even some preserved statues. Find the museum at Via di Tor Sanguigna 3 – get directions – or learn more on the official website. The underground museum is open every day of the year.
Piazza Navona is a wonderful place both in the afternoon and in the evening, when you can sit down with a glass of prosecco, admiring all this history around you. The eternal city treasures an unprecedented number of secrets, which we will surely cover in our next Streetwise Stories. If you cannot wait for these new secrets, have a look at our Streetwise map of Rome.