The Piazza Navona
If you want to see Rome in all its unbridled glory; teaming with tourists, hawkers, artists, street performers, thieves, priests, paupers of all descriptions, and plain old Romans out for a passeggiata, you have to go to the Piazza Navona. It was created from an existing lot in the mid-17th century on the site of the old Stadium of Domitian, a horseshoe-shaped arena for foot races built in the 1st century AD. The grand refurbishment was commissioned by Pope Innocent X to give his family, the Pamphili’s (who owned much of the surrounding land) the greatest square in all of Rome. Not only did the work include the rebuilding of the church of Sant’Agnese by Borromini, Bernini, and Girolamo Rainaldi, it was also the excuse to build one of the most astonishing fountains ever created, Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. With various other fountains and shops, the Museo di Roma, and even a statue of Pasquino, where Romans can leave lyrical complaints about powerful people, the piazza is still living up to its reputation as one of the grandest and most vibrant outdoor hubs in Rome.
Visiting the Piazza Navona: What to See
The Fountain of the Four Rivers
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s most famous work was not meant to be his work at all. When Innocent X decided to furnish his great piazza with an even greater fountain the first sculptor that came to mind was Francesco Borromini, who actually came up with the four-rivers concept for the future fountain. Not only was Bernini Borromini’s arch rival, Bernini was roundly detested by Innocent X due to an old family rivalry between the Pope’s family and that of his predecessor, Urban VII who had been Bernini’s patron. Luckily for Bernini, who was never short of influential friends, Prince Niccolo Ludovisi caught wind of what was happening and recommended that Bernini design a model of his own for the fountain. With no love lost for Borromini, Bernini borrowed the idea of four rivers and not only bettered the design, but also added an Egyptian obelisk to the top as one adds frosting to an already-spectacular cake. When it was finished Prince Ludovisi conspired to have it put into a room in Pamphili palace that Innocent regularly passed through. Upon seeing the model Innocent uttered the immortal if perhaps apocryphal words: “…he who desires not to use Bernini’s designs must take care not to see them.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The fountain, which is literally overflowing with allegory, features four titans representing four rivers from the four known (at the time) continents – Africa, America, India, and Europe. An Egyptian obelisk salvaged from the Appian Way rises from the midst of them, a symbol of eternal Roman power set on a plinth of travertine. Adorning it all are an encyclopedic list of animals, symbols, embellishments and in-jokes that have made the fountain a source of rumor, legend, study, and conjecture since it was first built. Bernini did more project managing than actual carving on this project but he is supposed to have personally carved the horse, lion, palm tree, and the creature that is supposed to be an armadillo, but looks more like a ninja turtle.
It’s unclear how many of the symbols are slights directed at Borromini. The figure of the Nile is blindfolded because the source of the river was unknown at the time – not to avoid looking at the facade of Sant’Agnese, which Borromini worked on. However, the figure of the Río de le Plata may, in fact, be holding up his hand to block its view from the same work. What isn’t in any doubt is the marvel of having balanced a gigantic stone obelisk (weighing a few hundred tons) on top of a stone arch. It’s a breathtaking feat of engineering and a very sweet icing on an already incredible cake.
The Pamphili Palace and Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone
The Pamphili Palace was a collection of buildings abutting the original (unrefurbished) Piazza Navona. When Giambattista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X and undertook the refurbishment of the Piazza, he decided to build himself a palace as well. Under the watchful eye of Rome’s Chief papal architect at the time, Girolamo Rainaldi, a stretch of separate buildings were amalgamated and joined under a single opulent facade. Today, somewhat prosaically, the building is used as the Brazilian embassy.
Rainaldi also worked on the rebuilding of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which is supposedly built on the site of a brothel where the young Agnese was dragged after being outed as a Christian in pagan Rome. Long a pilgrimage site, the Pamphili’s decided that the closest church to their palace needed a bit of sprucing up and brought in not only Rainaldi but also Borromini and finally Bernini, to complete the work. Despite the influence of three of Rome’s greatest architects, historians tend to take a dim view of the building. What is undeniably interesting about it is that you can actually identify the section that each man designed (apparently cooperation in a single area was out of the question). The facade up to the ceiling belongs to Borromini, the pediment was done by Bernini, and everything above that is the work of Rainaldi.
The Museo di Roma
This museum, dedicated to the art and history of the Eternal City, is relatively new by Roman standards. It came into being in the 1950s when various collections were placed on display in the Palazzo Braschi, a 19th-century palace that has acted as mayoral residence, Fascist headquarters, and even refugee center. Today it holds a collection of paintings, sculptures, and photographs that specifically deal with Rome, its history, and its people. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday 10:00am – 7:00pm. Tickets cost €11.00 for adults.
The Fountain of Neptune and the Fontana del Moro
These two lesser fountains in the Piazza Navona were built by Giacomo Della Porta as a way of “balancing” the Piazza. The original designs were not particularly baroque, but were added to over the years to include the requisite gods, cherubs, and stylized sea creatures.
Just off the southwest end of the square, in a smaller piazza, sits the first of Rome’s “talking statues,” aka Pasquino. He is a worn and beaten statue from the 3rd century B.C. who was placed in the little square in the 16th-century. Not long after this, pieces of paper began to appear on his base denouncing various moves made by the rulers and politicians of the day. These pithy notes, often in verse, made public many of the complaints that people usually only spoke about among themselves. It was a newspaper opinion section before Romans had newspapers and it didn’t take long for it to become extremely popular. Despite the fact that the original satirist (who is lost to history) was caught and punished pretty horribly (let’s just say writing satirical poems is difficult when you have lost both hands) the tradition lived on and to this very day anonymous gadflies leave notes stuck to the base of Pasquino ridiculing anything and everything going on in the city.
Tips for Visiting the Piazza Navona
The Piazza Navona is a public space and therefore doesn’t close. It does, however, get quite crowded during the day regardless of the time of year, but especially during high season (May – September). If you’re looking for a bit of intimacy go in the early morning, before the buskers, hawkers, caricaturists and street artists show up. But don’t write off the merry bedlam of the Piazza later in the day. If you enjoy a carnival-like buzz go around sundown on a summer evening to feel like you have stepped into a heart of a pan-European street party that has been going strong for over 500 years.
The carnivalesque atmosphere of Piazza Navona makes it a prime spot for street vendors, and the occasional scam artist and pickpockets. Although a nearly constant police presence dissuades most illegal activity.
Over the last decade, Italy has become one of the main way stations for illegal immigrants/refugees crossing into Europe from Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these (usually) young men end up working in the informal economy, attempting to sell flowers and assorted tchotchkes to travelers on the street. Very occasionally one will become pushy in hopes of pressuring you into a sale. In this case, the best course of action is to politely decline and turn away. Alternately, buying something is a harmless gesture and may very well help a person in a very difficult position.
Pickpockets are harder to spot and, if you are their mark you will often not spot them at all. There are a number of ubiquitous urban legends concerning “gypsies” (a derogatory term for Romani people) who employ some variation of throwing a baby at unsuspecting passers-by as a diversion to steal money. The thing is, we have yet to witness this or meet someone who has actually experienced such a scam – it invariably happens to a “friend of a friend.” This does not, however, mean that there aren’t pickpockets on the streets of Rome, nor people employing elaborate scams with the goal of taking your money. The single best way to beat them is by keeping your money and valuables safely hidden on you body. For men, this means front pockets instead of back pockets for your wallet. For women, it means keeping your bag on the front of your body. Travel wallets, that can be worn under clothes, are also helpful.
As a rule, many of the restaurants located in the streets surrounding Piazza Navona are more focused on quantity (of covers) than quality (of food). This doesn’t mean that you can’t eat well, you just need to pay attention. The golden rule is to try to avoid any restaurant that has a tout (someone who does their best to charm and beckon you in) at the entryway. For more tips, consult our blog on the Dos and Don’ts of eating in Rome .
The Best Time to Visit Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona is one of the perennial draws of Rome. There is a constant, buzzing crowd from around 10:00am until well past midnight. Since it was refurbished by Innocent X it has been a gathering spot for people from all over Rome and all walks of life and it continues to be so to this day. In this sense, the best time to go is when the Piazza is at its busiest. However, if you want to see it without the crowds, an early morning walk is just what you need.
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