Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – a symbol of greatness of the Catholic Church and the Pamphilj family

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Ganges River, Cloude Poussin

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Ganges River, Cloude Poussin

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, adorning one of the largest squares in Rome  – Piazza Navona, represents the personifications of the four rivers from the four continents known at that time. The idea from the monument was picked up by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from his rival Francesco Borromini, but the great idea of topping off the sculpture with an obelisk seeming to grow out of a hollowed out rock was his. It was a spectacular vision worthy of a great engineering talent which aroused general admiration of viewers.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Ganges River, Cloude Poussin
Lower part of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), allegories of the four rivers, Piazza Navona
Fontanna dei Quattro Fiumi on Piazza Navona, in the background Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and Palazzo Pamphilj
Obelisk topping of the Quattro Fiumi Fountain, design Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, personification of the Danube River, Antonio Raggi
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, personification of the Nile River, Cosimo and Giacomo Antonio Fancelli
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, personification of the La Plata River, Francesco Baratta
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the foreground of the tower of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and Palazzo Pamphilj
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi at night, Piazza Navona
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, fragment
Bust of Olimpia Maidalchini, Alessandro Algardi, Galleria Doria Pamphilj
The Agonalis Obelisk topping off the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Bust of Pope Innocent X, Alessandro Algardi, Galleria Doria Pamphilj
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, drawing – Giovanni Battista Falda, 2nd half of the XVII century
Pope Innocent X looking at the fountain at Piazza Navona, approx. 1651, Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, adorning one of the largest squares in Rome  – Piazza Navona, represents the personifications of the four rivers from the four continents known at that time. The idea from the monument was picked up by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from his rival Francesco Borromini, but the great idea of topping off the sculpture with an obelisk seeming to grow out of a hollowed out rock was his. It was a spectacular vision worthy of a great engineering talent which aroused general admiration of viewers.

 

The work on the design of one of the most spectacular fountains not only in Rome, but in all of Europe was entrusted to Bernini, the greatest artist of those times, despite the fact the Pope Innocent X who commissioned the structure did not hold him in high regard. As a favorite of his predecessor, Pope Urban VIII from the Barberini family, who were rivals of the Pamphilj family, he simply did not trust him. Reportedly, Innocent was convinced to accept Bernini’s design by his famous and influential sister-in-law Olimpia Maidalchini, when after a competition for the fountain’s design, the artist showed a model not only cast in wax, as was customary but also in silver. This reportedly broke the ice between the artist and the patron, although generally during the pontificate of Innocent Bernini could have felt excluded and shunned.

The inscription on the base of the obelisk (Agonalis Obelisk) informs that it was a war trophy, brought from Egypt by Emperor Caracalla, which deviates from the truth. It was made in the image of Egyptian obelisks during the reign of Emperor Domitian, or perhaps even earlier – during the reign of Emperor Caligula, and placed in front of the Temple of Isis and Serapis. In the IVth century it was moved to the imperial complex at via Appia and placed on the spina of the hippodrome built there by Emperor Maxentius. Only from here and only in a quarter of its original size did it travel to Piazza Navona in 1649, thanks to Pope Innocent X. The pope also forewent the tradition of decorating its spire with a cross. Instead a dove with an olive branch was placed there. All those who would see it as a symbol of peace should feel disappointed. This is an element of the coat of arms of the Pamphilj family, from which Innocent X came.

Since ancient times obelisks were commonly associated with a sunray and   divine emanation, while this one here in combination with the coat of arms of the Pamphilj family and the papal insignia showed itself to be a unambiguous symbol of the authority of the popes through God’s will. The fountain was then to be not only a focal point of the square, a symbol of the significance and power of the family, but it contained a clear message: the authority of the pope is unquestionable and stretches out over all continents. This message was especially important when, the Bishop of Rome was presented with a fait accompli – the lion’s share of Europe as a result of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), fell under the influence of Protestantism.



The creators of the sculptures were four artists, which is often forgotten, believing that the statues are also Bernini’s work. The author of the personification of the Danube, a muscular man supporting the coat of arms of the Pamphilj family with symbols of papal authority, was Antonio Raggi. The Nile – a figure accompanied by a lion, covering its face, which was to symbolize the mystery of this river, of which the source had not yet been discovered, was created by Cosimo Fancelli, together with his brother (Giacomo Antonio Fancelli). The figure with an oar, a snake and a palm tree – the personification of the Ganges, known for its river transport, was completed by Claude Poussin. Finally, the fourth figure, the image of the South American La Plata, of which the riches are symbolized by a bag with coins pouring out of it, was sculpted by Francesco Baratta. They were all outstanding sculptors and their works decorate Roman churches, squares, or palaces. It is they, who along with Bernini and another significant sculptor of that time – Alessandro Algardi, are responsible for providing the Eternal City with its unique Baroque image.

The people of Rome, saw papal ambitions in their own way and scornfully interpreted the construction works of Innocent in lampoons. Social dissent was caused by an increase in the taxes on meat and salt in order to finance those works. True criticism fell upon the pope and his sister-in-law in the years 1648-1649 when Rome lacked food, and even hunger prevailed. This is when the slogans appeared: „ We do not want obelisks or fountains, it is bread we want, bread, bread, bread.”