Fountain of the Four Rivers
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (The Fountain of the Four Rivers)
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) is a fountain situated in the Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy. Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed it in 1651 for Pope Innocent X. The pope´s family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faces onto Piazza Navona as does the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which Innocent sponsored.
The fountain is based on a basin from the centre and travertine rocks rise to support the four river gods and above that an ancient Egyptian obelisk was erected with the Pamphili family emblem depicting a dove with an olive twig. The river gods represent four major rivers of the four continents where papal authority had spread: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Río de la Plata representing America.
Each river god has flora and fauna that further carry forth identification. Each carries a certain number of allegories and metaphors with it. The Ganges carries a long oar, illustrating the river’s navigability. The Nile’s head is draped with a loose piece of fabric, which meant that the Nile´s source was unknown at the time. The Danube touches the Pope’s personal coat of arms, because it is the large river closest to Rome. The Río de la Plata is seated on a pile of coins, a symbol of the abundance America could offer to Europe (the word plata means “silver” in Spanish). Also, the Río de la Plata looks scared by a snake, expressing rich people´s fear that their money could be stolen.
Bernini’s design was chosen in competition. The circumstances of this victory are described in Filippo Baldinucci‘s The life of Cavaliere Bernini (1682):
“So strong was the sinister influence of the rivals of Bernini on the mind of Innocent that when he planned to set up in Piazza Navona the great obelisk brought to Rome by the Emperor Caracalla, which had been buried for a long time at Capo di Bove for the adornment of a magnificent fountain, the Pope had designs made by the leading architects of Rome without an order for one to Bernini. Prince Niccolò Ludovisi, whose wife was niece to the pope, persuaded Bernini to prepare a model, and arrange for it to be secretly installed in a room in the Palazzo Pamphili that the Pope had to pass. When the meal was finished, seeing such a noble creation, he stopped almost in ecstasy. Being prince of the keenest judgment and the loftiest ideas, after admiring it, said: “This is a trick … It will be necessary to employ Bernini in spite of those who do not wish it, for he who desires not to use Bernini’s designs, must take care not to see them.”
Public fountains in Rome had multiple functions: first, they were vital sources of water for the population in the times before home plumbing. Second, they were monuments to the papal patrons. Earlier Bernini fountains are the Fountain of the Triton in Piazza Barberini, the Fountain of the Moor in the southern end of Piazza Navona built during the Barberini papacy, and the Neptune and Triton for Villa Peretti Montalto, whose sculptures are now located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.