Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi might be easily, and rightfully, for that matter, deemed one of the most spectacular fountains in Rome. It is located in the center of Piazza Navona, between Fontana del Nettuno and Fontana del Moro, enhancing the architectural landscape by the dynamism of its sculptural decorations and by the verticality of the ancient Egyptian obelisk which pierces the air with its slender outline.

The obelisk was built in the year 81 AD, and despite its pagan symbolism, it was easily assimilated by the Christian iconography by being reinterpreted as symbol of the papal dominance, being overtopped by a dove (the coat of arms of the Pamphili family, of which Giovanni Battista Pamphili, later elected Pope Innocent X, was born, Pope Innocent X being the one who commissioned the construction of Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi). The fountain was designed by the brilliant Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651. The story goes his design was chosen over the plans envisaged by his competitors as a result of the fact that, when the pope saw the sketches, he had no choice but to rule out all the other ideas (so great was, indeed, the impact of the sketches on the pope, despite his previous mindset of not commissioning Bernini to do the job).

The result of the works did not fall short of the expectations of the pope or of the people, previously resilient to the idea of building yet another fountain in Rome, in particular in a time of poverty and famine (especially because the fountain was built by public subscription). Bernini outdid himself in representing the four iconic rivers of the four continents (Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas), namely, the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges and Rio de la Plata (or the Plate). They are rendered as four vigorous men captured in what is most exemplary for each them. For instance, the Danube touches the papal insignia, a gesture hinting on the fact the largest European river is the closest, geographically speaking, to the institution of papacy. The man representing Rio de la Plata reigns, looking a little worried, on top of a pile of money, the suggestion implemented here by Bernini being the richness of the two Americas and the benefits Europe could enjoy in maintaining a relation with the overseas continents. The Nile is represented such as to underline the unknown source of the river (the man’s head is covered with a piece of cloth), whereas the Ganges is highlighted in respect to its navigability (he holds an oar).

The four river gods are placed symmetrically around the obelisk, such as to emphasize the overpowering presence and chiefdom of the papacy.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers)
Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy