Rome aficionados often argue about which of its many beautiful squares is the best in the city. But a strong contender must surely be the magnificent Piazza Navona.
After all, how many squares can claim to have marble Bernini sculptures and staged gladiator fights and mock naval battles?
This Baroque beauty is stunning during the day, despite the hordes of tourists. But to truly appreciate its splendour, it is best visited at night. Under the moonlight, the three fabulous fountains – the Fontana di Quattro Fiumi, the Fontana del Moro and the Fontana del Nettuno – become particularly magical.
Although paved over during the 15th century to form what we experience today, the rounded shape of the piazza comes from its foundations on top of an old stadium dating back to the first century, the Stadium of Domitian.
Emperor Domitian had the stadium built in 86AD, hosting around 30,000 spectators for athletic games.
Its name, Navona, meaning ‘big ship’, refers to the flooding of the area and the mock naval battles once held there. It was even, for a short while, used to stage gladiatorial contests.
And during the Renaissance period, the square was flooded on weekends to provide a cooling-off spot for Romans trying to escape the scorching summer heat.
Nowadays it exists mainly as a pleasure-seeking spot for tourists, surrounded by restaurants, bars and gelaterias, ideally located for people-watching locals and foreigners or just to sample a taste of la bella vita.
What you’ll find at Piazza Navona: The three fountains
Bernini’s Fontana di Quattro Fiumi is where visitors flock to have their photograph taken. Depicting the four great rivers of the four continents of the world governed by papal authority: Ganges, Nile, Danube and Rio de la Plata, its centrepiece is an imposing obelisk. The fountain was created in 1651 for Pope Innocent X, whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, overlooked the piazza.
The Fontana del Moro lies at the southern end of Piazza Navona. Surrounded by four Titans, a Moor (or African) wrestles a dolphin on a shell. Although the statue of the Moor was added later by Bernini, the original fountain was the work of Giacomo della Porta.
The Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune), on the other side of the piazza, was originally the work of Giacomo della Porta, sponsored by Pope Gregory XIII in 1574. But what’s a fountain without a statue of Neptune fighting an octopus? Fortunately, in 1878, following the unification of the kingdom of Italy, this ambition was realised by Antonio della Bitta, with some cupids and walruses thrown in for good measure by Gregorio Zappalà.
Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone
Pope Innocent X sponsored the building of this Baroque church in the 17th century, named after the martyred St Agnes, the patron saint of chastity and purity, whose skull is preserved in a chapel at the church. The church was created to be the family’s own private chapel, as the Pamphili’s palace was located very near Piazza Navona. The façade was designed by the Pamphili family’s favourite architect, Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo, but the father and son team was later replaced by Bernini’s arch rival, Borromini. Today the church hosts not only religious ceremonies but also classical concerts, chamber music recitals and operas. Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers is directly in front of the church.
Used for athletic contests and for gladiator shows following fire damage to the Colosseum, this is Rome’s only example of a masonry stadium, dating back to the first century AD. Piazza Navona stands above the original stadium structure – and you can peer down to get a glimpse of the ruins at the end of the square. Tours are also available to see the archaeological remains of this unique landmark and to discover stories about the displays of athletic prowess once held there in its pomp. One reason why not much of the stadium remains is that, in the Middle Ages, the poor were so desperate that they stole stones from crumbling buildings for their own homes.
The palace belonging to the family of Pope Innocent X faces Piazza Navona and is home to the Brazilian Embassy in Rome. Standing in the square, you can look up and see the ornately decorated ceilings inside the building. And the views looking down onto the piazza aren’t bad either: the rooftop terrace is open to the public and offers a splendid vista to enjoy over drinks.
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All you need to know about Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona, 00186 Roma RM, Italy