Piazza Navona is a beautiful square in the centre of Rome. It is famous for its Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the fountain of the four rivers. It is located in the centre of the square and at both sides of the square, there are two other fountains. Behind the fountain of the four rivers stands the church Sant’Agnese in Agone. On the square you can usually find lots of stands that sell prints of Rome and some other people selling souvenirs. And there are some shops that sell delicious gelato.
The fountain of the four rivers was made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The four figures on the fountain represent four rivers from four different continents. The Danube represents Europe, the Nile represents Africa, the Ganges represents Asia and the Río de la Plata represents America. Each of them has animals and/or trees to further clarify which continent they’re representing. The story goes that the pope that commissioned this fountain, Innocent X, didn’t like Bernini and didn’t want to give him the assignment. But Bernini sneaked in an anonymous submission of a design for the fountain. The pope loved it so much that he could only give the assignment to Bernini.
Behind the fountain stands the Sant’Agnese in Agone. This church was made by the architect Francesco Borromini. It is a beautiful church, not only on the outside, but also on the inside (so take a look inside if it’s open, you won’t regret it). Borromini’s style is easily recognizable by the unusual curvy shapes in the facade, which was quite innovative at the time.
Bernini and Borromini were rivals at the time in Rome. It always depended on who the pope liked the most and that was the one who got all the great assignments. And most of the time that was Bernini. They worked together on the baldachino in the St. Peter’s church and Bernini took all the credit. After that, Bernini tried to build bell towers next to the facade of St. Peter’s. Borromini probably knew that the towers were too heavy for the ground beneath it, but didn’t say anything. After a while, cracks started to appear in the facade and the towers had to be broken down. This brought great dishonour to Bernini, which benefitted Borromini.
So yes, there was a big rivalry between these two artists. That is also what you will hear the guides say when you come to Piazza Navona. And afterwards they will point you to these two figures. “The Ganges looks like he is scared Borromini’s church will fall over”, they will say. “The Nile pulls a cloth over his head, because Borromini’s church is too ugly to look at”. None of this is true. Simply because the fountain was built earlier than the Sant’Agnese in Agone, so it can’t possibly be a reaction to it.
So why are Bernini’s rivers making these gestures? Why would you sculpt a river that looks like he is falling over? Why would a river pull a cloth over his head? The answer lies in the knowledge of these rivers that people had at the time. The Ganges was recently discovered and had only just ‘seen the light’. The Ganges is trying to block the sunlight and is almost falling over because he is blinded by the new light. The reason the Nile has a cloth over his head is because the origin of the Nile was unknown at the moment.
These kinds of tourist myths are always exciting and fun to hear, but in my opinion, uncovering the real iconography of an artwork can be even more interesting. Plus, you get to actually appreciate how much thought and work the artist put into this beautiful work of art.