Layers of Time

Don't go to Rome!
Magic in Marble (and more)


Piazza Navona is one of the great public spaces of Europe. Built on the ruins of the first century Stadium of Domitian, it still retains the same footprint as that athletics arena. Most of the current buildings and fountains date from the 1600s when it was renovated in grand Baroque style. We found a cafe and spent a happy hour enjoying the vibe and taking in the sights and sounds of this grand square. It was buzzing with activity – tourists and locals, buskers and hawkers, fountains and grand buildings. Lunch was simple but delicious and we were in Rome.


Piazza Navona is famous for its three magnificent Baroque fountains. Originally providing fresh drinking water to the citizens of Rome, they are now purely decorative. Last time we were in Rome they were covered in scaffolding, so we made sure we went to see them on our first day this visit.

  • Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi

The Fountain of the Four Rivers was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651. It depicts four river gods representing the four (known) corners of the earth, and is topped by an Egyptian obelisk. The story is told in a contemporary biography of Bernini that the Pope who commissioned the fountain was not a fan of Bernini but felt compelled to use his design once he saw its beauty.

“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.”

  • Fontana del Moro 

The Fountain of the Moor is at the southern end of the Piazza. It was  designed by Italian architect and sculptor Giacomo Della Porta in 1575. Giacomo was a follower of Michelangelo and actually worked with him on St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. He also designed the facade of the Gesu Church, which we can see from our hotel window. Originally it featured only a dolphin in the centre, surrounded by four Tritons. Bernini added the figure of the Moor (or African), straddling the dolphin, in 1653.

  • Fontana del Nettuno

The Neptune Fountain is at the north end of the Piazza. Also designed by Della Porta, it was purely functional and had no sculptures until the 19th century, when a competition was held for a design that would balance the other two fountains. The central sculpture of Neptune fighting an octopus was added, as well as sea nymphs and other creatures.

Going Underground

As we strolled around Piazza Navona, we spotted a sign inviting us to explore underground excavations 5 metres below street level. With our new policy of entering anything on a whim if it looks interesting we headed on down. There is a fascinating display of the excavated remains of the original Stadium of Domitian, the first and only masonry stadium in Rome. The stadium could hold about 30,000 spectators and was used for athletic competitions. Domitian was keen to bring the Greek Olympic games to Rome, but the Romans weren’t so sure – there wasn’t enough blood and violence for their liking. The style of the stadium was similar to the Colosseum, except of course on a much smaller scale, and was constructed in brick and concrete, clad in marble. The excavations on display cover only a small corner of the original stadium, but they give a good sense of the history of the building.

A Surprising Bonus

It seems that the Piazza Navona Underground space is often used as for exhibitions and performances. When we were there Memento by Italian artist Rabarama (real name Paola Epifani) was on display. It was a collection of quirky sculptures of human (mostly) figures in different poses and various sizes scattered amongst and sometimes on top of the remnants of the Stadium. Here’s the official description:

MEMENTO is the title of this event, an imperative rich in solemnity and which intentionally wishes to lead us back in time: remember! Remember your roots, your past, to understand who you are now and to determine your future self. The reference to the Latin connects directly with the presence of these multicolored creatures in a place where the remains of ancient Roman ruins take us back in time, pushing the user to embark on a journey of discovery of the origins. The art of Rabarama is made unique by the combination of classical sculpture, which portrays the human being in sometimes reflective poses, other times extended in the surrounding space, with the peculiarity of the incised and colored skin. The symbols are also a path of knowledge and research, which the artist has developed throughout his career: puzzles, nests and letters are linked to the genetics and conception of man as a biological computer, whose path is already predestined.”

If you say so!

2 thoughts on “Layers of Time

  1. Did you learn the story of Bernini’s statute and the figure shielding his eyes from the “ugliness” of the church designed by his rival Boromini? LOL

    1. I did hear that story, though I also read that the fountain predates the church 🙂 Nice thought though.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, here's the place to put them:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.