It is no doubt that Piazza Navona is an architectural marvel not only for the city of Rome but for the whole world. It is one of the most splendid Baroque gems in the eternal city of Rome that displays the brilliance of Bernini and Borromini. The Piazza exhibits an amalgamation of harmony, colors, elegance, and disparity of architecturally sober houses alternating with several monumental buildings. Measuring up to 240 meters in length and 65 meters in width, there are multiple small alleys that lead onto the square which has 9 entries in total.
The shape of the piazza mimics the ancient perimeter of the Stadium of Domitian that once stood on the same spot. Three fountains dominate the entire scene of the piazza namely, Fontana di Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the four rivers), Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor), and Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune). Today, life in the piazza revolves around a variety of open-air cafes and seasonal fairs. Though such a famous gathering space, there are some interesting and unknown facts about this place which are not known to everyone.
Here are some of these facts about Piazza Navona.
1. The Piazza was initially a Stadium
The Stadium of Domitian was built in 85 AD used to host ancient Greek Agonal games having around 30,000 spectators. The stadium was a grand structure having a rectangular shape with rounded short sides. It was called the “Circus Agonalis” which derives its name from the Greek word ‘agones’ meaning ‘contest’. It is also said that sometimes, they would flood the stadium to hold mock naval battles. The remnants of this stadium can still be seen today at the northern end of the Piazza, by looking down in one of the corners of Piazza di Tor Sanguigna.
2. Meaning of its name ‘Navona’
During the time the stadium was built by Domitian, the Romans went there to watch ‘agones’ or games, the reason it came to be known as Circus Agonalis. Over so many years, its name changed to Avone, then to Navone, and finally Navona. The possible reason for this name could be that Navona means ‘big ship’ which could refer to the flooding of the area that used to take place in the stadium to hold mock naval battles. But during the Renaissance period, it was flooded on weekends to provide a cooling-off spot for the Romans to help them escape the scorching summer heat.
3. Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers
The Fountain of the Four Rivers is the largest of the three fountains standing in the Piazza Navona, which was built between 1647 and 1651. The design of this fountain was originally commissioned by Borromini but later it was taken over by Bernini. It gets its name from the four figures placed centrally in the fountain, each representing a river from the four continents. These are – the Nile representing Africa, the Ganges representing Asia, the Danube representing Europe, and Rio Della Plata representing America.
4. Fontana del Moro or Fountain of the Moor
Originally, the fountain was sculpted by Giacomo Della Porta in 1575 that featured a basin with four huge tritons. It was in 1673 that Bernini added the statue of the Moor wrestling a dolphin. The fountain is located at the southern end of the piazza and the sculptures of the tritons are copies of the original ones which are seen in the gardens of the Villa Borghese. All the fountains located in the piazza are fed by the Aqua Virgo aqueduct.
5. Fontana del Nettuno or Fountain of Neptune
This third fountain located at the northern end of the square was commissioned to Giacomo Della Porta in 1574 and was made out of Porta-Santa or rose marble, just like the Fountain of Moor. Giacomo designed both the fountains similarly though the fountains remained incomplete and un-decorated for almost 300 years. Finally, in 1878, it was Antonio Della Bitta who carved the statue of Neptune among others that created a balance with the Fountain of Moor.
6. The Church of Saint’ Agnese in Agone
Facing the Fountain of the Four Rivers is the Church of Saint’ Agnese designed by architect Borromini. The site on which it is built was where Sant’agnese was martyred in 304 AD. The facade was very smartly designed by Borromini, as he created a concave facade which helped to see the dome easily from below. An important relic that is preserved in the church is the head of Saint Agnese. Today the church hosts religious ceremonies, classical concerts, chamber music recitals, and operas.
7. The Palazzo Pamphilj
This Palace belongs to the family of Pope Innocent X and is home to the Brazilian Embassy in Rome. The Pope wanted his favorite architect and sculptor Francesco Borromini to design this grand palace for himself and his family. What is interesting is that the Pope was against Bernini because he was the protege of the previous Pope, and Pope Innocent was against him. Despite this, Bernini knew how to make his way and be a part of this Palace when he presented the Pope’s girlfriend with a silver model of his idea for the fountain. She loved it and the Pope had to hire Bernini against his will.
8. The ghosts of Piazza Navona
The Piazza is also famous for its ghost stories. The famous one is that of Olimpia, Pope Innocent’s girlfriend. She was hated by the people and knew that she would get defenseless once the Pope passed away. When the Pope got sick and was on his deathbed, she tried to escape the Palace after stealing a good amount of riches from the Pope and took off in a carriage over the bridge today known as Ponte Sisto. When the next Pope took over, he banished Olimpia and sent her to her family home. It is believed that every year on January 7th, the anniversary of Pope Innocent’s death, the ghost of Olimpia rides her carriage from Piazza over that same bridge.
9. The Piazza has been featured in many movie scenes
The Piazza is highlighted in many famous movie scenes because of its unique art and charm appreciated all around the world. It has been a set for Italian and international movies both. Some of these popular movies include, Roman Holiday starring actors Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Matt Damon and Jude Law and, Angels and Demons starring Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer amongst a few others as well.
10. Christmas time and other fairs held at the Piazza
The massive square that remains empty most of the time, is lively and filled with stalls, fairs, artists and visitors from everywhere. The piazza gets filled with energy specially during the Christmas time and is famous for it. There are tiny stalls lined up along the length of the piazza with acrobats, jugglers, painters and street performers that put on their shows filling up the entire space.