A Personal Favourite: Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers
Updated: 2 days ago
This elaborate sculptural fountain, located in Piazza Navona (one of Rome’s most beautiful squares), was designed by the artist, architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and executed in 1648-1651. Bernini (1598-1680) was a principal artist of the Baroque period, and that essentially means he was an artist working in the 17th century in which the art produced tended to be more theatrical and dramatic, exhibiting a noticeable shift away from the classicism and composure of the Renaissance.
The sculptural fountain was commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1648, and at that time, the Pope and his family were living in Piazza Navona in the Palazzo Pamphilj (the large palace with an extensive facade overlooking the piazza). Initially, the Pope refused to consider Bernini as a possible candidate for designing the fountain, because shortly prior, Bernini was blamed for the near collapse of the bell-tower he was in charge of building at St. Peter’s which almost completely ruined his reputation. In reality, Bernini was not at fault. Instead, the Pope was leaning towards choosing the designs of the architect Francesco Borromini, who just happened to be Bernini’s number one rival, and who later built the church right next to the fountain, the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone. Yes, there was a lot of competition and drama between the artists of 17th century Rome.
So how did Bernini get the job? Well, Bernini’s biographer tells us that he had a close friend, Prince Niccolò Ludovisi, whose wife was the pope’s niece. Ludovisi convinced Bernini to make a model for the fountain which Ludovisi then secretly installed in a room of the Palazzo Pamphilj. When the pope came across the model, he was immediately won over by the design.
This fountain was an important source of drinking water for the locals, but it’s also so much more than that. First of all, it’s a large monument to the glory and power of the pope. The tall central spike of the sculptural ensemble is an ancient Roman imitation of an Egyptian obelisk which was found in five separate pieces on the Circus Maxentius on the Via Appia. From up close, you can see the hieroglyphics carved onto its surface. At the very top of the obelisk, there is a bronze dove which was the symbol of the Pamphilj Papal family which contemporaries would have understood. So together, the obelisk and the dove form a power symbol; they represent the extensive power of the papacy that allegedly stretched as far as Egypt.
What about the figures themselves? What do they symbolize? Well, the clue is in the name of the fountain. This fountain represents the Four Rivers of the Four Continents that were recognized at that time (in 17th century Italy, only four continents were recognized). Each river is symbolized by a colossal and pretty muscular male figure accompanied by creatures that somehow encapsulate the nature of their river. So, this sculptural ensemble represents the papal family in relation to the whole world. If that isn’t a power symbol, I’m not sure what is.
Let’s start with the River God of the River Ganges in Asia. He is shown as an indifferent river who faces away from the spiritual light of the church (at the time of the fountain's construction, there would have been an older church in place of what we now see as Sant'Agnese in Agone). This represented what was considered to be the ‘spiritual ignorance’ of this land. The River Ganges holds an oar to represent the navigability of the river in India. He is also accompanied by a sea serpent which signifies the twisting and serpentine nature of the river. To the right of this River God, there is a lion and a palm tree, and these two elements bridge the two continents of Asia and Africa, as these are two elements commonly found in both.
Further to the right, we have the River God of the River Nile. The figure of the Nile is shown with his head covered by a veil to reflect the fact that at the time, the source of the River Nile was unknown. It also represents what the catholic world considered to be the ignorance of this pagan land; this figure has not yet seen the light of Catholicism.
Moving on! If you continue your journey around the fountain, you will notice a fantastical dragon-like serpent and a rather unusual rendition of an armadillo (considered by its size, armadillos must have been considered monstrous beasts at the time). We are now in the continent of the Americas! The River God of Río de la Plata in the Americas is represented as a black man. He sits on a pile of coins as a symbol of the incredible riches of this New Land. This River God's hand is raised before his eyes. This has sometimes been read as the figure raising his hand in horror at the appalling facade of the church built by Borromini, which he thought would collapse on top of him due to its supposedly poor construction and faulty design. As mentioned earlier, this church was built by Bernini's number one rival, Borromini, and so this interpretation hints that there was a lot of sizzling tension between the two rivals. However, don’t believe everything you hear. This is just pure legend. In actual fact, the church was built after the fountain was completed. Instead, Río de la Plata's raised hand is to show that this figure has begun to see the light; he has begun to be converted.
And finally, we have the River God of the River Danube in Europe. He, by no surprise, is represented as the most civilized, composed, and spiritually enlightened of all the River Gods. His chest faces towards the church's facade (and hence towards the spiritual light of the church), and his upper torso turns to acknowledge and support the Papal insignia (the symbols of the Pope), depicted on a large shield (there is a very similar shield on the opposing side of the fountain, supported by the River God of the River Nile). These shields propagate the name of the papal family. The Continent of Europe is accompanied by a large fish with a gaping mouth.
To the left of the River Danube, there is a snake of a land, and below it, a fantastic rendition of a horse, which happens to be the only element of the entire ensemble that was carved and executed entirely by Bernini himself. Although Bernini was 100% responsible for the design and concept of this sculpture, his assistants (his students) executed most of the work. That is the way it would normally work. These artists were busy people, and they needed assistants to execute some of the less important aspects of their work. So while his students were executing his vision, Bernini turned his focus and attention to specific aspects of the work, including the rendering of the textured rocks.
Speaking of texture, the sculptural fountain is carved entirely from stone (the sculpture's base and core are carved from travertine - the same material as the Colosseum - while the figures themselves are carved from carrara marble). And yet regardless, Bernini has managed to evoke so many diverging and highly convincing textures. Look at the flawless rending of the rocks, you feel like you would definitely scrape your skin on them. And then contrast that texture to the realistic flesh of the male figures’ skin. They looks as if they are composed of real muscle and tendon. It’s almost too hard to believe that all the elements of the sculptural fountain are carved from stone.
In my opinion, Bernini changed the nature of sculpture, and he did so by making it a form of narrative more powerful than any other art form. Bernini’s sculpture is brimming with movement. The diverging sight-lines and dynamic poses of the River Gods and sea creatures, weave around the central obelisk in a playful dance, and force viewers to encircle the sculptural fountain and to view it ‘in the round.’ From every different angle, you gain more form the sculpture. So Bernini’s fountain almost acts like a flexible narrative which is revealed slowly no matter which point you start from, until eventually you are told the full story. In this case, you are slowly taken on a tour around the world, as seen from the perspective of 17th century Italy. As well as being a painter, sculptor and architect, Bernini was also involved in art of theater. Throughout his career, he was also an actor, and he had much experience in directing plays. This fountain is, in itself, theater in the round.
Look at the drapery of the figures which whirl in the wind. The highly dramatized rendering grants the static art form a strong degree of movement. Bernini made the drapery writhe and dance to add excitement. The effect of movement is heightened further by the spurting water which gushes around, and whose reflection flickers on the stone, bringing the material and the figures to life.
For a full virtual tour on this sculptural fountain, follow this link: https://youtu.be/1BdrwYHStqQ
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Frank Fehrenbach, “Impossibile: Bernini in Piazza Navona,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 63/64 (2013): 229-37.
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- G. Warwick, Bernini: Art as Theatre, Yale University Press, (New Haven and London, 2012).
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- Nick J. Mileti, Beyond Michelangelo: The Deadly Rivalry between Borromini and Bernini, Xlibris Cooperation, (United States of America, 2005).
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- Rudolf Wittkower, Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, Electa, (Milan, 1990).
- Rudolf Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The sculptor of the roman baroque, The Phaidon Press, (London MCMLXVI).