According to popular belief, the statue representing the Rio de la Plata – one of the four rivers in the fountain in Piazza Navona – raises its right arm instinctively to protect itself from the collapse of the beautiful church of Saint Agnes in Agone, which stands with its two towers and beautiful dome only a few meters from the sculpture.
In fact, the fountain – with its statues, large rocks and obelisk – was erected in 1651, when the church had not yet been built (construction began in 1652). The rumor about the statue was sparked by the well-documented rivalry between the famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini, author of the fountain, and the great architect Francesco Borromini, who designed the church. The Rio de la Plata’s gesture was misinterpreted to express Bernini’s belief that the sacred building was bound to collapse, posing a risk for his monumental fountain.
Rumors aside, the Fountain of the Four Rivers hides a number of meanings from the casual observer. Bernini clustered in this work a series of messages, all relating to a broader theme of celebration and worldwide evangelization, according to the plans put in place by the so-called Counter-Reformation, which between the late 16th and the early 17th century counted on some of the greatest men of faith in the history of the Catholic church, such as Saint Philip Neri and Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.
At the time, the whole square was under the patronage of the Doria Pamphilis, family of Pope Innocent X; the market, which had been held here every day since 1477, had a fountain that had already been embellished by the pope’s sister in law, Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, who had added to it a statue of an Ethiopian man fighting with a dolphin. While the fountain had been commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII, and designed by Giacomo Della Porta in 1576, the so-called Moor was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and sculpted by Giovanni Antonio Mari.
Another beautiful, multilobed-basin fountain by Giacomo Della Porta was erected in the square in 1576. The two fountains were both decorative and functional, as they provided the water needed by the market. It was only when the Doria Pamphilis built their stately mansion and beautiful church here, that they decided to place a monumental fountain at the center of the square, making the entire area – corresponding to Emperor Domitian’s ancient Stadium – a pleasing and theatrical space that could inspire a sense of wonder in anyone emerging from the surrounding narrow, sullen streets.
Thus the Fountain of the Four Rivers stands at the center of the square, opposite the church, as if to point out the building’s presence and to highlight the devotion it symbolizes (the church commemorates the martyrdom of Saint Agnes, in whose memory the ecclesiastical vestments called ‘palliums’ are made to this day).
The fountain consists of a towering obelisk that was recovered, at the behest of Pope Innocent X, from the ruins of the Circus of Maxentius, along the Appian Way. The obelisk was made in Roman times with Egyptian granite, which before being moved to the circus had been either in the Circus Agonalis or at the Iseum Campense, as the hieroglyphic inscription on it states it was made under Emperor Domitian, who had those two monuments built.
On the tip of the obelisk, on what used to be its pyramidion, there is a dove bearing an olive branch in its beak. The dove is part of the Doria Pamphilis’ coat of arms: you can see it on the façade of Borromini’s church, on the towers, on the dome and on the gate, and on the family’s emblem that is still affixed side by side with that of the titular cardinal and of the reigning pontiff – because the church of Saint Agnes is still property of the Doria Pamphili family.
The dove was meant to symbolize the pope’s family, but also to remind the faithful of the dove that Noah saw returning to the ark with an olive branch – a sign that the fury of the flood had subsided and that nature had started to flourish again: it was time to disembark and re-populate the earth.
Furthermore, in the New Testament, a dove is the form taken by the Holy Spirit at Christ’s baptism, and often appears in the iconography of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
So the same symbol of the noble family was also a sign of peace between God and man, and of the presence of the Holy Spirit, whose infinite wisdom illuminates believers’ faith (“Veni, Sancte Spiritus”). And how can the wisdom of God/Holy Spirit descend on man? Obviously it comes form above. And in what language is it expressed? Certainly one that is mysterious, secret, entirely spiritual, indecipherable to reason, but powerful and able to illuminate the depths of the soul. Thus the obelisk – a physical axis for the sun’s rays, joining heaven and earth – represents an ideal metaphor for the descent of the Holy Spirit on the world of men.
The hieroglyphs on the obelisk remind us that the Holy Spirit’s message cannot be comprehended with the eyes: to our mortal senses it is just as indecipherable as hieroglyphics were in the 17th century.
At the end of the holy descent, the world of men awaits, scattered over four continents (in the 17th century, Europeans were still unaware that a fifth one, Australia, existed). Those continents are represented by the statues of four rivers, designed by Bernini and sculpted by his students: the Danube (the work of Antonio Raggi), with a laurel wreath around his head, for Europe; the Nile (by Giacomo Antonio Fancelli), with his head wrapped in a cloth to symbolize the fact that the river’s source was unknown, for Africa; the Ganges (by Claude Poussin) representing Asia; and the Rio de la Plata (by Francesco Baratta), with a garter on one leg, to represent America.
Thus now the fountain’s meaning is clear: God’s wisdom descends upon earth to illuminate the peoples of the four continents. When it reaches man, it becomes the message of salvation announced by Christ, mentioned for the first time in the Gospels at the time of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river. Hence the water of the fountain flows and rolls down the gigantic rocks of the world, alluding to the holy water used in baptisms – always abundant in Rome, the city of the Vicar of Christ and successor of Peter, and the center of the message of salvation in the Catholic Church.
The faith born from baptism, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, tames the human passions represented in the fountain by the horse pawing over the rocks; it is as strong as the lion drinking water from the basin, while fantastic animals from the depths of the sea open their mouths (which allow water to drain away).
Meanwhile the dove, emblem of Pope Innocent X and his family, is carved in white marble, as light as a cloud, and surmounted by the keys of Saint Peter and the three crowns, representing the superiority of the pontiff’s authority over civil powers of any kind.
Alberto Manodori Sagredo