If you look at a map of Rome today, you can see that the shape of Piazza Navona is something like a large, oval-shaped stadium. And that’s just what it was in Ancient Rome.
Emperor Domitian had the stadium built in 86 AD. It was called the “Circus Agonalis" – from the Greek “agones", or contest. The stadium could hold up to 30,000 spectators (about half as many as the Colosseum.) It was used for all kinds of games, including nude Greek athletic contests.
Sometimes, they would even flood the stadium and hold mock naval battles there. (Once, they used it for gladiator matches then the Coliseum was hit by lightening in the 3rd century.)
The name “Navona" may have come from an evolution of the original name “in Agone" to “Navone." Or, it may be because “Navona" means big ship, referring to the mock naval battles held there.
If you like, you can even go see some remnants of the original stadium, "Stadio Domiziano." At the northern end of Piazza Navona Rome, on Piazza di Tor Sanguigna, you can look down and see some of the original structure.
You can also visit these ruins. Entry is 8 Euros, and the visit won’t take too long. In fact, it's pretty interesting because there is a lot of info down there, not just about the stadium but about other ancient Roman monuments and structures as well. And, as a nice bonus, there is a clean, well-kept bathroom there too!
Piazza Navona Rome in the Renaissance Period
During the Middle Ages in Rome, people were poor and desperate, and did not have a strong appreciation for the ancient structures around them. They pilfered most of the crumbling buildings to take the stones for their own use, which is one reason we often see only remnants today (even the Coliseum was taken apart to build other structures in Rome, including Saint Peters Basilica.)
The stadium of Domitian also fell victim to this kind of destruction. And so eventually this left a huge open space. In the early Renaissance, the stadium was paved over, and Piazza Navona was created.
Beginning in the late 1400’s, Piazza Navona Rome was the site of the main outdoor fruit and vegetable markets of the city. (In 1869, the market was moved to Campo dei Fiori.)
In the Renaissance years, Piazza Navona Rome was also still used for festivals, smaller games and, was even flooded on Saturdays and Sundays in summer, so the Romans could have a place to cool off (they just turned off the drainage system of the 3 fountains, and voilà! A flood!)
After 1870, (the reunification of Italy), the square was paved with the typical cobblestones you see around Rome today (called sampietrini) which made the piazza convex. So, even if we wanted stop the fountains from draining today, as they did back then, it would be impossible to flood the Piazza Navona any more.
Piazza Navona Rope and Pope Innocent X
In the mid 1500’s, soon after Piazza Navona was paved over and began being used as a market and plaza, Pope Gregory XIII (from the Boncompagni family) had three small fountains placed in the plaza. They were not yet the beautiful fountains you see today.
Almost a century later, Pope Urban VIII (from the Barberini family) began furiously building palaces and monuments all over Rome, to seal his long (20-year) legacy.
A portrait of Pope Innocent X, as painted by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez.
You can see this painting up close inside the wonderful and under-visited Galleria Doria Pamphilj.
After Urban VIII died in 1644, pope Innocent X (from the Pamphilj family) took office. He had a big chip on his shoulder about the Barberinis, which included the previous pope. So he decided to furiously build things in Rome as well, for his own legacy. In fact, he had many things torn down so he could create a more impressive version.
Here is the part where it gets a little sticky. Pope Innocent X did want to leave his mark on Rome. But what he had done on Piazza Navona, why, how and by whom, well that is another story.
So now it’s time to tell you the story of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, and more specifically, her influence on the architecture of Piazza Navona Rome.
From a very young age, she began her social climbing activities. Originally from a modest family from Viterbo (not far from Rome), the pretty and sharp Olimpia married a wealthy young man, who promptly died shortly thereafter.
Now, armed with her own wealth, Olimpia sought more power and prestige, and she set her sights on, and won, the heart of the nobleman Pamphilio Pamphilj, thirty years her senior.
As it turns out, Pamphilio’s brother, Giambattista Pamphilj, was cardinal and favorite to become pope. Olimpia became very “close" to Giambattista, and began to influence (almost) his every move.
Now when I say “close", I mean there were rumors, but no proof, of more closeness than one would expect from a pope and his sister-in-law. Some sources swear there was an intimate relationship between them, and other historians have negated this claim. Read on, and decide what you’d like to believe (I’ve already made my own conclusions!)
Donna Olimpia Maidalchini was very ambitious, and money, power and prestige meant a lot to her. She aspired to what we’d call today “conspicuous consumption" and demanded of her brother in law that she and her husband have a palace befitting their stature. Thus, Pope Innocent X (Pamphilj), decided to replace a building that was on their land (which was smack on Piazza Navona in Rome), with a new palace that would be much more grand. And that is where Olimpia lived even after her husband Pamphilio died. This amazing palace we see today, Palazzo Pamphilj (which is now the home of the Brazilian embassy) was built by one of the best architects of the time, Girolamo Rainaldi.
I was recently able to take a guided tour of the Palazzo Pamphilj, and it is magnificent. Here are a couple of photos from inside:
Borromini's gallery inside the Palazzo Pamphilj.
View of Piazza Navona from inside the Palazzo Pamphilj.
By the way, Olimpia was not a popular woman. The Roman population did not like her and her shameless greed and power mongering. She was nicknamed “La Pimpaccia", which is a pretty unflattering word.
Piazza Navona Rome and The Four Rivers Fountain
The Four Rivers Fountain, one of Bernini's most spectacular masterpieces in Rome, stands right in the center of Piazza Navona Rome. But it very nearly didn't happen. Even in the 1600's, there was plenty of intrigue, petty jealousy and rivalry to go around.
Pope Innocent X's "confidante", Olimpia Maidalchini (see above) declared that Navona square would need much more spectacular fountains. There was talk of giving this commission to the talented architect, and favorite of the pope, Francesco Borromini. In fact, Innocent X specifically disliked Borromini’s rival, Gianlorenzo Bernini, because Bernini had been the protégé and favorite of the previous pope, Urban VIII, who Innocent X couldn’t stand. (In addition, Bernini’s reputation had recently been ruined by the scandal of the bell towers at the Vatican, but that is another story.) So initially, the pope flat out refused to let Bernini even be a contender to make the central fountain.
But Bernini was no slouch himself. He knew what he had to do, and whose influence he needed to win: he had a silver model of his idea for the fountain sent to Olimpia. She loved it, and showed her brother in law, the pope, who decided Bernini should design the fountain after all. Isn’t that lucky for the rest of us?
That fountain, constructed between 1647 and 1651, is the fountain you see in the middle of Piazza Navona Rome. It’s called The Four Rivers Fountain, or “La Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi." The four rivers referred to the most known rivers of the four corners of world at that time: The Danube (Europe), the Nile (Africa), the Ganghes (India) and Rio de la Plata (Americas.)
Rio della Plata
There is a cute myth that Romans like to tell visitors to Rome, but it’s not true: They say that when Bernini made his fountain, he aimed to show contempt for his rival Borromini. If you look at the statue of the Rio de la Plata, you can see his arm raised to protect its head, as if to say, oh this hideous building (Borromini’s church, right in front of him), is going to crumble. Also, the Nile River has a veil over his face. The story goes that this is because Borromini's church was too hideous to look at. Well, the veil in fact symbolized how little was known about the Nile at the time.
In any case, these little stories not only untrue but impossible. Borromini started to design his church a few years after Bernini finished his fountain.
One more cool fact about this fountain:
The design of a very heavy obelisk (originally found in Massenzio Circus) standing on a hollowed out base was anathema to the thinking of the time. Everyone assumed it couldn’t be done, that the structure would not hold the weight. But Gianlorenzo’s brother, Luigi Bernini, was a brilliant engineer and mathematician and it was he who helped provide the calculations and the main blueprint for this design.
Gianlorenzo Bernini was indeed a genius but he had a little help.
The two other fountains on Piazza Navona Rome are the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune fountain) at the northern end and the Fontana del Moro (Moor fountain) at the southern end. Both were created by Giacomo della Porta (the fountains but not he sculptures in the middle of each.)
Bernini seemed to have finally gotten in the good graces of Pope Innocent X, and in 1653 the pope asked Bernini to add a sculpture to the fountain on the south end. Bernini designed a man standing on a shell, holding a dolphin by its tail; Somehow the man’s face came out looking a bit Arabic, and the statue and in fact the whole fountain were nicknamed “il Moro", or the Moor. In the 19th century, tritons were added to this fountain.
The Fontana del Nettuno, at the north end, was built in1574. The statues of Neptune and the surrounding sea nymphs were added in the 19th century, to make the piazza more symmetrical, i.e. to make this fountain more or less similar in size and scope to the Moor fountain.
Piazza Navona Rome and Sant'Agnese in Agone
Remember Olimpia, La Pimpaccia? Well, as her palatial home was being built, she also said, we really need a family chapel as well. The two architects working most for the pope at that time were Rainaldi and Borromini. Both worked on the palazzo (Borromini built the gallery.)
The commission to build the family “chapel," was initially assigned to Rainaldi and his son Carlo. Then Borromini took over, and modified the design of the façade. Borromini’s design was very smart: he made the façade concave so that you could see the dome easily from below.
After Pope Innocent X died, Borromini lost the commission once again, and the final design went back to Carlo Rainaldi, who kept most of what Borromini had designed anyway. The church was completed in 1670.
This “family chapel", is today known as the stunningly beautiful church of Sant’Agenese in Agone, which sits right in the middle of one side of Piazza Navona in Rome. (The most ancient structure of the church dates back to the 8th century, so the current church is a remodel, several times over.)
The church is dedicated to Saint Agnes, right on the spot where two thousand years ago she was martyred.
Last word about Donna Olimpia Maidalchini…and a kind of Rome ghost story: As I said, La Pimpaccia was detested by the Roman populace. When Pope Innocent X was dying, she saw the writing on the wall, so to speak. While he was literally on his deathbed, Olimpia hid, finally stealing as many riches as she could from her own palazzo, and taking off in a carriage over the bridge known today as Ponte Sisto.
One sad note about this is that when Pope Innocent X died, neither she nor anyone in her family spent a penny on his burial. After a few days with no burial whatsoever, Pope Innocent X was finally buried only because his butler helped pay for it.
Meanwhile, La Pimpaccia, banned from Rome by the new pope, Alexander VII, was exiled to her family home and died two years later from the plague. They say her ghost rides the carriage across Ponte Sisto on January 7 (the anniversary of the death of Pope Innocent X.)
Costanza de Cupis
Piazza Navona has another ghost as well, from about the same era.
In the 1600’s, a beautiful young noblewoman, Costanza de Cupis, lived in a palazzo on via dell’Anima. (The back of this palazzo, called Palazzo de Cupis, is on piazza Navona.)
Costanza de Cupis had lovely, alabaster hands. An artist once asked her if he could make a plaster model of them. She consented, and he made a model that he placed in his shop. A passerby saw the model, and made an ominous declaration: whoever these hands belongs to will lose them soon.
Costanza heard of this prediction and it terrified her. So much that she refused to leave the house. But while she was sewing, she pricked a finger, and it eventually became infected. Her hand was amputated in an attempt to save her but it was no use. Costanza, only in her early twenties, died of sepsis.
So the legend goes that on nights when there is a full moon, if you look up at the window of Palazzo de Cupis, just above the bar on via dell’Anima, you can see Costanza’s hand against the glass.
Piazza Navona Rome's Christmas Market and Fair
When I first moved here, I would get kind of irritated by the traditional Christmas Markets held in Piazza Navona Rome. The stands, carousel and nativity scene all went up on December 8 (La Immacolata, or Immaculate Conception), and didn't come down again until January 6 (The Epiphany, also called "La Befana".) I couldn't wait until the plaza was restored to its beautiful emptiness so I could see the fountains and the majesty of the whole square again.
Then my sister visited me with my (then) 5-year old niece. My niece rode the carousel, and had some cotton candy and hot chocolate. From then on, I understood: this Christmas Market harkens back to another time, and it's a lovely reminder of an old-fashioned traditional, family-style Italian Christmas in Rome.
And now, I cherish this time of year, and seeing the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. It's so festive, happy and warm, and it belongs there.
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