Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
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 major artist of the Italian Baroque, a period in which art was theatrical and dramatic and exhibited a noticeable shift away from the balance and composure of the Renaissance.
The sculptural fountain was commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1648. At that time, the Pope and his family were living in Piazza Navona in the Palazzo Pamphilj (the large palace with the extensive facade that overlooks the square). Initially, the Pope refused to consider Bernini as a possible candidate for designing the fountain, because shortly prior, Bernini had been blamed for the near collapse of the bell-tower he was in charge of building at St. Peter’s. An event that almost completely ruined his reputation. In reality, Bernini was not at fault. But nevertheless, 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 designed the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone right opposite the fountain.
So how did Bernini get the job? Well, according to the artist's biographer, Bernini had a close friend called 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 later came across the model, he was immediately won over by the design.
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This fountain served as an important source of drinking water for the city's locals, but it’s also so much more than that. First of all, it’s a large monument that celebrates 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 unearthed (in five separate pieces) from the Circus Maxentius on 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, a.k.a. a well-established symbol of the Pamphilj Papal family. 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 sculpted figures themselves? What do they symbolize? Well, the clue is in the name of the fountain. They represent the Four Rivers of the Four Continents that were recognized at the time (and by the way, 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. And 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 facing away from the spiritual light of the nearby 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 figure's indifference was thought to represent what was considered to be the ‘spiritual ignorance’ of Asia (or, to be more precise, the fact that they were not Catholic). He holds an oar to represent the navigability of the River Ganges in India. He is also accompanied by a sea serpent which encapsulates 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 they are common in both. Further to the right, we have the River God of the River Nile in Egypt. 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; like Asia, 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 and very large rendition of an armadillo. We are now in the continent of the Americas! The River God of Río de la Plata is represented as a man of colour. He sits on a pile of coins to symbolise 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, and to shield himself from its likely collapse due to its supposedly poor construction. As mentioned earlier, Borromini was Bernini's primary rival, and so this interpretation hints that there was a lot of sizzling tension between the two. 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 hint at the fact that this figure (this continent) has begun to see the light of the church; he has begun to be converted to Catholicism.
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 depicted on a large shield that propagates the name of the Papal family at the fountain's structural core. The Continent of Europe is also accompanied by a large fish with a gaping mouth.
To the left of the River Danube, there is a land snake, 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 how things 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 was able to focus on specific areas of the sculpture that demanded more attention and skill, such as, for example, 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 their roughness 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 powerful visual narrative. 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 each different angle, you gain more form the sculpture. So Bernini’s fountain almost acts like a flexible narrative which is revealed slowly from no matter where you start. In encircling the sculpture, 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, a sculptor, and an architect, Bernini was also very much involved in the art of theater; and I think it's fair to say that this fountain is, in itself, theater in the round.
Look at the drapery of the figures which whirl in the wind. The highly dramatized renderings grant the static art form a strong degree of movement. Indeed, Bernini has made the drapery writhe and dance to add excitement. The effect of movement is heightened further by the spurting water which gushes around the structure, and whose reflection flickers on the stone, bringing the material and the figures to life.
If you are interested in learning more about Baroque art, check out my online course: The Art of the Baroque.
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