BERNINI, Gian Lorenzo
(b. 1598, Napoli, d. 1680, Roma)

Fountain of the Four Rivers

Travertine and marble
Piazza Navona, Rome

In Baroque Rome, fountains inevitably became a reflection of the largesse associated with papal families. The Barberini were trumped by the succeeding pope, Innocent X Pamphilj (reigned 1644-1655) and Bernini's greatest achievement in this genre the Fountain of the Four Rivers. The location was Piazza Navona, the ancient stadium of the Emperor Domitian and the site of the papal family's palace. As early as 1647 Innocent had decided to erect an obelisk as a central ornament for the piazza in tandem with a fountain, which was emphatically not to be designed by Bernini, who was then out of favour through his close association with the previous regime. Bernini, however, arranged for his model to be seen by the Pope, and Innocent immediately determined to have the model executed, reputedly remarking that the only way to avoid employing Bernini was not to see his designs.

The fountain was executed by a large group of coworkers under the supervision of Bernini. It is debated whether he sculpted personally the rocks, the palm tree, the lion and the horse, but it is generally accepted that his contribution was limited to the final phase of the work. From the remaining sketches it is unambiguous that the idea and design are Bernini's. This composition preceded and prepared the great composition of Saint Peter's throne in the San Pietro.

The fountain represents the four continents and their rivers, the obelisk in the centre is the symbol of Christ and the triumphing Roman Catholic Church over the whole world. The figure of Nile, sculpted by Jacopo Antonio Fancelli, represents Africa; the Danube, by Antonio Raggi, Europe; the Ganges, by Claude Poussin, Asia; and the Plate, by Francesco Baratta, the Americas, discovered a century and a half earlier.