Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

The Piazza Navona has a very interesting history. It is actually the remains of Circus Domitianus, a stadium, where races and other forms of public entertainment were held. In fact, the Piazza owes its name to that—the Romans used the site to stage the Agonal Games. Thus the phrase “in agone” became “n’agone,” and this evolved into “navone” or “navona.”

Piazza Navona square

Though much of the stadium has crumbled under the onslaught of time, visitors can still see traces of it by the north exit. However, the stadium literally has left its mark—the piazza owes it shape to the ruins that lie beneath the buildings.

Piazza Navona in Rome

Though Rome boasts of many piazzas, the Piazza Navona stands out because of its unusual length and the number of fountains. It has three—and one of them has been described as one of Bernini’s greatest work. The La Fontana Dei Fuimi (which means rivers) was built in 1651. This is a true tribute to nature, with an artfully sculpted rocky structure with an obelisk rising (experts believe it was an Egyptian influence) and statues that symbolize the four great rivers of the world: The Nile, the Danube, the Ganges and the Rio Della Plata. These rivers all refer to four points of the Earth, and were all crucial in the development of great civilizations. The statues, carved by Bernini’s students, have an enchanting life-like quality, thanks to the exquisite and expressive curves

The Piazza Navona also has a very beautiful church, located at its western side. This is the Sant’Angese, and this also pays tribute to a part of the arena’s history. It is said that Agnes, a 12-year-old Christian, was martyred there for refusing to marry a pagan. Though she was stripped naked—possibly to degrade or humiliate her—legend has it that her hair miraculously grew, allowing her to cover herself.

Piazza Navona sqaure in Rome

The construction of the church began in 1652, under the orders of Pope Innocent X. Francesco Borromini designed many of its features, including the dome, the concave façade, and the twin belltowers. Though it is directly opposite the fountain built by Bernini, it is interesting that the statues of the two monuments never face each other. Some speculate this is due to the intense rivalry between Bernini and Borromini.

Piazza Navona, Rome