Rome’s Sparkling Fountain of the Four Rivers

Piazza Navona, Rome
Piazza Navona, Rome

The Piazza Navona is truly a carnivale of life. With a reputation of being one of Rome’s liveliest piazze, it constantly commands a large audience of locals and tourists. Restaurants with covered outdoor tables encircle the piazza offering diners a comfortable place to enjoy entertainment by street performers, impeccably dressed Italians, and Bernini’s three beautiful fountains.

Whenever I spend time in Italy, I’ve found that the experience means so much more if I have a little background history about those places I plan to visit. My first walk through the Piazza Navona was exciting, but I wish I had delved a bit into the historical background beforehand. That being said, I encourage you do a little research of your own and make your experience so much more rewarding.

Let me share a little bit of what I’ve learned….

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (The Fountain of the Four Rivers)

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by Bernini in 1648, is my favorite. Water gushes up out of rocks forming an aqua blue pool at the basin while the four continents, or river gods, hang on and ride the waves. They are The Danube (Europe), The Ganges (Asia), The Nile (Africa), and The Rio de la Plata (The Americas).

Rio della Plate River God
Rio de la Plata River God

Each river-god contains a symbolic item. The Rio de la Plata above sits on a pile of coins which represents the riches America could offer Europe.

The Nile River God
The Nile River God 

The Nile river-god covers his head, representing the idea that no one knew where the Nile originated at that time.

fountain 4 river

The Ganges, above, holds a long oar that represents the river’s navigability. And finally, the Danube, to the left, holds the pope’s personal coat of arms since it is the largest river closest to Rome.

A surprising detail concerning the creation of the fountain in 1646 was that Pope Innocent X had it built at the public’s expense. It took place during the years of a terrible famine in Rome so, naturally, the people threatened to riot. Notes of despair were found on the monument expressing anger with the words, “we do not want Obelisks and Fountains, it is bread that we want.” However, the pope chased the rebel-rousers out along with the market, which was moved to the Campo di Fiore.

The oval-shaped Piazza Navona was built on former emperor Domitian’s stadium in 86 AD. Paved over in the 15th century, remains can still be seen of the stadium under the piazza.

Egyptian Obelisk
Egyptian Obelisk

Through the construction of this fountain the pope intended to proclaim the churches influence on the four continents to be very strong, spreading to all four corners of the Earth.

Sparkling Fountain of the Four Rives!
Sparkling Fountain of the Four Rivers

If you find yourself in Rome, it’s highly likely you’ll find your way to Piazza Navona. Stand back and marvel at the dramatic beauty of the fountain and recall to mind not only the historical implications, but also the hardships it required of the people of Rome.

A Roman Evening in Piazza Navona

Walking across the Piazza Navona accentuated by a bright moon

While strolling through the Piazza Navona one summer evening with a gelato in hand, I thought of all the reasons why this particular place holds such an attraction for me. The atmosphere after dark is especially inviting.

I made a mental list of all the things I love about Piazza Navona ~

1. The long and lovely string of restaurants and cafes that line the perimeter, providing excellent seating for people-watching while enjoying a caffe or vino with snacks. I love the low hum of human voices accentuated by spurts of laughter.

2. Street performers, musicians and artists showing off their talents with gusto.

3. Romance, romance, romance…need I say more?

4. Three huge exotic fountains with stunning baroque sculptures which light up at     night from underwater lights ~

– Bernini’s “Fountain of the Four Rivers” with the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the center.

– The “Fountain of the Four Tritons” with Bernini’s African wrestling a dolphin.

– The “Fountain of Neptune.”

I love the entire effect of the soft lights shining from below these statues which cast a ghostly glow across their features. The trickling water from the fountains is transporting.

5. The knowledge that underneath the piazza was once a former arena built by Emperor Domitian and used for athletic competitions during the first century. I am so amazed by the historical happenings below my feet.

6. Lovely baroque dome and two “towers” of the 12th century Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone located in the center of the piazza.

7. The Palazzo Pamphilj next to the church, which was a family palace of Pope Innocent X. It was he and his family who instigated theatrical events on the piazza during the hot August weekends from 1652 – 1866 by flooding it in preparation for elaborate celebrations such as mock sea battles with real little ships.

By now I’ve walked off my dinner and finished my gelato. Time for a glass of red wine before I head back to my room. The waiters grow a bit flirtatious as evening progresses. I don’t mind. We enjoy a good laugh as I finish my glass. Slowly, I walk once more through the piazza, inhaling all the sights and sounds that I long to remember.

Magnificent Roman Skyline from the Hotel Raphael Rooftop

La Terrazza Bramante, a garden restaurant on top of the Hotel Raphael provides panoramic views of the eternal city.

While enjoying a refreshing glass of Frascati wine at a small outdoor table near the Piazza Navona last September, I couldn’t help but notice the tall and lush Hotel Raphael across the street. The entire facade was covered with ivy and purple wisteria. As my eyes traveled from the front door entrance up the building to the top, I noticed some large umbrellas and wondered if it had a rooftop restaurant. I questioned my waiter about it and was told that it did. It was then I decided to enter the hotel and make my way to the top. I could only imagine the views of the city from this vantage point.

Golden lamplight spilled through the entrance toward the street as I entered the Raphael. The impeccably dressed gentleman at the front desk took a copy of my identification and told me how to reach the elevator.

La Terrazza Bramante, the rooftop garden restaurant, was more exotic than I imagined it would be. I had stepped off the elevator and into a multi-level terrace that offered elegant dining among tall fan palms.

Large umbrellas provide shade for diners. This is what attracted me from the cafe across the street.
A scattering of diners begin to arrive as the dinner hour approaches.

A handsome young waiter approached me and inquired if I would like a table. I accepted a menu from him and scanned the pages. A nice selection of gourmet organic, biodynamic vegetarian Mediterranean cuisine was on offer along with some of the best wines in Italy.

I wasn’t hungry for dinner yet, so I declined but asked if I could take a moment to enjoy the Roman skyline. He smiled and encouraged me to take my time.

The fading light over Rome inspires me to linger just a bit longer
The fading light over Rome inspires me to linger just a bit longer

The nearly 360 degree view of the eternal city at dusk was intoxicating. The restaurant faces the Bramante cloister in the church of Santa Maria della Pace. The terrace overlooks several architectural wonders of Rome, including the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the National Monument of Victor Emanuel II.

The dome of Santa Maria della Pace to the left and St. Peters Basilica in the center.
St. Peters Basilica to the left and Victor Emanuel II on the right with the quadriga, or chariot of horses, on top
The bell tower of the Church of St. Mary of the Soul, built in 1502.

The building of the Hotel Raphael itself seems to have been around for hundreds of years. Its believed that a fresco in the Vatican Museum clearly shows the building already in existence in the sixteenth century city. Florentine developer Spartacus Vannoni remodeled the interior into The Raphael, a luxury hotel with two lower level floors, seven upper floors, a multi-level rooftop terrace and a restaurant in 1963.

The 5 star luxury hotel is also a veritable museum of sorts. Artwork in the form of paintings, sculptures, antiques and a collection of Picasso ceramics are on public display throughout the building. American architect Richard Meier designed two of the executive floors which are of a modern decor.


Entrance to the Raphael

The ambience of the Hotel Raphael and La Terrazza Bramante rooftop restaurant left me with a yearning to return. In addition, the waitstaff were exceptionally friendly and cheerful. The hotel is nicely located and within walking distance to the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Vatican.


Eye Trickery and Shattered Illusions in Rome

Wandering the maze of streets in Rome is a favorite pastime of mine. I can’t seem to resist finding what lies around the next corner and I am often surprised by something unexpected or beautiful. On a recent late afternoon of meandering, I stepped through an archway and into the courtyard of the Palazzo Spada. I glanced through a window on the left and became suddenly transfixed. Through the office room and into the courtyard beyond I saw a long row of columns with a distinct statue at the end. I had seen this before, but where?

















Years ago, I had seen a photo on the back page of a magazine I had found in the lunchroom at work. It was Francesco Borromini’s forced perspective gallery. I found it striking to look at, so I took it to my art history instructor. She was stunned to read about it and told me she had never known of it before. I left her with the magazine and next day it was discussed in class. I hadn’t seen or thought much about it since.

With growing excitement, I realized that I had stumbled upon Baroque architect Francesco Borromini’s forced perspective gallery inside the Palazzo Spada. Encased in a little garden of Seville oranges, it appeared as a long white colonnade with a dazzling gold ceiling. At the end was the single statue of a Roman soldier. Overcome with excitement, I dashed around the corner, paid my admission, and entered the tiny courtyard.

What is so amazing about this colonnade and statue is that Borromini created it with trickery in mind! He used optical deceit to create an illusion of depth that doesn’t really exist. The illusory depth suggests somewhere around 114 feet, yet in actuality, it is only 29 feet deep. And the magnificent warrior at the end? He is only three feet tall! Diminishing rows of columns and a rising floor create a visual illusion.

 * The full scale...the floor rises as the ceiling comes down and the column grow shorter.
The full scale…the floor rises as the ceiling comes down and the columns grow shorter.

A small group of us gathered around, simply amazed at the optical illusion set before us. I recalled the fact that curiosity dominated the art world during the early seventeenth century, and that artists and architects applied great effort to dazzle viewers and outshine the wonders of nature by ingenuity. Borromini’s forced perspective gallery is a brilliant example of such ability.

The Illusion is putting a normal size person next to the statue
The Illusion is Shattered…by putting a normal size person next to the statue































Cardinal Bernardino Spada bought the Renaissance palace in 1632 and hired Francesco Borromini to embellish it shortly afterward. Borromini, a rival of famed architect Bernini, created his perspective among other modifications in one year.

Facade of the Palazzo Spada
Facade of the Palazzo Spada and the archway that I walked through
Through the arch into the main courtyard of the Palazzo
Through the arch into the main courtyard of the palazzo, Borromini’s perspective can be seen through a window/room to the left. The entrance to the museum is straight ahead through the second archway and to the left.




























Arches in the Palazzo courtyard
Arches in the palazzo courtyard
Palazzo Courtyard
Niched statues on the upper portion of the palazzo Courtyard




















I left that evening with a new understanding of perspective and how easy the eye can be tricked by optical illusions. Francesco Borromini was known for using this style of architecture in his buildings, including St. Agnes in Agone on the Piazza Navona. Here he constructed the facade with a concave front so that when you stand directly in front of it and look up, you can see the dome which appears much closer than it really is.

Below, I have included a short video of the perspective gallery that I found on YouTube. It gives a clear overview of this clever form of architecture that is very fascinating.

Empire of the Eye: The Magic of Illusion