Originally an ancient Roman stadium built in 86 AD, the Piazza Navona in Rome is home to La Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, The Fountain of the Four Rivers. It was created and unveiled to the public in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and commissioned by Pope Innocent X, whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphilj, faced the piazza. The fountain is onne of the piazza’s most attractive features, an imposing Baroque monument representing the power and glory of the pope and his family.
The travertine rocks at the base of the fountain rise to support the personifications of four river gods and above them sits an ancient Egyptian obelisk surmounted with the Pamphilj family emblem of a dove with an olive twig. The four rivers represent the four continents through which papal authority had spread: The Río de la Plate in America, represented by a river god throwing his hands back in surprise, is symbolic of the newly converted lands that had begun to see the light. The Danube in Europe, the most civilized and cultured of the figures, looks toward and embraces the light of the lord. The Nile in Africa is depicted as a god with a covered head. Many have assumed this suggests Africa’s ‘darkness’ resulting from their ignorance of Christianity. Bernini, however, said the gesture simply indicated that the source of the Nile was unknown at the time. Finally, the Ganges in Asia shows a god looking away from the light of the Church, also indicating spiritual ignorance. (The Ganges is the side LeRoy Neiman chose to paint)
The fountain represents the epitome of Baroque theatricality. Some have described it as a kind of theatre in the round, with the highly gestural, evocative, and individualized figures, the dramatically spurting water, and a wealth of surprising and charming sculptural details. The work influenced the shape of Italian fountains for an entire century.