Why Does the River Nile Hide its Face?
It is one of the most beautiful fountains in Rome and it stands in one of the city's most beautiful piazzas. The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), 1648-51, which graces the centre of Piazza Navona, was designed by the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) for Pope Innocent X (r. 1644-55).
As a cardinal, Giambattista Pamphilj had moved into a palace (now home to the Brazilian Embassy) on the west side of Piazza Navona. When, in 1644, Cardinal Giambattista Pamphilj became Pope Innocent X he decided to stamp his papal presence on the piazza by commissioning a fountain to grace its centre. And the pope wanted the fountain to incorporate in its design an Egyptian obelisk, which had recently been unearthed in the Circus of Maxentius, which lies outside the city walls.
Bernini rose to the challenge magnificently and created an ensemble in which the huge weight of the granite is borne, seemingly effortlessly, by hollowed out blocks of travertine. The obelisk is surmounted, not by the usual cross, but by a bronze dove, bearing an olive branch in its beak, one of the heraldic charges of the Pamphilj family.
At the base of the fountain sit four giant marble river-gods, which represent the rivers Ganges, Danube, Plate and Nile. The Río de la Plata also sits next to a pile of coins, a symbol of the riches of South America (plata is the Spanish word for silver).
But why is the Nile the only river-god to hide his face? This was to indicate the fact that, in the middle of the 17th century, the source of the Nile was still unknown, unlike that of the other three rivers.
Bernini completed the fountain in the space of three years, not alone, but as the head of a well-organised studio. The master made the designs, while other sculptors did the actual carving: Claude Poussin (Ganges), Giacomo Antonio Fancelli (Nile), Antonio Raggi (Danube) and Francesco Baratta (Plate).
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My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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