After spending time with my mother in Sicily, I returned to Rome and then came to Seattle. Like everyone, I have been struggling with the everchanging status of the light at the end of the tunnel – one day bright, next day the faintest of flickers.
I compare states of mind with friends as we try to talk each other out of mental ruts and corners and what feels like our 940th dark moment. We all comment on how we have never felt so constricted by the Present, by how tight and narrow it feels. Sometimes I picture it as a tiny, bare room, and try punching windows through it and furnishing it with my memories and longings, until it feels like I can pull open a door and walk out. And on the other side, always, is Rome. In my mind, I wander through its streets and often decide I am in the mood for something festive and beautiful, for one of those icons whose magic has been dimmed and flattened by its very renown. How exciting it will be to go back to these places with fresh eyes and eager hearts and rediscover why they matter, why they became such beloved icons in the first place! But I do not want to wait, let’s go to Piazza Navona and walk around the Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648-1651), let’s go there, together, now.
We enter Piazza Navona through one of its shorter sides. I want it to pull us in from one of its many side streets, as if the Spirit of the City could lead us there herself, by the hand, telling us to keep our eyes closed until we can finally open them and be surprised by the incomparable suddenness of Roman squares. The fountain is there, waiting at the center, but let’s linger a moment and take in this unusual expanse of space. The square’s elongated shape is a perfect example of how the ancient city lives on in the new and never dies. 2000 years ago, at a much lower level than the one we walk on now, this was the site of the Stadium of Domitian (the last emperor of the second dynasty, the Flavians). It was used for athletic competitions and could hold 30,000 people. I try to see them and hear it, the athletes competing, the crowds cheering for them. Over the centuries, silt layered by the floods of the nearby river Tiber gradually raised the ground level and later Romans built their homes on top of the seats, around the track, preserving its shape like a footprint or an echo. Ancient buildings in Rome can lose their original function and much of their structure over time but they survive in the fabric of a city where the present always implies the past.
We walk further into the piazza and I turn up the volume of Roman vividness in my head. I want the sky above us to be that shocking Roman blue with a few white clouds staggered for depth, or with sunshine so bright it makes the dark grey cobblestones incandescent, banishing shadows inside and out. I evoke the loud whistling call of swallows and the promise of Spring, the ever-present sound of water trickling (is there a more Roman soundtrack?). Or maybe Christmastime, when the square is filled with market stalls selling decorations and figurines for Nativity scenes, roasted chestnuts and cotton candy. I even long for the worn sentimentality of old classics coming through the cheap amplifiers of street singers: My Way – O Sole Mio – Time to Say Goodbye, blending into each other in rapid succession as we walk. Above all, people and their voices, languages from all over the globe (oh, how I miss that!). And then more color. The ochre and cream tones of the buildings surrounding the square, the reds and pinks of potted flowers lining balconies and windowsills, the bright oil paintings of the Italian Riviera sold by artists catering to tourists who wish to take the sentiment that is Italy home with them.
And now the Fountain. I invite you to approach it slowly with the verses of the poet Corrado Govoni (1903-1958) as an introduction and welcome: “Every piazza makes a toast/to the Italian sky/with the raised glass/and the sparkling wine of its fountain” (Ogni piazza fa un brindisi/al cielo d’Italia/con il calice alzato/e spumante della sua fontana…”). The Fountain of the Four Rivers was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598- 1680), master of Baroque and the artist to whom Rome owes so much of its splendor. Prodigious sculptor, architect, set designer, playwright, among many other things (he even designed desserts for a papal reception!), he defined himself amico delle acque, a friend of water. He renovated fountain design forever by substituting pre-existing functional but unremarkable basins with fantastical illusions of stone and water. The path to Trevi Fountain, created almost a century later, starts here.
What are we looking at? At first glance, from the bottom up: a shallow basin, a massive block of travertine limestone supporting four marble statues of bearded men and an Egyptian obelisk (well, not quite Egyptian, an ancient Roman imitation of one), topped off with a bronze dove holding an olive branch in its beak. There are no high jets of water due to insufficient pressure in the pipes that feed it, but the gentle pouring of the springs and little waterfalls we see and hear very clearly, truly enhances the design and the overall effect.
The four bearded giants represent four rivers (Nile, Rio de La Plata, Danube and Ganges) and the four continents known at the time (Africa, America, Europe and Asia), so what better thing to do today, right now, than take a trip around the world by circumnavigating a Roman fountain in our imaginations? When we are ready to get out there again our presence will be as real and integral to Piazza Navona as the stone and the water, but we can evoke it even now.
The Nile for Africa and the Rio de la Plata for America
The Danube for Europe and the Ganges for Asia
What captivates us and holds us in a state of joyful wonder is the way the huge block of travertine that is the base and the core of the whole composition, is not solid but hollowed out. This has two effects: we can see through it, it doesn’t block our perception of the space around it, it blends seamlessly into the vibrancy and life of the piazza.
Yet it also makes the block itself appear a lot lighter than it is, so that the heavy granite obelisk it supports seems to float in the blue sky. I acknowledge and bow to Bernini’s imagination and faith in the power of art to achieve anything. He had travertine limestone quarried in what we can imagine were rough blocks, brought in from the same place the Romans got it from to build the Colosseum 1500 years before him. Then he had his assistants carve the stone artfully to make it look like what? Stone, coarse and jagged as it exists in its natural state, ha! I am delighted by this brilliant paradox!
We meet the Rivers and notice the difference between their smooth marble surfaces and the porousness of the travertine mass they are rather precariously balanced on. Their animated, dynamic poses introduce us to the greatest illusion this fountain provides: the pulsing of life and movement. Nile is shown pulling a (stone!) drape over his face to hide his identity as a way of telling us that the source he came from was unknown at the time.
Bernini creates a stone Africa around him with a fabulous lion panting slightly, the powerful and well-defined muscles on his shoulders and back help us imagine him lowering himself to drink from the fountain’s basin, his massive paws gripping the rocks and the sunlight reflecting off the water on his proud features. If we move to other side of Nile, we see the rest of the lion, with his tail twitching and the delightfully realistic tuft at the end that makes him look as tame as a housecat from this angle.
An odd-looking armadillo emerges from the water with dramatically pouting lips (I guess there weren’t many occasions to see a real one in 17th century Rome!) and announces the Rio de la Plata, twisting and turning on his travertine seat.
He is identified by a small treasure of coins right beneath him, referring to the riches of the New World or the color of the river – plata means silver in Spanish. A snake slithers across the top of the rock, we see the rapid loop-like movements of its coils and can almost hear it hiss.
A bizarrely placed prickly pear plant leads to Europe where a horse seems to burst out of the fountain at full gallop, its beautifully coiffed mane moving in the wind, we can picture him rushing past us and into the valleys of the Danube.
The river turns his back to us slightly, drawing our attention to the coat of arms of Pope Innocent X of the noble Pamphilj family, who commissioned this fountain to Bernini and is one of the nine popes who ruled during his long life and career.
Notice the papal tiara (crown) and keys (symbolically the ones that Christ entrusted to St. Peter, considered to be the first pope) and the dove with the olive branch in its beak we have already seen at the top of the obelisk. It stands for the pope’s name, for peace, the reach of the Catholic Church and the Holy Spirit, layer upon layer of meaning, how Roman! At Danube’s feet, swims a dolphin-like sea creature whose mouth acts as the drain of the fountain.
I remember years ago, during a scorching Roman summer, a person I would euphemistically define as a nincompoop (an homage to my American mother), stepped into the fountain to cool off and climbed on the sea creature causing a large piece of it to break off. I remember the deep anguish many of us felt and the public debate it ignited on whether to start building iron fences around Rome’s treasures. I spent many happy hours of my childhood and youth with friends sitting on the marble lip of the fountain’s basin, which is not high up on a pedestal but at street level, and feels like an invitation to do just that, sit and chat. I loved how close we could get to all those stone creatures and plants, the coolness of the water I could feel without even touching it. These fountains were made to be lived and enjoyed, to fence them off would be a betrayal to them, their creator, Rome, and the best of what makes us human. So no, no fences, but we can no longer sit on the basin and I have learned to live with that.
The Ganges brings our trip around the world to a close. He is holding an oar to indicate the navigation of its waters, with the nice touch of a sea dragon wrapped around it. We see the back of the galloping horse, mirroring the back of the lion on the other side, and just as impressive.
I think of how many people, Romans and visitors, have circumnavigated this miniature world in almost four hundred years. I like to imagine that the fountain keeps the memory of them, of all the distracted or lingering glances that brushed its surfaces over the centuries. We always come back to how this was created by people for people: it needs us, it always will.
I left my favourite detail until last. If I had to compile a list of charming Roman details I love, this would be close to the top. If we take a few more steps, from Asia back to Africa where we started, we see a palm tree.
It is carved out of travertine, probably by Bernini himself. We have seen this together on other strolls: hard, static, lifeless stone turns into something organic, alive. The palm’s rough, scaly trunk is slightly, believably bent; a few dry fronds hang limply against it, while others sway in the strong wind that blows through them. All of this – an imaginary yet eternal movement of palm fronds caused by an imaginary, yet eternal wind – made almost real by Art.
Rome can be such a tough city but so much of its art provides occasions for immediate joy. I read that Bernini was hoping that actual Nature would come to live here too. He welcomed the idea of moss, grasses and birds finding their home in his creation, bringing urban and natural landscapes together in ideal harmony, and anticipating the desires and concerns we have about our cities today.
I take a moment to contemplate this place as deeply as I possibly can and invite you to do the same. In the middle of a city, artistic vision and great technical skill bring us wild Nature, faraway lands: plants, animals, ancient river gods that live and move for all who come here and take a walk around it, as we can do in our imaginations for now but will do in person, in a future that no matter how many times we feel discouraged, is getting closer every day.
This post is a projection of my nostalgia, but I want to mention Professor Tomaso Montanari, whose work has taught me to look and think more deeply about Bernini’s creations and lifted my spirits during the worst of the lockdown.