Piazza Navona, one of the most beautiful squares in the world

Rome, Italy

Often considered one of the most beautiful squares in the world, the piazza Navona will give you the best insight into the complexity of 2,000 years of Roman history. From Antiquity, it has preserved the harmonious shape of the stadium that once stood here; from Papal Rome, it has donned sumptuous Baroque garb. This fabulous open-air salon is the perfect place to relax over a drink, lulled by the sound of the fountains and the comings and goings of strollers.

The origins of Piazza Navona

The square’s elongated shape is striking. This is due to the fact that the buildings lining the square were built on the site of the stands of the Circus Agonalis, a stadium built in 86 by Emperor Domitian to host Greek-style games (sporting and non-violent, unlike the Roman circus games). The stadium could hold up to 30,000 people, and one of its ends was rounded, as can still be seen to the north of the square.

When the popes returned from Avignon (1377) and settled in the Vatican, they paid particular attention to the area, which was cleaned up and gradually urbanized. In 1477, Pope Sixtus IV transferred Rome’s market from the Capitoline Hill to today’s Piazza Navona. The market remained there for almost four centuries, a tradition that is still followed during the Christmas market.

A palace, a legend

Today’s Piazza Navona dates back to the mid-17thcentury, when Pope Innocent X Pamphili decided to build a new palace here, complete with a lavish church and fountains.

Palazzo Pamphili (1646) and Sant’Agnese in Agone are by Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi and Francesco Borromini. The palace, which today houses the Brazilian embassy, is decorated with frescoes by Pietro da Cortona illustrating the life of Aeneas. Sant’Agnese in Agone stands on the spot where Agnes, a Christian teenager in the 4th century, is said to have been publicly stripped for spurning the advances of a Roman patrician’s son.

Legend has it that her hair grew so fast that it covered her nakedness. The girl was beheaded in 304 under Emperor Diocletian, during anti-Christian persecutions. The façade of the church, completed and redesigned by Carlo Rainaldi, assisted by Bernini, was designed by Borromini, who worked on it until his falling out with the Pamphili family in 1657.

The fountains in the square

The creation of the magnificent Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers, was entrusted by Innocent X to Bernini, who is said to have intrigued with Donna Olimpia, the pope’s sister-in-law, to oust Borromini. Bernini is said to have depicted two statues with arms raised, as if to protect himself from the collapse of the Sant’Agnese facade, caused by his rival.

Borromini, for his part, created the statue of Saint Agnes in the church, with his hand over his heart as if to say, “I will not fall.” Assuming the rivalry between the two artists existed, this anecdote is fanciful, as the fountain was completed in 1651, well before the church facade.

The Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor), designed in 1654 by Bernini, was realized by one of his pupils, Giacomo della Porta.

Practical info

  • Visited on April 26, 2010
  • Open every day
  • Transportation: Bus, metro 20 minutes’ walk
  • Length of visit: 30 minutes

Photo Gallery

Saint Agnes Church in Agone

Église Sainte-Agnès en Agone

The Moor’s fountain

Fontaine du Maure, place Navone

360° view


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