Even though Piazza Navona, Rome, is considered one of the masterpieces of Baroque architecture in Italy, there is much more to it, from both a historical and an artistic point of view.
The square’s history starts during the Roman empire and has continued up to this day. Many public figures and artists have contributed to its improvement, making it one of the most beautiful places to visit in Rome and in the country. The square is lively year round, thanks to several events and to the everlasting flow of tourists.
Curious to discover more about this suggestive Roman square? Continue reading!
Head over to my post The Prettiest Piazzas In Rome.
Everything You Must Know About Piazza Navona, Rome
How did Piazza Navona get its name?
Piazza Navona was originally a Roman stadium, commissioned by Emperor Domitian in 85 AD. He loved the Greek athletic games (called Agones) played during the Olympics and therefore asked for a stadium in his city, Rome, as well.
The old stadium, which is now about 6 meters (19.7 feet) below the new square’s pavement, was used to host the Agones.
The current name (Piazza Navona) derived from some changes and vulgarizations of this term (Agones became “In Agones” then “Navones” and finally “Navona”). Another hypothesis is that the term “Navona” indicates the shape of the square, which resembles a big ship (in Italian, “Nave”).
The history of Piazza Navona
The stadium over which the square was built was severely damaged by a fire but swiftly restored between 217 and 228 AD. It kept hosting the Agones until the 6th century AD.
Afterward, the stadium’s materials were used to build the palaces around the square and the building lost its importance until the beginning of the 17th century, when Pope Innocent X commissioned some famous artists to transform the square into a big artwork exposition to celebrate its family, the Pamphilij.
This project involved artists like Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Borromini and brought to life the masterpiece that Piazza Navona is nowadays.
Things like the Fountain of the Four Rivers and Santa Agnese in Agone Church were all built during this period of time. Later, Palazzo Braschi and the other two important fountains were added.
Pope Innocent X also strongly encouraged the construction of a good system of fountains and drains so that the square could be sealed and filled with water during certain days of the year. This served as both a way to find some relief in summer and to reproduce the naval games the Ancient Romans used to perform in the old stadium.
Nowadays, Piazza Navona is a charming attraction and hosts some great events, such as the Christmas markets. There is plenty to see around there, from museums to churches to the several statues and fountains decorating the square: it’s easy enough to fill a whole day of explorations!
Where is Piazza Navona?
Piazza Navona is located right in the middle of the historical center of Rome. You can easily get there from other important attractions like the Pantheon and Piazza Venezia (where the Altar of the Fatherland is located); or from Trevi Fountain and even Campo de’ Fiori; and you can use it as a starting point to access other attractions easily. It is accessible from Via dei Canestrari, Via della Cuccagna, Via Agonale, Via dei Lorenesi, Via di S. Agnese in Agone and Corsia Agonale.
How to get to Piazza Navona
You have several ways to reach Piazza Navona.
BY SUBWAY: the closest stop is Barberini (Line A).
BY BUS: lines 40 and 64 have a stop close to Piazza Navona, Piazza della Chiesa Nuova. You can get off there and then walk for about 300 hundred meters until you reach the square.
FROM THE AIRPORT: you can use the Leonardo Express train or the shuttle buses to get to Termini Central Station and then grab a taxi to Piazza Navona.
Make sure to read my post How To Use Public Transport In Rome.
What’s under Piazza Navona?
Despite the many layers that have been built above it, the Stadium of Domitian is still open to visitors. The underground area, now called “Sotterranei di Piazza Navona”, can be explored via guided tours. You can still admire some good portions of the original walls (especially on the hemicycles’ area), which are by the way the only walls built with the bricklaying technique in all of Italy (the other stadiums were mainly wooden and haven’t, therefore, survived the flow of time).
During the tour, you can also see the many statues and relics found during the excavations. During the several archeological expeditions, in fact, many trinkets and marble statues – mainly copies of Greek artworks – were brought back to light.
What are the main attractions in Piazza Navona?
The feeling when arriving in Piazza Navona is usually one of awe: the square is, indeed, a masterpiece, full of artwork that has been made with the most extreme care to details. No wonder their creators are still remembered and studied after several centuries! The main attractions in Piazza Navona are the three fountains, the church of Santa Agnese in Agone, and Palazzo Braschi. Let’s see them in a bit more detail.
Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers
The fountain was commissioned by Pope Innocent X and replaced a drinking trough for horses which had been placed in the area upon orders of Pope Gregorio XIII. Before placing the statues, the Agonal Obelisk was deposed on its basis in 1649. The fountain’s project saw a fierce competition between two great artists of the time: Bernini and Borromini. In the end, the commission was won by the former (and completed in 1651), while the latter was commissioned Santa Agnese church.
The fountain’s statues, sculpted by Bernini himself and some other great artists, are those of four giants, each representing one of the biggest rivers known back then: the Nile, the Danube, the Gange, and the Rio de la Plata. Each of the rivers is decorated with plants and props from their region (such as an armadillo for the south American Rio de la Plata).
The Nile Giant has his eyes covered: canonically, it’s because its springs hadn’t been found yet, but the popular belief at the time was that Bernini wanted to shield its eyes from the church made by his rival. A similar legend was spread about the Rio de la Plata Giant, who has its hand lifted as to protect himself, in an astonished expression which was however read by the folks as the fear that the church might collapse.
These are both simple popular beliefs, though: the fountain was completed several years before the church, so there was no possibility that the two artists were backlashing each other.
Read my post Where To See The Works Of Bernini In Rome.
Fontana del Moro
This fountain, like the Four Rivers Fountain, was designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini, who was given the task to renew an already existing fountain from the previous century (by Giacomo dalla Porta).
The statue at the center, called the Moro (Moorish) because of its appearance, represents a marine demi-god who’s fighting with a monster, strangling it with his thighs. The fish, which is probably close to death, is spitting water from its mouth.
The Moro Fountain is located in front of Palazzo Pamphilj, on the southern part of Piazza Navona, and was completed in 1655. The statues inside the fountain are copies, while the originals have been moved to Villa Borghese.
Make sure to check out my post The Most Famous Fountains In Rome.
Fontana del Nettuno
Located on the northern part of Piazza Navona, the Neptune Fountain was created together with the first Moro Fountain by Giacomo dalla Porta and was again renewed by Bernini who, however, only built a bigger basin.
The statues represent Neptune, the God of the Sea, who’s fighting with a giant octopus, another sea monster that was quite popular at the time, when the Ocean’s explorations were flourishing together with the legends about it.
A group of nereids, sea horses, dolphins, and small angels (Neptune’s court) surround the deity.
Church of Santa Agnese in Agone
The first church dedicated to Agnese, a twelve-year-old martyrized during Diocletian’s persecutions, was built around the 8th century AD on the supposed site where she was killed. By the time that Pope Innocent X commissioned a new, more splendid church to Girolamo Rainardi, the chapel had already become a small cathedral.
The church’s making, however, didn’t go too smoothly: the project was passed from the Rainardi family to Borromini, and then back to the Rainardi family after the Pope died and Borromini lost the papacy’s favor.
These continuous changes made for some structural particularities, such as the dome and the bell towers which were modified a few times. After the general structure was completed, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was called as well to give his touch to some details on the inner part of the building.
Despite its troubled building process, Santa Agnese Church is spectacular: you can’t miss a visit there. Both the outside and the inside are a clear representation of the wealth the Pamphilij had available in order to sponsor such a beautiful Baroque masterpiece.
Make sure not to miss my post The Prettiest Churches In Rome.
Braschi Palace was commissioned by Pope Pio VI at the end of the 18th century as a gift for his nephew. The man in charge of the project, Cosimo Morelli, started its work in 1792 but was interrupted for some years (1798-1802) until the French troops left Italy.
Despite the resuming of the building process, the palace was never completed and was eventually sold to the newborn Italian State in 1871. Throughout time, Palazzo Braschi has been used as a Ministry branch, Fascist meeting place, and as a shelter for the homeless – it was thus heavily damaged.
In 1952 the building became a museum but it wasn’t until 2017 that the restoration works were completed. Nowadays, Palazzo Braschi is the Roma Museum location and features both permanent exhibits about Rome’s modern history (second and third floor) and temporary exhibits on its first floor.
Interesting facts about Piazza Navona, Rome
As I previously said, the whole area of piazza Navona used to occasionally be filled with water to host naval games and competitions. But this is not the only weird fact about this beautiful square!
During the Middle Ages, it was used to host horse-riding competitions and the classical knights’ fights you see in movies. And speaking about movies, did you know that masterpieces such as Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons had some scenes filmed here?
Another interesting fact about Piazza Navona is that it has been one of Rome’s most important street markets throughout the centuries. Nowadays, the activities have almost completely moved to Campo de’ Fiori, but Piazza Navona remains the best place for the Christmas and Epiphany markets. If you happen to be in Rome during Christmas time, make sure to have a walk in this magical, colorful square!
Finally, don’t forget there are many excellent hotels near Piazza Navona!