Golden Moments in Piazza Navona
“La vita e un sino!” Life is but a dream! I was totally enamored by this surrealistic scene!
It’s an afternoon delight strolling about the beautiful Piazza Navona. Whilst enjoying a cool afternoon with the exquisite rays of the sun, I gazed with pleasure upon the effervescent breadth of the piazza, tainted with an old-world charm and tinged with a golden light!
The long oval piazza, punctuated by baroque masterpieces, is captivating and theatrical, like a symphony of Beethoven…or Brahms…or Bach. People walked leisurely, and talked and chuckled and were dazzled. The sun that illumed their faces marked a sense of nostalgia that swell in the midst of this luogo storico. Certainly, the sweeping vista could stir a sense of awe to the onlookers!
Domitian built the first stadium of Rome known as Stadio di Domiziano or Stadium of Domitian on this very site in 86 AD, the time of the Roman Empire’s roaring infancy. Huge crowds would converge here to attend a day of agones or games so it was called Circus Agonalis or competition arena, then evolved into “in Agone” to Navone and finally to Navona. The place was always filled with excitement with a variety of lavish shows and games, like the highly passionate chariot races where daredevil charioteers would whip the horses until the chariots went wildly round the tracks!
Since then, it has become a public place. Festive occasions were celebrated here, including theatrical performances and circuses complete with clowns, tamed animals, jugglers, and acrobats doing feats and gala processions. It was turned into the main market of Rome in the 15th century until the market was relocated to Campo dei Fiori in 1869. So the piazza has always been a vibrant place. However, it’s more fun during the summers of 1600s to mid-1800s. They closed the drains of the fountains during weekends, turning Piazza Navoaa into Lake of Piazza Navona so the people enjoyed the large pool of water under the summer-warm sun.
Pope Innocent X from the Pamphilj family, who reigned as Pope from 1644 to 1655, built palaces and monuments in Rome during his reign, and was the one responsible for the restoration and building of most of the structures we see now in Piazza Navona. It was said that his sister-in-law Olimpia Maidalchini, had a great influence on the architecture of the square, especially the building of Palazzo Pamphilj.
The rustic rhythm continues to flow and splash in a spectacular fountain in the center of the piazza called Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. It was designed and carved with an astounding skill, by no less than Gian Lorenzo Bernini and commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1648.
Impassioned mythological figures guard the moving water representing the four great rivers of the world – the Nile in Africa, the Plate in the Americas, the Ganges in Asia, and the Danube in Europe. An Egyptian obelisk, bearing the Pamphili family emblem on top, soars up above a hollowed-out rock.
At the southern side of the piazza is another fountain with a dolphin and four Tritons called Fontana del Moro. This was originally designed in 1575 by another great Italian architect and sculptor, Giacomo della Porta. In 1653, the statue of the Moor by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was added.
I sat on a bench and looked with interest at the people in the caffetterie, enoteche, pizzerias, and restorantes, who seemed to have a singular aspect of joviality. It would have been more wonderful watching those patrician gentlemen and ladies during ancient times, at the hour when they’re hurrying to the tables of the refined, or just doing a passeggiata or leisurely stroll around the piazza. Oh, it must be a world of elegance during the time when women wore corsets, petticoats with full skirts and their elaborate coiffures, complete with mirrors and combs, glitter in the soft sunshine…Then they’re linked arm-in-arm with dazzling gentlemen wearing crisp linen shirts and black wool suits or white waistcoats which lightened up their faces with beards.
“L’amore vince sempre!” Love conquers all! A sweet sight in front of the piazza’s largest building, the 17th-century Palazzo Pamphilj, built for Pope Innocent X and which is now home to the Brazilian Embassy.
A halo of romance seemed to encircle the whole square! There was that light which, as if on cue, cast a romantic glow all around. The majesty of the surrounding could be a stunning backdrop for a photo shoot or an amazing venue for a wedding!
Oh those weddings in ancient Rome! Marriage was regarded as a sharing of life and rights. A woman was ripe for marriage at 12 to 15…and she didn’t just jump into marriage with a man she hardly knew. It was an arranged match with social status as the main consideration, by the parents, whose decisions she had no strength of mind to refuse. She received a dowry and an engagement ring from her fiancé upon betrothal and while she might not or already have “come to terms” with her carefully “chosen for her” husband, she might have been thrilled with the prospect of going through the wedding ceremony… with the ethereal-like crown of flowers on top of an elaborate six-plaited coiffure called tutulus, a veil of fiery orange shrouding her from head to foot, and the appropriate wedding dress which was a white tunica recta with a girdle around her waist with a Hercules knot called Nodus Herculaneus, which of course, only the groom could untie.
There were three types of marriage in the Roman Empire: “confarreati” which the patricians used and where the wife totally surrendered to her husband, including her property; “coemptio”, in which the groom symbolically bought his bride and she had more freedom from him; “usus” wherein the couple could live together and after a year, they’re considered as married and the wife could retain the rights to her properties.
This is the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, dedicated to Saint Agnese who, in AD 304, was martyred in the piazza. She was exposed naked to force her to renounce her faith.
The church was used to be the chapel of the Pamphili family. Construction of this big Baroque church was started by Carlo Rainaldi in 1652 and after a year, Francesco Borromini, Bernini’s main rival, took over. So part of the front façade of the church was designed by Borromini.
There is a colorful cast of characters around the piazza and the neighboring streets – from street performers, painters, hawkers, locals, and tourists, creating an enjoyable showcase!
You could find a variety of shops and restaurants along the narrow cobbled streets surrounding the piazza.