By Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The Fountain of the Four Rivers is one of the most impressive works Bernini produced during his lifetime, easily recognized by any fan of the Dan Brown novel (or movie adaptation of) Angels and Demons as one of the key points the protagonist must visit in a chain of clues to find the location of five papal candidates. But that story is for a different blog.
Located in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy, the Fountain of the Four Rivers is truly a marvel to behold. The fountain was unveiled in June 1651 in a festival sponsored by the Pamphili family and Pope Innocent X as the pride of Rome at the time. Sculpted from a combination of copper and marble, the statue depicts the four great river Gods from the four continents of the world (as cartographers from the era knew them to be). The Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Río de la Plata in America each are represented by an enormous depiction of a man, all with separate characteristics to be recognized by.
In the fountain’s northwestern corner, we have Rio de la Plata of the Americas, a hoard of treasure beneath the man to represent prospective wealth and opportunity within the New World. The figure itself is said to be modeled as a black man, reflecting how little was truly understood and known about the continent at the time of the statue’s erection.
Continuing left, we come to the Ganges River of Africa, lounging with an oar between his legs. This is said to display the river’s easy means of travel and navigability in comparison to the others lounging about the statue.
Finally, we come to the Danube river, sitting to the right of the Rio de la Plata and the left of the Ganges. This statue represents Europe, with the Papal robe being held within his hands as he actively attempts to hold it up.
All four of these statues are seated around a large rock which holds a tall Egyptian obelisk which refers to Emporer Domitian as the Eternal Pharaoh in heiroglyphics; a dove – symbolizing the Pamphili family and Holy Spirit – rests atop the obelisk, capping it off peacefully.
I’ve always personally been fascinated by the fountain – the size alone is impressive enough to be drawing to a viewer. I truly hope one day I’ll be able to travel to Rome and visit these energetic statues for myself, but for now I’m content enough just looking at pictures on the internet.