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Piazza Navona in Rome – History, Pictures & How to Get There

Piazza Navona is without doubt the most elegant and sunny spot in Rome. In ancient times, this piece of capital city land was the site of an athletic stadium. Modern visitors to Rome can gaze at the lavish Baroque fountains and visit the medieval temples.

Piazza Navona Table of Contents:

1. History
2. Early Christian Period
2.1. Church of Santa Maria del Sacro Cuore
3. Baroque Era
3.1. Legend of Agnes of Rome
4. Fountains
4.1. Fountain of the Four Rivers
4.1.1. Bernini vs. Borromini
4.2. Fountain of Neptune
4.3. Fountain of Moor
5. Palazzo Braschi
6. Modern life of the Square
7. How to Get to Piazza Navona

History of Piazza Navona

In 80 A.D., the Stadio di Domiziano (Domitian’s Stadium) was built in Rome. This building was a gift from Emperor Titus Flavius (Latin: Titus Flavius Domitianus) to the inhabitants of the capital. It was most often used for sporting events.

The second name of the stadium is the Arena of Agones (from the ancient Greek “ἀγών” for “contest”). It is to this term that Piazza Navona owes its name. In the first centuries AD the stadium was called “campus agonis”, closer to the Middle Ages the term was transformed into “n’agone”. Eventually the name was simplified to “navona”.

The ancient stadium had impressive dimensions: 275 by 106 meters, the number of spectators – 15 thousand! The building was richly decorated inside and out. In the arches around the stadium was located hawker trade and entertainment facilities. It is noteworthy that one of the brothels near the stadium later turned into a church.

Read also about the Olympic Stadium in Rome (Stadio Olimpico).

Early Christian Period

Church of Santa Maria del Sacro Cuore (Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore a Piazza Navona)

On the north side of Piazza Navona stands the Church of Santa Maria del Sacro Cuore (Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore). The church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was built on the ruins of Domitian’s stadium in the 12th century. The money for the construction of the church was bequeathed by King Ferdinand III of Castile (Ferdinand III). From XVI to XVII centuries the basilica had the status of the national Spanish church in Rome.

In the nineteenth century, thanks to the efforts of Pope Leo XIII, the Church of Santa Maria del Sacro Cuore was restored. The entrance to the building was moved from the inner streets of the capital to Piazza Navona. The decoration of the church altar and many of the paintings inside the church were done by the Renaissance painter Francisco de Castello.

Baroque Era

Piazza Navona is the most outstanding example of the barocco style found in Rome. The baroque era came to this corner of the capital thanks to the Pamphilj family. At the end of the XV century, one of the representatives of this family bought three old houses standing on the square. A century and a half later, Giambattista Pamphili becomes Pope and takes the name Innocent X.

The Pope decides to build a family palace in the southern part of Piazza Navona. For this purpose he hired the Baroque architect Girolamo Rainaldi. Thanks to this master, Palazzo Pamphilj acquired such an elegant facade. The interior decoration of the palace was done by Francesco Borromini. The Pope presented the magnificent Roman mansion to his relative Olimpia Maidalchini.

Palazzo Pamphili boasts 23 rooms and a beautiful gallery that runs through the entire first floor of the mansion. The vaults of the gallery were painted in 1651 with frescoes by Pietro da Cortona. In 1672, the church of St. Agnes was added to the palace, where Pope Innocent X was buried. Today, the palace building houses the Brazilian Embassy.

The Legend of Agnes of Rome

There is an entertaining story about the life of a Roman girl named Agnes (Latin: Agness).

A beautiful maiden lived in Rome in the third century A.D. She had embraced the Christian faith and was preparing to devote herself fully to the church. Unfortunately, the Roman prefect was in love with her and would not hear of her refusal. Angry at the pious Agnes, the official ordered her to undress and send her to a brothel that flourished near Domitian’s stadium.

The intercessors did not leave Agnes in her hour of need; her loose hair helped her to hide from the burning eyes of the crowd. The angels brought a snow-white garment, in which the faithful Christian woman was clothed. In the brothel the girl was also under the protection of faith, all the Romans were leaving the room of the captive in shame. In January 304, the unbroken Roman woman accepted martyrdom at the hands of soldiers.

In the middle of the XVII century, a church was built in honor of Agnese of Rome on the very spot where the ancient house of prostitution was located. Sant Agnese in Agone is a graceful white-washed basilica in the Baroque style.

The facade of the church faces the piazza Navona, inviting travelers to look inside. The head of St. Agnes is kept in the church as a revered relic.

Piazza Navona Fountains

There are three Baroque fountains in Piazza Navona in Rome.

The Four Rivers Fountain

In the center of the square is the Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi), in which the waters of the ancient Roman aqueduct splash. It was built in 1648-51 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini).

Originally, an imitation of an ancient Egyptian obelisk was installed in the center of the square. In this way, the Pamphili family tried to give more significance to their property. Then the talented architect found a way to play up the 16-meter stone pillar. The graceful Baroque fountain was adorned with statues of river deities patronizing the Nile, Danube, Ganges and La Plata.

Bernini vs. Borromini

The real highlight of the square is the Church of St. Agnes, elaborately decorated with Baroque ligature. The basilica was designed by Francesco Borromini. Opposite the facade of the church is the most impressive of the three springs, the Fountain of the Four Rivers. At one time Borromini and Bernini worked together until a struggle for influential clients upset their collaboration.

A popular legend among Roman guides is that the rivals managed to translate their dislike into the décor of the capital’s landmarks. Sculptures of husbands embodying the four rivers supposedly defiantly turn away from the facade of a church. And the statue of St. Agnes stares judgmentally from its height at the sculptural group of the famous fountain.

In fact, the fountain was built 21 years earlier than the church. Bernini’s malice is clearly a fabrication. As is the excessive austerity of Agnes of Rome’s face. Although, it must be admitted, the legend is quite entertaining.

The Fountain of Neptune

In the north of Piazza Navona stands the Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune). It was built in 1574 by Giacomo della Porta. The original incarnation of the fountain was modest and did not contain any decorations. Only at the end of the XIX century, a simple stone pool filled with water was decorated. The powerful figure of the sea god, smashing an octopus with his trident, added character to the city water body. The sculptural group of the Neptune Fountain was designed by the architect Antonio della Bitta.

The Moor Fountain

At the southern end of the square is the Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor). This man-made body of water was created in 1576 by the architect Giacomo del Porta. Initially, four stone newts were installed in the waters of the fountain. However, in 1654, the Moor Fountain underwent a redesign by the master Bernini.

The fountain was commissioned by Olimpia Maidalchini and given a more secular gloss. In the center of the fountain grew a figure of a Moor competing with a dolphin.

To learn more about the fountain of the Moor – history and interesting facts, visit https://howdyeurope.com/italy/rome/fountains/fountain-of-the-moor/.

Palazzo Braschi

Palazzo Braschi was built in Rome in 1792. A close relative of Pope Pius VI decided to acquire a family palazzo overlooking Piazza Navona.

Cosimo Morelli designed the architecture and supervised the construction of the mansion. However, the invasion of Bonaparte froze the finishing work until 1811. The Braschi family lost their rights to the palazzo, and the Italian government could not find a use for the luxurious building for a long time.

Starting in 1949, Palazzo Braschi was used as a refuge for 300 Italian families. In 1952, the palace was granted the status of the Museum of Rome. Notably, one of the ancient Roman “talking” statues, dating back to the 2nd century BC, stands outside the building.

The figure called Pasquino once expressed the attitude of ordinary Romans towards official authority. In the Middle Ages, the foot of the statue became an anonymous board for denunciations-pasquilas.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 to 19:00, ticket price is 9 euros. Official website: www.museodiroma.it/sede/palazzo_braschi.

Piazza Navona Now

Since antiquity, fairs and tournaments have been held in front of Domitian’s stadium. In the Middle Ages, Piazza Navona became a place for religious processions and festivities. From the XV century for 4 centuries the square became the place of weekly fairs.

Nowadays, Piazza Navona hosts the Christmas fair “Befana di piazza Navona” once a year. The rest of the year, this corner of the capital is frequented by tourists who want to see the baroque fountains and the huge obelisk. Souvenir shops along the square will help visitors to preserve memories of Rome and its beauty.

How to Get to Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is very easy to get to, as it is surrounded by Rome’s main attractions.

  • From Castel Sant’Angelo: walk along the promenade towards the Palace of Justice, cross the Tiber on the Umberto I bridge, continue along Via Giuseppe Zanardelli and you will find yourself at the north end of the square at the Moora Fountain. Travel time: 15 minutes.
  • From the Pantheon: actually walk from the Pantheon to Navona is only 500 meters, your task is to get out the right direction, focusing on the signs.