Exploring the Piazza Navona in Rome’s historic center is like visiting London’s Covent Garden but with a warmer climate and with much older buildings. The Piazza Navona is where you can find street entertainers, mime artists, portrait painters, and street cafes set amongst the backdrop of baroque fountains and elegant period buildings. You are likely to find something going on at any time of the year, whether it is a concert, a political demonstration, or the famous Christmas toy market.
A Slice of Piazza History
Originally, Piazza Navona was home to horse racing and jousting and was centered around an oval track that was built in 86 AD. At this time it was known as the Stadium of Domitian and could accommodate up to 33,000 spectators.
In the 13th Century, Sant’ Agnese was executed here after she refused to denounce her Christian beliefs and marry a pagan. Legend says that as she was paraded naked through the piazza before her execution, with just her hair protecting her modesty.
Romans often flooded the Piazza by blocking the fountain outlets. This meant that the aristocracy could enjoy being pulled around on an artificial lake in gilded carriages to take part in mock sea battles that were all the rage at the time.
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
The pride of the Piazza is Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, which was commissioned by Pope Innocent X (look closely and you will see his insignia of doves in the design). The fountain was contentious when it was commissioned, as the money to pay for it was raised by unpopular taxes on bread and other staple foods. This fascinating Baroque creation pays homage to the four greatest rivers of the time, the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile, and the Plate. The fountain also features an Egyptian obelisk in its center.
A recent renovation has brought the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi back to its former glory. Make sure to look for the two other fountains in the square: At the southern end you can find the Fontana del Moro by Giacomo della Porta and at the northern end there is the Fontana di Nettuno by Antonio della Bitta, depicting Neptune battling with a monster.
Sant’ Agnese in Agnone Church
Commissioned by Innocent X in 1652, this elegant 17th-century church commemorates the execution of Sant’ Agnese. It was built in part by Borromini, who created a notable, concave facade for the church.
At the time, there was intense rivalry between the Bernini and Boromini, and according to legend, the statue on Bernini’s fountain is holding its hand up to the church to protect himself in case it falls down. (From the church facade, a statue of Sant’ Agnes looks down, reassuringly confident in the strength of her church.) Whilst this is a nice story, the fountain was actually created before the church, so it sadly owes more to dramatic license than fact.
Another building of note around the Piazza is the Palazzo Pamphilj, which is now the Brazilian Embassy and which was also commissioned by Innocent X.
Take time to explore the narrow streets around the square especially around the Via della Pace which is a good place for nightlife. Take time also to visit the Chiostro del Bramante and the Santa Maria della Pace Church with its frescoes by Raphael.
Piazza Navona is located in the historic center and is easy to reach on foot. If you prefer to travel by bus, take the 30 express or the 87, which both stop right by the square.
Note that buying coffee in the square is an expensive option. However, if you take a newspaper and linger at your table long after the coffee cups have been cleared away, you can get more than your money’s worth by just sitting and watching the world go by.