The Pope’s Front Yard
One of my favorite things about Rome has always been the fact that you can be walking around through modern streets lined with modern buildings, and all of a sudden run into an ancient column or the old ruins of a wall jutting out of the sidewalk. Like it’s nothing. Like it’s the most normal thing in the world. I suppose, for the ancient capital of the Roman Empire, however modern it may be today, indeed it is quite normal.
The site where the Piazza Navona currently stands was once occupied by the Stadium of Domitian, also known as the Circus Agonalis (“competition arena”). It was constructed by Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus as a gift to the people of Rome, to be used mostly for athletic contests, and it was the first permanent structure of its kind.
During the Renaissance, like so much else in Rome, it was plundered for building material. Once the city market left the Campidoglio and was transferred here (today it is held at the Campo de’ Fiori), the piazza was transformed into the ideal Baroque public space by Pope Innocent X, whose family palace stood on the square. The present piazza sits in the interior arena of the old Stadium, and the buildings around it are perched on the original lower arcades.
At its center sits the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by Gianlorenzo Bernini, which is topped by the Obelisk of Domitian, taken from the Circus of Maxentius. Sant’Agnese in Agone, the church behind it, was designed by Francesco Borromini, Girolamo Rainaldi, and his son Carlo Rainaldi, among others. Girolamo was also responsible for the Pamphili Palace, which belonged to the family of Innocent X and sits beside the church.
The Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) is located at the North end of the Piazza Navona. Its basin was designed by Giacomo della Porta under the patronage of Pope Gregory XIII. For 300 years, the fountain had no sculptures, until Antonio della Bitta added Neptune Fighting with an Octopus to the fountain in 1878. The remaining sculptures — of Nereids, putti, and walruses — were created by Gregorio Zappalà.