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Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi; Fountain of the Four Rivers

Updated on June 5, 2015

The Baroque Period was an important & influential time in art; the paintings and sculptures alike. Gian Lorenzo Bernini played an amazing part in this time with his pieces. Most people know of his ‘David” and “Apollo and Daphne”; but there are many others. Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or as in English Fountain of the Four Rivers is one of the lesser known works to most; and the meaning behind this magnificent sculpture is just as important now as it was when first made and unveiled.

Night time at the Piazza Navona  Fountain of the Four Rivers
Night time at the Piazza Navona Fountain of the Four Rivers | Source

Artists in Rome pioneered the baroque style, which, in Italian art, is considered ornamental, ostentatious, extravagant, dramatic, and dynamic, with maximized theatrical, emotional impact. Bernini was no exception to this; as it fitted his personality perfectly. His works were considered “masterpieces of spectacle & political allegory”. ( as in all his sculptures, everything is lifelike, but with a dramatic yet natural realism to them. The way the God’s hair appears to be flowing in the wind, along with the palm tree swaying. The way the lion appears to roar at onlookers, the horse about to jump onto the Piazza and run away. Every expression on the God’s faces looks as if they’ll change with their next thought. Bernini “was always after the maximum theatrical impact. Indeed, along with his other talents, he was also a professional dramatist.” (

The fountain was a commission by Pope Innocent X of the Pamphili family; who reigned from 1644-55). It was decided that he wanted the Piazza turned into a showcase for his family; and a fountain was to be the centerpiece. “Public fountains in Rome served mulit-purposes; first they were highly needed sources of water for the neighbors and they were also monuments to Papal patrons.” ( Fontana). As in regard to the water problem, a “new conduit was needed to solve the yet unresolved problem of where the water from Vergine aqueduct; which fed the Trevi fountain; was to terminate.” On the second aspect Innocent X “also wanted a fountain of his own to overshadow the existing Barberini commissioned fountain in the Piazza” ( Innocent X refused to have anything to do with the Barberini family, and with this Bernini was, to begin with, not in favor with the reigning Pope due to his “close association with the previous Papal regime”. ( The previous family had spent too much out of the Vatican’s money, and left things in disarray.

In wanting a fountain of his own, the Pope decided on a contest to decide who would win his commission. Several artists of the time entered small scale models. Bernini was not originally involved in this. Prince Nicolo Ludovisi (the Pope’s nephew by marriage) and Donna Olympia Maidalchini (his sister-in-law) knew of Bernini’s work and admired them. At their urging, Bernini made a model & they helped him get it into the Palace where it would be certain that His Highness would come across it. In “ arranging for the model of his design to be seen by the Pope, upon which Innocent immediately ordered Bernini to begin the execution of his design, reputedly saying afterwards “ that the only way to avoid employing Bernini was not to see his designs.” “( Bernini was no stranger to creating fountains, as prior he had done Fountain of the Triton in Piazza Barberini & Fountain of the Moor in the southern part of Piazza Navarona, which was done during the Barberini Papacy.

Bernini's Lion
Bernini's Lion

Fountain of the Four Rivers is a depiction of movement, life at its best. The illusion of movement is given by the water’s movement and how the statues are posed. Facial expressions, movement of arms & legs, even their hair. In contrast to this, the look of the obelisk with its weightlessness & freestanding was mind blowing when you think of the fact that it’s made of tons of marble. The expansiveness of the bottom against the apex – thin; uniform. The overall message was the power of the current Papal family, and the power & triumph of Church under his reign. The fountain was a theatre in the round; water coming through a mountainous disarray of travertine marble. (Wikipedia)

The four great rivers in the four continents are represented. They are the Nile representing Africa; Ganges for Asia, Danube for Europe & Rio de la Plata for Americas. Each location was enhanced by plants and animals native to that continent. There was a horse with the Danube, lion & palm tree with the Nile; snake on top of the base with the Rio; also the God was “portrayed as a black man& has some Moorish features to him, such as the jeweled leg band.” ( the fish. Ganges had a long oar for navigability; Nile had the God’s head draped with a loose cloth in meaning of the fact that no one back then had knowledge of the Nile’s source; Danube had the Papal coat of arms since it was the largest river to Rome. Rio was represented by a pile of coins in symbol of the riches to be offered. Every God was “semi-prostrate in awe of the central tower”; the Obelisk, which stood for Papal power and surmounted by the Pamphili family symbol of the Dove & olive branch, which stood for peace, Holy Spirit & Pamphili family.

Close up at night
Close up at night | Source

The obelisk was of red granite with the base of travertine marble; with the statues being made of the same. The “hieroglyphs cared by order of Domitican, & refer to him as eternal Pharaoh, and to Vespasion & Titus as Gods.” The obelisk can be broken down into o-“bel”-isk which can translated into “shaft of Bel; another way of writing Baal, the Babylonian & Egyptian sun God, that all nations followed after. As further evidence that gives proof that Roman Catholicism is nothing more than disguised sun worship, that actually arose from the ruins of Roman paganism, consider the fact that the Vatican of today & St. Peter’s Basilica is literally built over the grounds of the ancient Vatican Circus. It was here that they held their chariot races to the “sun”. And as then, so today, St. Peter’s is oriented towards the East. That is “so that at the Vernal Equinox the great doors can be thrown open at sunrise and the sun’s rays passing through the nave will illuminate the high alter”.” In looking at an overhead view, the obelisk is the center, and you can visually draw lines out as the sun’s rays.

Travertine can be colorless, pink, white, brown or yellow in color. Pink was involved with this piece. It has white streaks to it, & can be dull, pearly or subviterous. Its compact crystalline variety has been used since Roman times for building, and is also used for brooches, pendants and other jewelry.

The marble is receptive to energy, and is a water element, which is fitting with the use of a fountain. Powers normally associated with it are of success and protection. The protection also involves success in a general sense. (P.133-34, Cunningham’s encyclopedia)

The palm tree is an interesting thought. “Trees themselves were originally an object of veneration since, to the relatively short lived humans, they appeared immortal” In relation to the Church aspect, “the Old Testament contains references to sacred groves & to setting up altars under trees…..” “ This reverence for living trees was later shown to the simple erect trunk as a stone pillar was found in as the standing stones & menhirs in western Europe” (p. 476, The Witch Book)

The Lion is a semi obvious symbol. Male lions naturally have a different meaning behind them than the females; in theory this may be why Bernini chose the male. “Male lions were associated with solar Gods, especially in Greece, Rome & Persia….” Their attributes are strengthen family ties; strength & courage. A vague reference to the Papacy, and the Pope’s choices & family. (p. 79-82, Animal Magick)

Horses were a source of transportation, means of work, good for the military, and had the position as being sacred. White horses were sacred in Rome. “The horse in general symbolized power, swiftness, wisdom, prophetic abilities & magical powers”. (p.127, Animal Magick)

The fish in the fountain has perhaps the easiest meaning behind it. In possible reference to the Church, “abundance, prosperity. Harmony in your life. Divination & prophecy” (p.222, Animal Magick) this could have to do with regaining some of the money used by the previous Pope & his family, and in conversing with God & his teachings to the people.

Finally, the Snake. Snakes can be complex creatures to try to figure out, as there is many meanings to them, depending on the culture. Many homes in Rome, as well as ones in Greece & others in the region, that had then as sacred pets. They were felt to be closely connected with the Savior deities of Mystery cults and deities of healing. They had the symbolism of opposites; healing/poison, binding/losing, sleep/awakening, good/evil & finally peace/upset. They also stood for immortality, to be able to transmute your life into higher levels. Wisdom & understanding; connection with the spirits. There is also facing your fears of spiritual initiations & life problems; moving onto higher goals. (bits & pieces; p.207-12, Animal Magick)

As for the fountain in general; I fell in love with it in viewing “Angels & Demons” featuring Tom Hanks. It was shown at night (near the end of the movie; in my opinion best for last), and with the lights falling upon it, it was stunning; absolutely breathtaking. A few other statues of Bernini’s were portrayed in the film, but this really stood out to me.

The meanings/symbolism of the parts of the statue, and the history behind it can stand the test of time, trom when it was unveiled on June, 12, 1651 to today and all the changes within the Church & world today.

Works Cited


Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, & Metal Magic; Scott Cunningham, p.133-34

Animal Magick, D.J. Conway, pgs. 79-82,127,207-12,222

The Witch Book – The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca & Neo-paganism, Raymond Buckland, p.476

© 2014 Jennifer B


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