One of my favorite things about Rome, and Italy in general, are the lovely city squares which are called “piazzas.” Seriously, every town has at least one, and the bigger cities often have several. It seems that each narrow, character filled alleyway winds its way into a lively open living room, a meeting place for locals and tourists alike. Typically filled with beautiful fountains built in front of incredible churches, Rome’s piazzas are a feast for the senses. It’s like Christmas Day for first time travelers, with a new gift to unwrap around each corner.
And so it is with Piazza Navona. This large piazza sits in the heart of Central Rome, serving as a gathering place for local revelers and hungry tourists alike. Known for its oval shape and ornate fountains, here you can watch offbeat street artists creating works of art while enjoying some of the city’s best gelato. So, let’s dig in and and find out what makes Piazza Navona so special, shall we?
Piazza Navona at a Glance
|Type of Site:||Square, plaza|
|Constructed:||85 A.D. (estimated)|
|Constructed By:||Emperor Domitian|
|Known For:||Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain, lively atmosphere and nightlife, Baroque art and architecture|
History of Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona has long been known as a place where Romans gather, although its function has changed significantly over the years. Built by the Emperor Domitian around 85 A.D., Piazza Navona originally served as a stadium for competitions. The square still keeps its oval shape and is one of its trademark features. Paved over in the 15th century, Piazza Navona has been considered public space ever since. However, some of the ancient stadium does survive underneath. You can still take private guided tours here to view what remains.
These days, Piazza Navona is known as a shining example of Roman Baroque art and architecture. The piazza is home to 3 of Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s classic fountains, including his most famous – The Four Rivers Fountain. The Church of St. Agnes forms a large portion of the western border of the square. Worked on by Bernini’s student turned rival, Francesco Borromini, it stands as another great example of Baroque period architecture.
Tour of Piazza Navona
Upon entering Piazza Navona, you’ll feel the buzz of the crowd and immediately recognize its oval shape. Shops and restaurants line the perimeter of the piazza, and your eyes will probably be drawn to the gigantic building along the western edge of the piazza. That is Borromini’s Church of St. Agnes. Take a moment to check out the curved facade and the dome, then start wandering around the square.
There are three Bernini fountains located in Piazza Navona. Moor Fountain stands at the south end while Neptune Fountain guards the north. However, Piazza Navona’s main attraction is the fountain in the center of the square, Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain.
The Four Rivers Fountain is composed of four separate figures representing rivers on different continents – the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and the Rio de la Plata. These river gods surround a giant Egyptian obelisk which towers over the center of the fountain. Legend has it that Bernini created one of his river gods to be shielding his eyes from the “horrific” site of Borromini’s church. It’s a fun story, but it probably isn’t true. Work on the church didn’t begin until a few years after this fountain was completed.
How to Get to Piazza Navona
If you’re in Central Rome, Piazza Navona is a breeze to find. It is just a few blocks west of the Pantheon and few blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Simply take Emanuele II to Corso del Rinascimento. Head north for 2-3 blocks. Make a left and walk for 1/2 a block and you’re there. The piazza is very large, so you won’t miss it. And remember, when in doubt, just follow the brown signs.
What to Try
The night scene here is a ball of fun. You’ll see crowds of revelers, romantic sneaking a smooch by the fountains couples, and maybe even a fire eater or two. Check out the popular Tre Scalini and try their famous “Tartufo,” a chocolate and whipped cream lovers delight!
If you’re looking to visit a great example of a Roman piazza, beautiful fountains, or just a fun atmosphere, don’t miss Rome’s Piazza Navona. Make sure to grab a drink, a bite to eat, and enjoy the energy in one of Rome’s best public spaces. You’ll be glad you did!