The city of Rome is known for architectural beauty that seamlessly combines its historical antiquity and the present day.
Nowhere is this spirit more alive than at the city’s many fountains, among which the Four Rivers Fountain stands as a particularly stunning example of this blend of the old and the new.
Commissioned by Giovanni Battista Pamphili, better known as Pope Innocent X, the fountain is the centerpiece of the Piazza Navona.
The architect for the Four Rivers Fountain, Gianlorenzo Bernini, originally received his direction under the previous Pope, Urban VIII
Due to criticism of that papal administration for its spending on art and cultural projects, Innocent X wanted to make a clean break between his era and the projects started under the previous pope.
The Four Rivers Fountain and Bernini’s retention as the architect is a notable exception to this policy though it did not happen without some interesting footwork on Bernini’s part.
Initially, Innocent X had not even asked Bernini to submit a design for the fountain but the architect found a way to get his design in front of the pope’s eye regardless when (he had his friend (and the pope’s own nephew) Prince Niccolo Ludovisi ) place a silver model of the Four Rivers Fountain where the pope would see it.
Reportedly, Innocent X saw the model after dinner one evening and, as Bernini had hoped, he placed the designer back into the papacy’s good graces.
Though many had wanted Innocent X to resist Bernini’s work, he remarked that, “We must employ Bernini: although there are many who would not wish it; the only way to resist him is to not see his work.”
Incorporating an Egyptian obelisk from the nearby ruins of the Circus Maximus, the Four Rivers Fountain depicts four river gods as they grasp up towards the obelisk which is topped with a tribute to Innocent X’s own family, the Pamphili.
Each statue represents a river in a region of the world to which the pope’s influence has spread including the Ganges, Danube, Nile, and Rio de la Plata.
The Ganges sculpture is located at the southwest corner and was made by Claudio Poussin (noted in Italian documents as “Claudio Francese” or “Claudio Porissimo”), a French baroque artist whose interpretation of the Ganges as a major navigation route speaks to his symbolic manifestation of the knowledge they had of the river at the time.
This can be seen in the river god’s holding an oar with a serpent below to signify the winding nature of the waterways.
Long associated with purity and navigation in India, Poussin’s interpretation of the Ganges captures the river’s cultural significance in India and translates that into a Roman context that is both fitting and appropriate.