Sculpting Rome’s Waters: The Fountain of the Four Rivers

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 10. Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Fountain of the Four Rivers,” 1651, Rome, Piazza Navona (source — Artstor)

The circumstances surrounding Innocent X’s selection of Bernini to build the Fountain of the Four Rivers are somewhat mysterious, as it is well known that the failed bell towers for the Vatican and Innocent’s extreme dislike for Urban VIII had cost Bernini his favored status.  Domenico Bernini attributes the commission to the sympathetic scheming of Niccolo Ludovisi, the husband of Innocent’s niece, who asked Gianlorenzo to prepare a modello of his idea for the fountain and then secretly arranged to leave it somewhere for the pope to discover.[1]  This scheme went better than Ludovisi expected, for as soon as the pope saw the model he exclaimed:

‘This design could have come from no one else but Bernini and this maneuver staged by no one else but Prince Ludovisi.  We now have no choice but to employ Bernini despite the opposition against him because anyone who does not want to use Bernini’s designs must simply keep from even setting eyes on them.’[2]

Fig. 11. Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Studies on the Fountain of the Four Rivers,” ca. 1648, Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste (source — Artstor)

While the model referred to in the story above is now lost, Bernini’s sketches for the fountain show his ingenious plan to support the massive obelisk as well as how he contrived to use it as the central narrative device. The obelisk is supported by a cruciform rocky base, on which figures representing the four rivers of the world are seated.[3]  The rivers depicted are the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile, and the Rio della Plata, and together with the obelisk they form a complex iconographical program that speaks of the political developments during Innocent X’s papacy.





[1] Domenico Bernini, The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, trans. Franco Mormando (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 161.

[2] Bernini, Life, 162.

[3] Mary Christian, “Bernini’s ‘Danube’ and Pamphili Politics,” The Burlington Magazine 128, no. 998 (1986): 354.