Sculpting Rome’s Waters: Innocent’s Obelisk

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 12. Detail showing the obelisk and Pamphili dove.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Fountain of the Four Rivers,” 1648-1651, Rome, Piazza Navona (source — Artstor)

In erecting an obelisk Innocent was following in the footsteps of the highly popular Sixtus V, who had erected several in Rome, including one outside of St. Peter’s.[1]  The obelisk was often regarded as a symbol of divinity, as its gradual broadening from its top to its base “suggested the fanning out of a ray of light falling from heaven upon earth.”[2]  To make the significance of the obelisk more easily apparent, Bernini reinforced this association by adding a dove carrying an olive branch to the very top.[3]  Since the dove and olive branch were also a symbol of the Pamphili family, the obelisk would simultaneously have been a reference to both the Holy Spirit and the Innocent X’s role as leader of the Catholic Church.[4]  In conjunction with the four rivers, the obelisk represents the triumphs of the Catholic Church around the world, especially those triumphs accomplished under Innocent’s leadership.

[1] Pope-Hennessy, Baroque Sculpture, 119.

[2] Robert Wallace, The World of Bernini: 1598-1680 (Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1970), 93.

[3] Christian, “Pamphili Politics,” 354.

[4] Christian, “Pamphili Politics,” 354.