Sculpting Rome’s Waters: Neptune and the Moor

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 22. Piazza Navona. (source — Artstor)

Fig. 23. View of the Sant’Agnese and the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
David H. Friedman, “Piazza Navona,” Cambridge, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (source — Artstor)

Fig. 24. Giacomo della Porta, “Fountain of Neptune,” 1574, Rome, Piazza Navona (source — Artstor)

As the centerpiece of the Piazza Navona (fig. 22), Bernini had to take the rest of the piazza into consideration when designing the Fountain of the Four Rivers.  The fountain had to be big enough to emphasize the center of the long square while being small enough that it would not compete with the façade of the Sant’ Agnese, the Pamphili family chapel (fig. 23).[1]  Bernini’s fountain accomplishes this beautifully, the openingsin its base allowing viewers to gaze through to the other side of the piazza, while the huge obelisk neatly complements the verticality of the façade designed by Borromini.[2]  The unity of the Piazza Navona also required that Bernini design his fountain to match those by Giacomo della Porta that already stood at the north and south ends of the piazza.  It seems, however, probably because these fountains had little to do with the Pamphili family or Innocent’s reign, that Bernini had some leeway to adapt these fountains to suit his, rather than the other way around.

Fig. 25. Giacomo della Porta and Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Fountain of the Moor,” 1575 (figure by Bernini added 1653), Rome, Piazza Navona (source — Artstor)

Soon after the completion of the Fountain of the Four Rivers Bernini began sketching ideas for how to remodel della Porta’s fountains.[3]  Bernini had originally intended to carry out intense renovations, involving reshaping their basins and moving their figures to make them more cohesive with the style of the Fountain of the Four Rivers, but budget constraints prohibited this and Bernini was instead instructed to place a large statue in the center of the south fountain only.[4]  After several sketches and one rejected statue, the solution Bernini finally arrived at was to place a figure of a Moor, sometimes interpreted as a figure of Neptune, in the south fountain.[5]  While he was never able to redesign the north fountain, his Moor figure demonstrates a rounded motion reminiscent of the Neptune and Triton that gives the fountain the impression of circularity, matching that of the Fountain of the Four Rivers, and softening the rigid symmetry of della Porta’s basin.[6]

[1] Pope-Hennessy, Baroque Sculpture, 120.

[2] Pope-Hennessy, Baroque Sculpture, 120.

[3] Rudolf Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (London: Phaidon Press, 1955), 34.

[4] Wittkower, Bernini, 34.


[5] Pope-Hennessy, Baroque Sculpture, 121.


[6] Pope-Hennessy, Baroque Sculpture, 121.