Sculpting Rome’s Waters: The Danube

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 19. The Danube.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, detail of “Fountain of the Four Rivers,” 1648-1651, Rome, Piazza Navona (source — Vanhoy)

Fig. 20. Gianlorenzo Bernini, detail of “Fountain of the Four Rivers,” 1648-1651, Rome Piazza Navona (source — Ecpica)


The final figure, representing Europe, is the Danube, accompanied by a horse that crosses between two of the grottoes at the base of the fountain (fig. 20).  The Danube is the only figure that appears fully aware of the significance of the apparition above, with one hand raised in a gesture of awe and the other supporting the papal crest (fig. 21).  It would seem, however, that the obvious choice of rivers to represent Europe would be the Tiber, as it was upon this river’s banks that the Vatican was built, and the regions surrounding the Danube had long been a Protestant stronghold.[1]  Even Domenico’s biography does not address this peculiarity, instead focusing his description on how the figure is “marveling at the stupendous obelisk.”[2]  The decision to use the Danube to represent Europe must therefore have been a deliberate one that would have been easily recognized by Bernini’s audience, and can be explained by several key historical events that occurred during Innocent X’s reign.

Fig. 21. The Pamphili family’s coat of arms, crowned by the Papal crest.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, detail of “Fountain of the Four Rivers,” 1648-1651, Rome, Piazza Navona (source — HEN-Magonza)

When Innocent X was elected pope in 1644, he inherited a dire situation from Urban VIII.  The territorial and religious battles of the Thirty Years War had been raging in the Austrian Monarchy (Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia) since 1618, and little aid had been offered under Urban’s rule to help restore Catholicism to this region.[3]  After Urban’s death, Innocent was chosen as his successor for the chief reason that the College of Cardinals believed he was the only candidate capable of restoring peace while recovering Catholic losses in this area.[4]  Almost immediately after his election Innocent arranged for negotiations between Catholic and Protestant representatives in order to draw up a comprehensive peace treaty, and though it took four years for lasting agreements to be made these negotiations ultimately resulted in the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.[5]  While this treaty did not return all of the Austrian Monarchy to Catholic control, Innocent was successful in reinstating Catholicism in both Austria and Bohemia, crippling what had been a Protestant stronghold, and restoring peace to Europe.[6]

With these events in mind, the symbolic meaning of Bernini’s depiction of the Danube becomes clear.  The Danube’s support of the papal crest and admiration of the obelisk (which, as mentioned previously, is crowned by the Pamphili family dove) is meant to signify Austria and Hungary being brought under Innocent’s rule.  In a broader sense, it represents the superiority of Catholicism over Protestantism, portraying the Catholic Church being guided by the light of heaven.  The Peace of Westphalia would still have been fresh on the minds of the Romans when the Fountain of the Four Rivers was unveiled in 1651, thus all who saw it would have been keenly aware of this statement of Innocent X’s victory.


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

[2] Bernini, Life, 163.

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

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

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

[6] Christian, “Pampili Politics,” 355.