Sculpting Rome’s Waters: The Rio de la Plata

Kerry Longbottom

Fig. 17. The Rio de la Plata
Gianlorenzo Bernini, detail of “Fountain of the Four Rivers,” 1648-1651, Rome, Piazza Navona (source — Artstor)

The Rio de la Plata, representing America, is identified by the coins beneath it, which refer to the riches brought from the colonies.[1]  It is accompanied by a somewhat oddly-rendered armadillo, described by Domenico as “an animal of the Indies” and probably only known to Gianlorenzo through drawings (fig. 18).[2]  The figure of the Rio de la Plata deviates from the classical appearance of the other figures with regard to its physiognomy, which identifies the figure as being from West Africa rather than from America.[3]

Fig. 18. Bernini’s armadillo.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, detail of “Fountain of the Four Rivers,” 1648-1651, Rome, Piazza Navona (source — Sarah Benson)

Bernini’s reason for depicting the Rio de la Plata as a Moor is most likely that he is identifying the continent with the slaves brought from West Africa to perform the hard labor required by its mines and plantations.  The slave identification is further alluded to by the band on the figure’s leg, which at first glance looks like a further symbol of riches but also recalls the bonds of slavery.[4]  During his pontificate Innocent X supported a network of Jesuit missionaries who saw the slaves in Spanish America as a great pool of potential converts, and it was at the suggestion of the Pope that Alonso de Ovalle published his account of African slaves in Spanish America, titled Historical Relation of the Spanish Kingdom of Chile, in 1646.[5]  Bernini’s depiction of the Rio de la Plata, therefore, probably represents the conversion of an African slave in America, as (unlike the Ganges and the Nile) it is looking directly at the obelisk.  The figure seems to be reacting in fear, however, which suggests that Bernini may be sympathizing with the suffering of the slaves at the hands of their Catholic masters.


[1] Bernini, Life, 163.

[2] Bernini, Life, 163.

[3] Rose Marie San Juan, “The Transformation of the Rio de la Plata and Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome,” Representations 118, no. 1 (2012): 78.

[4] San Juan, “Transformation,” 80.

[5] San Juan, “Transformation,” 72-73.