Sculpting Rome’s Waters: Urban VIII’s Warship

Kerry Longbottom

 The Barcaccia has a complex iconographic program that speaks of Urban VIII’s accomplishments both within the city of Rome and around the world.  Most directly, the Barcaccia illustrates a distich penned by Urban:

The papal warship does not pour forth flames,
but sweet water to extinguish the fire of war.[1]

This connection is reinforced by the water spurting out of what would otherwise be the gun holes of the ship,[2] in addition to the general appearance of the water filling and overflowing from the central basin formed by the ship.  According to Howard Hibbard and Irma Jaffe, there are numerous factors behind Urban VIII’s choice to use a warship to represent his papacy.  The Catholic Church had been battling the Protestant Reformation throughout most of the sixteenth century, and by the early seventeenth century Urban had emerged as the “ambitious leader of the Church Militant” and won several important battles against the Protestants.[3]  In addition to the Catholic military victories, Urban’s support of missionary efforts in the colonies “increased the numbers of believers enormously just when the Protestant Reformation might have been sweeping the world,”[4] further suppressing the spread of Protestantism.

All of these Counter-Reformation messages were placed under Urban VIII’s seal.  Each prow is decorated with the Pope’s coat of arms: “the Barberini family bees set on an escutcheon with the crossed keys of Peter and the papal tiara above,” so that one might say they are guiding the ship.[5]  On the inside of the prows two suns spray wide jets of water, representing truth and the wisdom of God acting through Urban to spread the ‘sweet water’ mentioned in his distich, in addition to reminding users of the fountain that Urban had given them this gift.[6]


[1] Charles Avery, Bernini: Genius of the Baroque (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 1997), 182.

[2] Hibbard and Jaffe, “Bernini’s Barcaccia,” 165.

[3] Hibbard and Jaffe, “Barcaccia,” 165.

[4] Hibbard and Jaffe, “Barcaccia,” 165.

[5] Hibbard and Jaffe, “Barcaccia,” 160.

[6] Hibbard and Jaffe, “Barcaccia,” 160.