Piazza Navona: Home of the Three Fountains, St. Agnes’ Basilica, and the Braski Palace/Museu di Roma

in Piazza Navona, Rome, early morning

Located in the center of Rome, in the district of Campus Martius, the Piazza Navona is one of the most treasured of all of the piazzas in Rome. With only a 4-minute walk from both the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps, this beautiful piazza is home of the famous Bernini fountains, an eclectic collection of street artists, shops, open-air-cafés, wine bars, and restaurants.

My husband and I often get our exercise by walking this lovely piazza early in the morning when all is quiet. The square is surrounded by restaurants and terraces giving Piazza Navona a lively and delightful atmosphere during the day. This is a wonderful place to buy inexpensive paintings.  We’ve purchased several here from local artists.

The most popular fair in this square is held in December where toys and crib figures are sold on the Feast of Epiphany, January 6th. Also known as the tradition of La Befana (an old lady who brings sweets and sugar charcoal) – the mythical figure visits all the children and the story has her arrive here in Piazza Navona.

Piazza Navona from above

In Ancient Rome, Piazza Navona was once a glorious stadium. You can see this from the oval shape when viewed from above. The stadium was built by Emperor Domitian in 86 A.D. It was called the “Circus Agonalis.” This originates from the Greek word “agones,” means contest or games. It is about half the size of the Colosseum and holds up to over 30,000 spectators. It was used for all kinds of games, including nude Greek athletic contests. Legend has it that at times they would flood the stadium and hold mock battles there for practice.

St. Agnes of Rome was martyred in this piazza, so a basilica was built here in her honor — Sant’Agnese in Agone (also called Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona). This basilica is a 17th-century Baroque church. Some confuse this church with the other church across town where this saint is buried and where her relics reside, which is the Church of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls (Italian: Sant’Agnese fuori le mura.) That is a titular church and minor basilica in Rome, and nearby the Via Nomentana.

Also in this piazza is the Museo di Roma, known as the “Palazzo Braschi,” formerly known as the Braski Palace. Constructed in 1792, it is an official museum of Rome, showcasing works by many famous Italian artists including Nicola Salvi, the designer of the Trevi Fountain. Click here to learn more about the museum’s rich history. Click here for a FREE VIRTUAL TOUR of this museum.

Beautiful fountains can be seen all across Rome and three of them are located within the beautiful Navona Square, all which were designed in the Baroque architecture during the papacy of Gregory XIII. The largest and most famous fountain in this square is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by Bernini. The two other smaller fountains were designed by Giacomo della Porta, an apprentice of Michelangelo.

Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona, Rome

The Fountain of the Four Rivers “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi”

Erected in the centre of Piazza Navona, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651. The fountain’s four statues of river gods and goddesses represent the most important rivers of the continents where Christianity had spread; the Nile in Africa, Danube in Europe, the Ganges in Asia, and Rio de la Plata in the Americas. In the middle, there is an granite obelisk measuring 52 ft (16 m), which had originally been part of the Circus of Maxentius, found in the Appian Way Regional Park. It is fed by water from an ancient roman aqueduct.


Neptune's Fountain, Piazza Navona, Rome

Neptune’s Fountain “Fontana del Nettuno”

The Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) was created by Giacomo della Porta in 1574, but was not completed until 1878, when Antonio Della Bitta and Gregorio Zappalà added sculptures of Nereids with cupids and horses, Neptune fighting with an octopus, sea monsters, dolphins and mermaids. The sculptures were added to balance and harmonize with the other two fountains in the Piazza.


Fountain of the Moor, Piazza Navona, Rome

Fountain of the Moor “Fontana del Moro”

Sculpted by Giacomo della Porta and later completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the fountain, located on the southern side of the square, was initially called the “Seashell Fountain” because of the figure of a Moor standing in a conch shell. He is wrestling a dolphin and is surrounded by four Tritons.

What I have found to be extremely fun is that every weekend in August from 1652 to 1866, to the delight of the locals, the drains of the three fountains were blocked and the center of the square was flooded to make the “Lake of Piazza Navona.” That surely would have been something to see!


Photos: Teresa Tomeo; Mistervlad1000, Aerial-motion, SvetlanaSF/Shutterstock