Piazza Navona ★★★

Piazza Navona at sunrise, Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy (Photo by Giuseppe Moscato)
Piazza Navona at sunrise

Bernini fountains, caffés, street performers, artists, and a carnival of life crowd Rome's famous Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona, Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy. (Photo by Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)
Artists sell their works on the square, Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy. (Photo by Mister No)
Bernini's central Fountain of the Four Rivers. The statue of the Danube is in the foreground on the right, that of the Rio de la Plata is half-shaded on the left., Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy. (Photo by Tango7174)
The personification of Rio della Plate (The Plate River), a detail of Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy. (Photo by Jastrow)

Closed to traffic, studded with fountains, lined with cafes, and filled with tourists, street performers, artists, kids playing soccer, and amorous Roman couples, Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s archetypal open spaces. It’s also one of the best places to kick back and relax in the heart of the city.

Echoes of Antiquity

Piazza Navona owes its long, skinny, round-ended shape to the AD 86 Stadium of Domitian, which once held chariot races to entertain up to 30,000 screaming fans in the bleachers and even threw mock sea battles with scaled-down ships (how they managed to fill the space with water, I've no idea). Today, the remains of the Stadium of Domitian lie mostly unexcavated underneath Piazza Navona's palaces, but part of the northern end is now open to the public (» more).

The stadium also survives in the piazza's very name. In ancient times, the stadium was home to the popular "Agoni Capitolini" athletic games. By the Middle Ages, Romans were still calling this space "Campus Agonis," which became agone, which the Roman accent eventually rendered n'agona, and finally navona. 

These days, the oblong square still drams the crowds with a play of water in the form of a trio of statue-studded fountains.

The Fountain of the Moor on the piazza's south end was designed by Giacomo della Porta (1576), the Fountain of the Neptune at the north end by Antonio della Bitta and Gregorio Zappalà (1878), and, most famously, the soaring Fountain of Four Rivers in the center by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1651).

The Fountain of the Four Rivers

This Fontana delle Quattro Fiumi is a roiling masterpiece of rearing mer-horses, sea serpents, and muscle-bound figures topped by an obelisk, which, in a feet of engineering, is supported by corner buttressing so that the space directly beneath it could be hollowed out.

(Interesting aside: though the obelisk is, as are most in Rome, cut from Egyptian marble, it does not date from the age of the pharaohs. The Emperor Domitian himself had the obelisk crafted and shipped from Egypt—by then, part of the Roman Empire—and covered with "hieroglyphics" naming the emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.)

The giant figures at the fountain's four corners represent the world's four great rivers (or at least those known in the 1650s): the Danube (Europe), the bearded Ganges (Asia), the bald Plate (Americas), and the Nile (Africa, shrouding his head since the source of the Nile was unknown at the time).

The church of Sant'Agnese in Agone

Borromini's curvaceous facade of Sant'Agnese in Agone church rises next to the fountain, and tour guides love to tell the (false) legend that Bernini carved a slight to Borromini in the figure of Plate, rearing back and throwing his arm up as if to guard against the church facade falling on him. While it's true that the two men were arch-rivals in the field of Roman baroque architecture, the facade was started in 1653—two years after Bernini finished the fountain. » more

Piazza Navona in public life

The stadium's tradition as a place for chariot races and games was kept alive throughout the ages with medieval jousts, Renaissance festivals, and the 17th- to 19th-century practice of flooding it on August weekends for the populace to wade and the nobles to parade around on the shallow pools in their carriages.

Piazza Navona also served as a marketplace from 1477 to 1869, and for ages it has hosted a Christmastime fair selling traditional presepio (nativity, or Christmas crèche) figurines and statues along with toys and dolls of the Christmas Witch La Befana, who traditionally brings Italian children presents on January 6—though with Europe's general Americanization, Santa Claus has been making inroads in the Italian kiddie consciousness and most Roman tykes now get gifts on December 25 from Santa and again on January 6 from the Befana.  » more 

Pony up the couple of Euro it'll cost for an overpriced cappuccino—or, if you're at Tre Scalini, one of their famous tartufi, a kind of gelato gobstopper—but that's a paltry admission price for watching the parade of Roman life that swirls and tumbles past.

Gaggles of tourists snap pictures of street performers busking for change, or haggle with the artists hawking their watercolors on rickety display stands and African immigrants selling decorative fezzes and skullcaps from sheets they can gather up quickly at any sign of a policeman.

Lovers smooch on the marble benches surrounding those splashing Bernini fountains, oblivious to the kids kicking soccer balls over their heads. Snappy waiters thread amongst the tables ranked before overpriced cafes carrying trays of fresh cappuccini or, as the afternoon wears on, virulently red Campari-sodas. On rare occasions, worshippers file in and out of the church.

Of course, you could sit for free on a bench or on the steps to Sant'Agnese in Agone church, but it's worth even the jacked-up prices to snag a good café table and while away an afternoon.

☆☆☆
An arch from the Stadium of Domitian visible from the street (Via di Tor Sanguigna) (Photo by Lalupa)
Stadio di Domiziano
Rome: Tiber Bend

The ancient Stadium of Domitian echoed by Piazza Navona above

 
☆☆☆
Borromini's St. Agnes in Agone Church (Photo by Bgabel)
Free
Sant'Agnese in Agone
Rome: Tiber Bend

A stylish baroque Piazza Navona church with free concerts and a sobering saintly history

 
Photo gallery
  • Piazza Navona at sunrise, Piazza Navona, Italy (Photo by Giuseppe Moscato)
  • Piazza Navona, Piazza Navona, Italy (Photo by Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)
  • Artists sell their works on the square, Piazza Navona, Italy (Photo by Mister No)
  • Bernini
  • The personification of Rio della Plate (The Plate River), a detail of Bernini
TK TK
Piazza Navona tours
 
More tours
 
 

Tips

How long does Piazza Navona take?

Expect to spend at least 30–45 minutes wandering around the square, soaking in its sights, fountains, and carnival of life.

My advice: pull up a cafe table and relax for an hour or two. 

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).

 

Related

Befane at the Piazza Navona Christmas Market (Photo by Daniele Ciabattoni)
Entirely the Wrong Witch
Rome: Tiber Bend

La Befana, Babbo Natale, and the shifting focus of Christmas traditions in Italy