This piazza is a marvel of light and sculpture. It is exceptionally long and owes its shape to the ruins that formed it, for under the buildings that surround Piazza Navona are the remains of the Circus Domitianus, Domitian's stadium - a part of which can be seen if you leave the piazza by the north exit and turn left.
The piazza marks the area for the Graeco-Roman wrestling in the stadium. It features many fine old buildings, a beautiful church and three stunning fountains. (Normally one would be happy if a piazza even had just one.)
It was in the arena that the twelve-year-old Christian, Agnes, refused to marry a pagan and was thus martyred on the spot where the church of Sant'Agnese ("uhn-YEH-seh") is located.
In ancient times the stadium was the site of the Agonal games, from which the present piazza takes its name by corruption from "in agone" to "n'agone" to "navone" and finally "navona"
In the centre of Piazza Navona is Bernini's most spectacular fountain, la Fontana dei Fiumi (= rivers, "FYOO-mee"), erected in 1651. It features a central rocky structure that supports an obelisk that was an ancient Roman imitation of the Egyptian form. Around this structure are four giant statues by Bernini's pupils following his designs representing the Nile, the Danube, the Ganges, and the Rio della Plata, each representing one of the four quarters of the world. These statues have quite lifelike positions and have such movement to them that they seem to be gesticulating.
To the western side of the piazza stands the delightful church of Sant'Agnese in Agone. It was in this location we are told that Agnese was exposed naked, but miraculously covered by the prodigious growth of her hair. The church was commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1652 on the site which is wider than it is long. Not long after the project was initiated Francesco Borromini took control of it and was responsible for the completion of the dome and building the twin belltowers. The concave facade was also his design. It is thought that one of the statues in Bernini's Fontana dei Fiumi is covering his face so as not to look at the church. This was thought to be the case because of an intense rivalry between the two artists. However, the dates of the construction of each reveal that the fountain was built first. Strangely there is a solitary statue above the facade of the church that is looking away, when it would be normal for it to be facing the fountain.
At the northern end is the Fontana di Nettuno (=Neptune), the basin of which was by Giacomo della Porta (1576) and the statues of Neptune and the Nereids were from last century. And at the southern end, the Fontana del Moro (=Moor), which was also designed by Bernini and features the statue of a Moor fighting with a dolphin.
Important palaces overlook the square: Palazzo Pamphili, Palazzo Massimo Lancellotti, Palazzo Braschi.
Piazza Navona since 1652 became a summer seaside resort, when Pope Innocenzo X ordered to flood the square to amuse the Roman people.
Pope Pio IX during 1866 decreed the end of the show.
And this is the end of act 1 too. Following guest stars:
Raffaello, Caravaggio, Borromini, Domenichino, Sansovino (Andrea and Jacopo), Pietro da Cortona, Bassano, Guido Reni, Lanfranco, Guercino...