La Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi

restoring the power of the Catholic Church

Designer: Gianlorenzo Bernini
Year: 1651
Material: travertine & marble
Location: Piazza Navona, Rome
1. Bernini
2. Context
3. Baroque
4. The Fountain
5. The pope’s worldview: a hierarchy
6. The pope’s memory
7. The artist’s memory
8. Cultural evolution in Rome
9. Parallels to other objects of art
10. Conclusion


Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was an Italian sculptor, painter, and architect, who learned the arts from his father, Pietro Bernini. It was also due to his father that he gained early patronage from the Borghese family, and later the Barberini family. His work was initially influenced by the mannerist style of his father, but later developed into the baroque style. The contrived tendencies of the mannerism did not particularly appeal to Bernini, who wanted to have statues that looked as real as possible. He wanted to involve his audience in the artworks that he made. An example of this is the statue of Apollo & Daphne. The nymph Daphne is trying to escape Apollo, and is turned into a laurel tree while doing so. In order to see the whole sculpture, one has to walk around it. Although this was also done in the late-mannerism, Bernini showed to be able to go a step further with the sculpture of David. There we see David in the process of defeating Goliath, although Goliath was not sculptured. The imaginary Goliath appears to be behind the spectator of the sculpture, which is a very clever way to make the audience part of the experience. Bernini was very fond of virtuosity in his art, and this he could show within the Baroque style. He also often used different kinds of materials to give more variation and the suggestion of movement to the whole of a sculpture. We see these aspects again in the Fountain of the Four Rivers. It is a very complex fountain, and the spectator has to walk around it at least one time to get grasp on the whole. It also combines different materials and makes excellent use of the water to give the fountain a vivid and virtuous appearance.

During Bernini’s long career, he worked for many important figures in history, including many popes and their families. Only pope Innocent X did not seem to be very fond of Bernini’s work, but his successor, Alexander VII, again gave him artistic domination. Unfortunately, Bernini’s work fell to the criticism of the neoclassical movement after his death. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that art scholars started to re-recognize Bernini’s achievements and restored his artistic reputation.


The Fountain of the Four Rivers was made by Bernini as an assignment of pope Innocent 10th (Innocent X), successor of Urbanus VIII. Pope Innocent X was, prior to his nomination as pope, known as Giovanni Battista Pamphili, and was a member of the Pamphili family. The fountain was built on Piazza Navona in Rome, as it was Innocent X his wish to make piazza Navona into the family square of the Pamphili family. He probably wanted this for two reasons: firstly, piazza Navona at that time was a public square, which gave room for a lot of trading. It held a regular market, but also was a place for illegal trading. Pope Innocent X did not want this, and sought for a different destination for the square. Moreover, piazza Navona was also the home of the Pamphili family palace. The illegal trading in front of the palace of course did not match with the location of a building that was supposed to have an allure of grand prestige. The reputation of the Pamphili family meant a lot to pope Innocent X. This is for example evident in the fact that he had the original Palazzo Pamphilii replaced. According to the pope, the building could not live up to the growing prestige of the family anymore, and therefore had to be replaced. The new palace was finished in 1650. Around this time pope Innocent X also called for the artists of Rome to make a design for a fountain that could ornament piazza Navona, as a part of his plans to make the piazza more prestigious. Eventually the design of Bernini was chosen. This choice was rather strange, considering that the pope had never chosen Bernini for an art assignment before. This was because Bernini had done a lot of work for the Barberini family, a rivaling family of the Pamphili. Some stories say that Bernini had his design for the fountain not directly presented to the pope himself, but first to his niece, Donna Constanza. Apparently Bernini made a miniature of his design, and gave this to her. She was astonished by it, and showed it to her uncle, the pope. Pope Innocent X was also impressed, and therefore chose Bernini as the architect of his fountain: la Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers).

It is important to place this work of art in its historical context. In the 16th century Martin Luther and John Calvin initiated the reformation, splitting Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism. The Protestants disagreed with the riches that Catholicism entailed. They thought that Christianity should be about the religion itself and not about wealth or status. Europe soon got enriched with new Protestant churches, aesthetically characterized by a sober undecorated appearance. The Catholic Church responded with the counter-reformation which had the goal of showing the world that the catholic faith was the only good way of being a true Christian. The counter-reformation defines itself aesthetically with a lot of overwhelmingly extravagant decorated buildings and works of art, showing the wealth and appeal of Christianity. With the center of the Catholic Church situated in Rome, large parts of the cityscape are defined by this exact principle. This got most clearly expressed in the Baroque art movement, active during the build of the Fountain of Four Rivers.


Baroque art dominates Rome during the counter-Reformation. While the earlier Renaissance art relies on showing a one-on-one realism, and Mannerism shows a change of perception, Baroque art defines itself by bringing back theory into the concept of symbols. As mentioned before, the fountain entails a wide variety of symbols and is a perfect example of Baroque art. Needless to say, Bernini was one of the biggest players in the tradition of Baroque Art. Baroque art is characterized by overwhelmingly decorated, elaborate and dynamic works. This movement in baroque artworks depicts itself for example in painted or sculptured flowing robes, the illusion of softness of the skin or vibrant hair. Baroque was meant to impress and express, leaving the audience in a sense of awe. Works are often highly detailed and rich with symbolism, mostly dedicated to religious scenes. One of the biggest influences behind Baroque is the counter-reformation. So much so, that the popularity of Baroque was encouraged by the Catholic Church through the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent, which was instantiated as a reaction to the protestant reformation, foresaw what happened in the implementation of the catholic faith. It handled condemnations and reformations within the Church. It made sure that everything served the purpose of spreading Catholicism worldwide. One of their ways of doing this was proclaiming that the arts should all have religious purposes. But not only should they show catholic themes, in doing this they should also carry out the magnificence and greatness of the Catholic Church. And there is probably no better example of this haughtiness than the Fountain of Four Rivers.

The Fountain

The fountain is a highly detailed object, which can only be studied by walking around it several times. The first impression of the fountain exists of a travertine structure, consisting of four corners, each of which is occupied by a humanlike figure. This structure is the basis of an obelisk, rising from the center.

The obelisk in general was a symbol of communication with divine power in many cultures. The Egyptians, for example, used the obelisk as a symbol of the sun god Ra. Other pagan cultures viewed the obelisk as a symbol of the vital flow between heaven and earth. Because of the pagan origin of the obelisk, some people saw the obelisk as an embodiment of the presence of Lucifer. Later, however, the Catholics adopted the obelisk as a sign of the conquering power of the Church. For example, the Vatican hosts a very large obelisk in the centre of the famous Saint Peter’s square. This symbolic reference to the conquering power of the church plays a very large role in Bernini’s fountain.

The travertine base of the fountain consists of four corners, each of them occupied by a humanlike figure. They are thought to be four river gods, each representing the great river of a specific continent. The four continents that are represented in this fountain are Asia (Ganges), Africa (Nile), Europe (Danube), and America (Rio de la Plata). Each of the symbolic river gods is surrounded by various other symbols and allegories. The American river god, for example, is sitting on a large pile of coins. This could be symbolic for the riches America could offer to Europe. America was discovered by Columbus in 1492, about 160 years before Bernini made his fountain. The 15th century was the century of discoveries and conquering of new found territory by the Europeans. The development after that, in the 16th century, was naturally the making of various networks for trading between the different parts of the world.

This new interconnectedness meant a whole new perspective on the world for a lot of people. Suddenly the world was much bigger, and people started adjusting to that idea. The Catholics, for example, had a huge debate on what was found in America: people? A different species, another race? Or were they just animals? The conclusion that the Americans must be humans had a great impact. It meant that the Americans were savages, not yet aware of the presence of God, and so they had to be brought under the religion and protection of God. Pope Innocent X probably saw this as a very important part of his duty as pope, and this is what we see in all the symbols of the fountain: we see the world as pope Innocent X saw it.

The pope’s worldview: a hierarchy

An interesting feature in this illustration of the pope’s worldview is the evident hierarchy: the least important figures are situated at the bottom of the fountain, whereas the more important figures and symbols are positioned in a higher place. The animals accompanying the river gods are on the bottom of the fountain; they do not have an important place in the world. Slightly higher are the gods and their rivers, accompanied by elements that illustrate their continent of origin. On the most upper part of the travertine structure are two weapons, one on each side of the fountain: the papal weapons. The pope, as a representative of God, stands above the four continents. One of the two weapons is situated between the river gods of the Rio de la Plata and the Nile. The other one is situated between the river god of the Danube and the Ganges.

The river god of the Danube is the only god who is looking towards the papal symbol, and he also supports the weapon with his hand. This is a sign that Europe supports the pope, and supports God. All other three continents also have reactions towards the papal sign. The river god of the Ganges seems to look away, as if he doesn’t care. The river god of the Rio de la Plata seems to be very scared, and, in his ignorance of God, holds his arms up in surprise, or maybe even for protection. This is a clear indication of the pope’s mission to convey the ignorant savages of America to Catholicism. The river god of the Nile has his head covered with a cloth. Many stories say that this is a reference to the fact that the source of the Nile had not yet been found at that time. It could, however, also be an indication towards the history of Africa with religion. Many biblical figures came from Africa, such as Moses. However, in the time of pope Innocent X Africa did not have close bonds with the catholic belief. Maybe the cloth covers the Nile’s head, because Africa could no longer see God, where it once could. If we look a bit closer even, it looks as if the river god is trying to peek from under the cloth. He holds it with his hand, as if he wants to lift it of his head. We also see that the river god is supporting the second papal weapon with his free hand. The lifting of the cloth and the supporting of the papal weapon probably are indications that Africa is willing, but unable at this time to see and accept Catholicism.

Above and in the centre of the travertine structure the big obelisk arises. As mentioned earlier, the obelisk is a symbol of the conquering power of the Church. On top of this obelisk on the Fountain of Four Rivers, we see a dove with an olive branch; the weapon of the Pamphili family. His influence flows down from the top, through the obelisk – the power symbol of the Church – into the rivers of all four continents. The papal weapons were already placed above the world, above all the four continents. But it is not just any pope who is going to bring God to the people; it is in particular pope Innocent X who will carry out this very important task, a member of the Pamphili family. He is the one at the center of all of this, above the whole world and divinity.

The pope’s memory

A big subject in the seventeenth century was scientific and religious order. This century started off with new rules, new laws and a new idea of order. Galileo Galilei was a close friend of pope Urbanus VIII, both being from Tuscan origin. Urbanus VIII was quite an aggressive pope. His thinking was very much in line with the Jesuits. The Jesuits viewed themselves as the ‘army of Catholicism’. In this way, Urbanus VIII planned on restoring the trust in Catholicism, even if it meant forcing it onto people. The aggressive ruling of Urbanus VIII came to a climax with the 30year war (1618 – 1648). Not only were the Italian people in war, there was also the danger of famine and the plague.

When Innocent X became the next pope, he swore that he would never let this happen to the people of Italy again. Instead he wanted to restore Catholicism as the leading religion in a peaceful way. And so, he decided to start the build of the Fountain of Four Rivers, as a symbol that Catholicism will conquer. To finance the build of this fountain, Innocent X put heavy taxes on the sales of bread. This was not at all what the people of Italy needed, still being in a depressed situation. There was a lot of resistance, but Innocent X felt it was a necessary thing to do. This caused a lot of resentment amongst the people.

We might say that it’s egoism that led Innocent X to choose the fountain above his people, but it might also be a difference in memory and cognition. He saw the world differently and found this more important at the time. Is this justifiable? Historically, there has always been a tension between Christians and the idea of hierarchy within the church. On the one hand, the idea of equality is an element of the Christian belief that is very strong. All men and women are created equal in the eyes of God. But on the other hand, there is a strong sense of hierarchy in the practical execution of the faith. The Catholic Church is extremely divided in different levels of authority with the pope as an almighty ruler. He is the one standing closest to God. Now this may explain a difference in human cognition between the citizens and the pope. The citizens, who are begging for food and shelter, are using the egalitarian part of Christianity as a memory, while the pope uses the hierarchical part of Christianity as a part of his memory.

There is an inscription in the obelisk that says that; I (Innocent X) as a pope have done this for you (the citizens). It is arguable if this is egoistic, hypocritical or just a logical consequence of a difference in worldview.

The artist’s memory

By looking at the Fountain of Four Rivers we can partly reconstruct Bernini’s memory. One of the things we can discover by studying the fountain closely is that Bernini was very well aware of how to bring out the best of his works. For example, he had clearly studied the way the fountain would look in sun light and shadow. Therefore, he has placed the human figure representing Europe in such a way that it catches the most sunlight. This makes it stand out even more, in its position as a role model for other continents that had yet to accept the full power of Catholicism. The human figure that represents Asia also catches a lot of sun, a sign that there is great potential for the Asians to convert to Catholicism.

Another thing that we can retrace from Bernini’s memory is his lack of complete knowledge of the world. At the time of the construction of this work, there were still a lot of things unknown about recently discovered parts of the world. The human figure that represents America is very strange looking to say the least. Its face looks vile and damaged. This may be because nobody was really sure what kind of creatures they found in America. Were they humans, animals or savages? Obviously, Bernini had never seen one of these creatures in real life before, therefore the face of the figure looks battered and strange. He simply didn’t know what they looked like. The same can be said about the sea monster that appears at this figure’s side. It resembles an armadillo or a crocodile, but doesn’t really look like either of them. Bernini most probably knew that these animals existed in this newly discovered continent, but he had no idea how to sculpt one realistically.

The way the human figures are shaped in this fountain, tell us quite clearly that he was inspired by other artists. The figures are laying on the base of the fountain in a peculiar way. Instead of the figures sitting upright, they are sort of draped around the hollowed rock. This reminds us very much of the way Caravaggio displayed human figures in his paintings.

It’s a way of portraying the figures realistically, as if taking a snapshot of them while they are in the middle of an action or a certain movement. Because of the similarities between these two works, we can say that Bernini was quite probably influenced by the works of Caravaggio at the time.

Cultural evolution in Rome

According to Merlin Donald, art and artists influence the process of cultural evolution. Not only does a certain work of art leave an impression on its audience, it can actually make people aware of a certain problem or situation, and in that way alter people’s minds.

As a first principle, art is an activity intended to influence the minds of an audience. It involves the deliberate construction of representations that affect how people (including the artist) view the world. [1]

We can see that the Fountain of Four Rivers has influenced, or at least intended to influence, the minds of its audience significantly. When the Pope decided to build this fountain and show the world’s hierarchy in doing so, he intended to actively convince Rome’s citizens of the all-consuming power of Catholicism. Assuming that he succeeded in doing this, we can conclude that the build of this fountain has influenced the course of history and the course of cognitive evolution.

Art is always created in the context of distributed cognition. Human cultures can be regarded as massive distributed cognitive networks, involving the linking of many minds, often with large institutional structures that guide the flow of ideas, memories, and knowledge. [1]

In other words, works of art come into existence from a certain personal cognition and a shared cognition, in the sense that it is part of human culture. When in existence, it continues to influence people’s minds, changing its cognitive process continuously. This process is part of the explanation why the city of Rome looks the way it does today. Applying this to our case study, we see how the build of the Fountain of Four Rivers has contributed to the strength of the counter-Reformation which had commenced in the 16th century. This movement, which is closely connected to the rise of the Jesuits worldwide, gave shape to the city of Rome in many ways. The Fountain of Four Rivers gives an answer to the need for a reassurance of the catholic power. And it gives am account of the pope’s worldview.

Art is constructivist in nature, aimed at the deliberate refinement and elaboration of mental models and worldviews. These are the natural products of cognition itself, the outcome of the brain’s tendency to strive for the integration of perceptual and conceptual material over time. [1]

Representing the pope’s worldview served the purpose of integration, thus adapting to a certain situation. In this case, it meant adapting to the conviction that the catholic faith is the only pure form of religion. There were many churches and other works of art that served the same purpose. We see the city changing with new churches, buildings and other pieces of art; for example the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio. These artworks, that serve the counter-Reformation, have a distinctive appearance that determines the city’s appeal.

We can expand the theory of cultural evolution when we don’t look merely at artworks but at art movements. When the counter-Reformation took over the city of Rome, the Catholic Church started building Jesuit churches and artworks. These works defined themselves by showing wealth and excess in their appearance, as opposed to the sober appearance of the protestant churches. This fits in with the evolution of art movements over time and shows how certain cultural problems define Rome’s townscape through the representation in artworks.

Parallels to other objects of art


The church of Saint Ignatius was a Jesuit church. The Jesuits – also known as ‘the society of Jesus’ – promoted obedience to the Pope, but recognized at the same time that the Catholic Church had some problems, including corruption. But, like the Catholic Church, the Jesuits maintained a strong hierarchy in their order, in which it took years to advance.

At the ceiling of the church of Saint Ignatius is a grand and highly detailed painting, made by Andrea Pozzo, which shows the entry of Ignatius into paradise. He is depicted in the centre of the ceiling, underneath Jesus and God. In the centre of the painting is the most light, which seems to come from Ignatius. The four corners of the paining are occupied by womanly figures, representing the four continents of the world that were known at that time: America, Africa, Europe and Asia. The light spreads from Ignatius to the four corners of the painting – to the four corners of the world. Ignatius receives the light from Jesus and God.

Although the painting displays a lot of figures and details, it is a highly structured painting. It shows a clear hierarchy of the world and faith, as seen by the Jesuits. Clearly they saw Ignatius as the great leader of the ‘army of god’, spreading the Catholic faith over the world.

We can discover a lot of parallels between this ceiling painting from Andrea Pozzo and the Fountain of the Four Rivers of Bernini. Bernini’s fountain was revealed in 1651, the ceiling painting was finished in 1694, so clearly both artworks stem from the same time in history. Both artists dealt with the religious conflicts playing at that time. Pozzo from the Jesuit point of view – recognizing some errors in the Catholic Church – and Bernini from the perspective of his papal patronage, who was trying to bind his people to the Catholic faith more strongly than ever, by means of the counter-reformation.

In both artworks we see a strong expression of a hierarchy, and they could both be seen as ‘solutions’ for the problem of chaos that ruled the religious world at the time. As mentioned before, these artists lived in the time after new parts of the world had been discovered, and they found that not every corner of the world was Christian. We see this ‘problem of the new world’ in both artworks. Both artists chose to depict the four corners of the world at the four corners of their piece of art, and chose to depict it in a way that the divine light (Pozzo) or divine power (Bernini) ‘flows’ to all parts of the world. Also, in both artworks, the divine power flows through a medium. In Bernini’s fountain this is the huge obelisk, representing the power of the Church, in Pozzo this is Saint Ignatius, as the leader of the religious order that will spread the faith over the world.



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