Piazza Navona is Rome ’s loveliest square, a natural magnet for visitors by day or night, and an ideal place to spend an hour or so people-watching while ensconced at one of its many cafes. Broadly elliptical in shape, the piazza’s outline matches that of the Circus Agonalis—from which the square’s name derives—a vast 30,000-seat stadium inaugurated by the Emperor Domitian in a.d. 86.
The square underwent its most significant transformation in 1644, when Pope Innocent X embarked on a radical program of baroque rebuilding. Chief among the resulting monuments were two outstanding fountains by Bernini, the Fontana del Moro (at the square’s southern end), and the central Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Statues on the latter symbolize the four Rivers of Paradise, the Danube, Nile, Plate, and Ganges, and the four corners of the known world— Asia, Africa, Europe, and America.
On the square’s western side is the church of Sant’Agnese, its concave facade (1653-57) the work of Bernini’s great rival, Francesco Borromini. It stands on the site of the martyrdom of St. Agnes, a 13-year-old virgin killed for refusing to marry a pagan. Adjacent is one of Innocent X’s many palaces, the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.