The Four River Gods of Piazza Navona in Rome

After two weeks of learning about the Danube and the “Danubian” regions, one truly feels the power of its presence. It is not merely a river that flows from start to finish, it is a physical division between nations, it can construct and deconstruct ties between countries who seek its refuge. Fascinating, how an inanimate object that one would otherwise disregard can form such intricately woven relationships between people on either side. It is almost majestic in a way; and perhaps that is the reason that the brilliant Italian artist and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini decided to ever so magnificently sculpture the four major rivers of the world – the Danube, Nile, Ganges and  Río de la Plata (representing Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas respectively) – into a structure in 1651, dubbing it the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).

In each of his previous sculptures, Bernini had hidden metaphorical representations. This one was no different.


In the sculpture, the Danube is the figure with his hair tied back turned towards a horse with a fish beneath him. It is touching the Pope’s personal coat of arms. It is a mystery why Bernini decided to symbolize the Danube over the Tiber in his representations of Europe. Nonetheless, the fact that the Danube is manifested as the River God of Europe truly is a title worthy of its name; as Karl Markus once said in “The Teachings of the Danube” in 1995: “The Danube is all along the river of Europe: the Danube is an experiment that affects the whole world, what goes awry here can fail anywhere and everywhere; that which succeeds here gives us hope for other places.” Although this was written almost 35 decades later, perhaps Bernini had thought the same, or maybe something else entirely inspired him to choose the Danube over the Tiber – possibly its proximity to Rome (where the fountain was sculpted and put on display for the world to see).

Out of interest, it is intriguing to speak about the other three River Gods as well and the allegories with which they hold. The Ganges (representing Asia) is seen carrying a long oar; a clever representation of the river’s navigability for it was noted several times as being “large and navigable”.

The Nile’s head is draped with a loose piece of cloth, representing the fact that at the time, no one knew exactly where the Nile’s source was. In between the Nile and the Ganges figures, a lion and a palm tree are sculpted – native to both Africa and Asia.

Lastly, the Rio de la Plata is sitting on top of a pile of coins, a symbol of all the riches America could offer to Europe – the word plata means “silver” in Spanish. The figure also appears terrified by a snake – symbolizing rich men’s fear that their money would be stolen.

Being able to graciously manifest the four rivers into such eloquently sculpted figures where each is intimately detailed and adorned with cultural representations is something truly majestic. A simple yet imperially fashioned fountain in the heart of busy Rome elegantly paints the idea of interconnectedness and intercontinental unity, traits that we have all aspired to gain after these two adventurous weeks in this program.

  • Ghadeer Emara

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