Although I have lived in Rome for nearly two years, I just realized that I’ve never blogged about Piazza Navona. How can that be? I walk through Piazza Navona several times a week (sometimes several times a day), and it’s one of my favorite places. Except for a post about the Christmas market on the piazza, however, I’ve ignored it. I’m sorry about that, because Piazza Navona is beautiful, and I’ve grown increasingly fond of it, despite the overwhelming crowds of sightseers.
Piazza Navona differs from most other piazzas in Rome because it is huge. At the end of the 1500s it was built on top of the interior arena of the ancient Stadium of Domitian to become public space and house the city market. The old stadium dated from 86 AD, and Romans gathered there to watch sporting competitions. Today the piazza looks like a giant racing track, which it might have been at one time.
One of Rome’s most famous fountains, Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Four Rivers Fountain), which is topped by the Obelisk of Domitian, sits grandly in the center in front of the huge Baroque church Sant’Agnese in Agone (construction began in 1652). Two small fountains, designed by Giacomo della Porta, sit on each end of the piazza. You may recall that Bernini added tortoises to the Fontana della Tartarughe in the Jewish Ghetto. True to form, he was also unable to resist “improving” one of della Porta’s fountains in Piazza Navona. Bernini added a statue of an African (or a Moor) wrestling with a dolphin to the Fontana del Moro, which originally had a basin and four tritons, at the south end of the piazza. On the north end is the Fountain of Neptune, another originally simple design. Because Bernini had meddled with the southern fountain, Antonio della Bitta added the statue of Neptune to the northern fountain to make it more symmetrical with the southern fountain. That Bernini!
In late January and February, before the tourist crowds descend upon Rome, Piazza Navona is a quiet, sleepy place, and many of the restaurants that line its edges close for several weeks. Beginning in March, walking through the piazza becomes a challenge—tourists, tour groups, living statues, people selling everything from hats to umbrellas (many vendors do not have a license), people selling art (who set up their wares in the center of the plaza), musicians, beggars, delivery people, and cops blanket the area. Restaurants spill into the piazza, and restaurant employees do their best to entice you to eat a meal there. People line up at bancomats (ATMs), gelaterias, toy stores, and souvenir stores. At night young people take over the piazza, as they do Campo de’ Fiori, making a racket and having a ball.
We had lunch near Piazza Navona on May 4 and strolled through the piazza after lunch. Just as we entered the piazza, we heard drums and turned to see a parade honoring a statue of a black madonna, who was hoisted above the crowd and flanked by police. Somber people dressed in colorful medieval garb, priests, and musicians marched the madonna through the piazza and back out again. Flag bearers twirled and tossed their flags high into the air. We don’t know where she came from, and we don’t know where she went when she left the piazza, but it was a lovely custom. Although religious parades are common in smaller cities, I’d never seen one before in Rome. I enjoy that kind of pageantry.
We like a few restaurants in the Piazza Navona area—Cybo, Sangallo dei Coronari, Cul de Sac, Da Francesco (Piazza del Fico, 29), and Santa Lucia (its terrace, which is situated above a quiet street off Piazza Navona, is especially wonderful). Bar Tre Scalini’s tartuffo is divine. We have heard good reviews about the pizza from Da Baffeto, but we have never been able to snag a seat in its Piazza Navona restaurant. My favorite gelateria, Gelateria del Teatro, is a few blocks northwest of the piazza, and Grom, another good gelateria, is on the north end of the piazza. My dentist is just around the corner from Piazza Navona, and I take Italian classes four or five blocks away. Pasquino, one of Rome’s talking statues, hangs out near the piazza. The piazza even has its own madonnella (at the north end), which I spotted only recently, I’m embarrassed to admit. Who could ask for anything more?
Don’t miss Piazza Navona. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, and for me, it’s home!