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Father of Fountain Design: Gian Bernini

Copyright (c) 2007-2023

For centuries, visitors to Rome have admired the architecture and art of this great European city. Its famous outdoor water fountains, piazzas, churches and cathedrals draw many thousands of visitors each year, as do its countless art galleries. No less an attraction is Vatican City, in the heart of Rome, and its principal building, the Basilica of St. Peter.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini played an important role in the creation of some of Italy's finest sculpture, fountains, and architecture. He lived from 1598-1680 and was the son of a sculptor, Pietro Bernini. Gian Lorenzo was born in Naples, but his family moved to Rome while he was still a child. In his early 20s, Bernini was already producing notable fountains for his first patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese and he was to receive papal patronage for much of his career, resulting in contributions to the design of some of Rome's finest religious buildings and fountains, including St. Peter's Basilica.

The Fountains of Bernini

Bernini's papal patronage allowed him to work on a wide variety of fountains, statues, churches and monuments, and he was particularly noted for two of his fountains - the Triton Fountain, in the Piazza Barberini, and the Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of Four Rivers, in the Piazza Navona.

The Triton Fountain

Bernini was commissioned to create the Triton Fountain in the early 1640s by his then patron Pope Urban VIII. Urban's brief was for Bernini to create a fountain to mark the reopening of the Aqua Felice aqueduct, which Urban had instituted, and which supplied the fountain.

The Triton Fountain was Bernini's first fountain, and presented a marked contrast to many of Rome's earlier fountains. Traditionally designed to be a means of delivering water from the aqueducts to the people of Rome, they were often plain and simple or formal and unimaginative in design. Unusual decorative fountains had previously been the preserve of wealthy Roman citizens, who used them to form the centerpiece of their villas' gardens. Roman styled fountains for your own garden can be found at

Triton was an appropriate choice for a civilization that had such an advanced ability to supply and distribute water, and the fountain itself portrays Triton, god of the sea, holding a conch shell to his lips, from which a stream of water flows.

The Four Rivers Fountain

After the passing of Pope Urban VIII, Bernini was temporarily without papal patronage, having not yet formed a very close relationship with Urban's successor, Pope Innocent X. However, a competition to design a fountain for the Piazza Navona gave Bernini the opportunity to win over the new Pope.

The story goes that the Pope had declined to request a proposal from Bernini for the new fountain's design, but Bernini was persuaded to create one anyway. This design was subsequently modeled and installed in Innocent's palace, the Palazzo Pamphilj, so that the Pope could not avoid seeing it.

Once Innocent had seen Bernini's design, he was unable to prevent himself from commissioning Bernini to produce the fountain, such was the brilliance of his concept.

The Four Rivers fountain symbolically depicts the major rivers of four continents - the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the River Plate in the Americas. Each continent is represented by a river god, and they surround the centre of the fountain, which was designed to look like a mound of rocks, but in fact had been carefully designed to support a towering Egyptian Obelisk, the centerpiece of the fountain.

A New Approach

Bernini's fountains were almost theatrical in the spectacle they presented, and his ability to combine the dramatic with the practical - fountains were still used to supply water - was unprecedented. Fountains such as the Four Rivers demonstrated his grasp not only of sculpture and design, but of engineering principles.

Bernini's Other Triumphs


While his fountains remain conspicuous for their originality and drama, Bernini's other work was equally successful. Today, four of his most famous sculptures can be seen in the Borghese Gallery:

  • David
  • Rape of Proserpine
  • Apollo and Daphne
  • Aeneas with Anchises and Ascanius

    These works were all completed for his original patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese and demonstrate his remarkable talent for both storytelling and sculpture. Architecture

    As a result of the papal patronage Bernini enjoyed for much of his working life, he was heavily involved in the architectural development of St Peter's, and indeed was its official architect for many years.

    The design of the giant piazza that leads to the Basilica was Bernini's work, and he himself likened it to two arms, reaching out to invite people into St. Peter's. One of his last projects was also a church, but unusually for him a new design, rather than an evolution of an existing building. Bernini considered the church of S. Andrea del Quirinale his masterpiece, and spent many hours gazing at it in his retirement.

    Gian Lorenzo Bernini

    Bernini passed away in 1680, at the age of 81. He was by then widely regarded as one of Italy's finest aesthetes, and one of the men responsible for creating and defining the Baroque school of design, as well many water fountains that are still regarded today as some of the finest in history.

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