Thursday, December 1, 2011

Piazza Barberini

Today's photos:


1. The Fountain of the Triton by Bernini stands in the center of Piazza Barberini.

2. A close-up of the watery masterpiece of Bernini.

3. The coat of arms of Urban VIII Barberini appears on both sides of the fountain.

4. Bernini's Fountain of the Bees is on the corner of the piazza.

5. A close-up of the three bees to remind us of the famous Barberini coat of arms.


Piazza Barberini


Ever since it was redesigned at the end of WWII, Piazza Barberini has been an extremely busy traffic hub in Rome.  In fact there are six streets which converge on the piazza, one of which is the famous Via Veneto.  There is quite a contrast between the way the piazza looks now and how it appeared in the seventeenth century.  At that time this area was on the outskirts of the City and the nearby trees and vineyards gave people the feel of being in the countryside.  In fact, in place of the concrete streets of today, there was a very pleasant grassy area where sheep and goats used to graze.  The piazza was named after the Barberini family of Urban VIII (1623-1644) who built the family palace, Palazzo Barberini, on the edge of the piazza.


A curiosity


The family even had a theater built here, Teatro Barberini, which could seat up to two thousand spectators.  The theater was very popular and enjoyed great success,  remaining in operation until 1873.  Interestingly enough, its place has been taken over by one of Rome's most popular movie theaters, Cinema Barberini.


In the very center of the piazza, on a slightly raised pedestrian island, therefore somewhat isolated from the traffic, is the Baroque Fontana del Tritone (Fountain of the Triton), designed by Bernini in 1642-1643.  It is another of Bernini's watery masterpieces.  The fountain depicts a triton, a kind of sea creature with the upper body of a man and the lower body of a fish.  In Greek mythology Triton is identified as the son of Poseidon, god of the sea.  The very muscular triton on Bernini's fountain is astride an open seashell and is blowing into a twisting conch.  Instead of producing sounds, however, the conch emits a jet of water high into the air.  The water then cascades down into a vast basin below.  Supporting the seashell and the Triton are four dolphins with open jaws.  Also very prominent on the front and back of the fountain are the three bees on the coat of arms of the Barberini pope, Urban VIII, who commissioned the work from Bernini. (To read about what is probably the most famous of Bernini's fountains in Rome, see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 3, Bernini, Borromini, Innocent X).


A curiosity


There used to be a very bizarre and macabre custom associated with this fountain. Unidentified dead bodies were exposed in front of the fountain in the hope that people would recognize and claim the bodies.  This gruesome practice persisted into the eighteenth century when the task of identifying dead bodies was turned over to a religious society called Compagnia della Buona Morte (Company of Good Death).


In one corner of the piazza today is another of Bernini's fountains, the Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees), so called because of the prominence of three sculpted bees on the front, reflecting, once again, the coat of arms of Urban VIII who commissioned it from Bernini just days after the completion of the Fountain of the Triton. The sculpture depicts three bees precariously perched above three spouts of water, as if they were drinking.  Much smaller than its more famous neighbor in the center of the piazza, the Fountain of the Bees was originally intended to be for the practical use of the Romans and their animals as a drinking fountain, a purpose it continues to serve to this day.


This little fountain has had a somewhat unhappy history.  It was originally located at the opposite end of the piazza from where it now stands.  In 1870 it was declared a traffic hazard, dismantled and brought to a city storage barn in the Testaccio neighborhood where it remained until 1916, at which time it was decided to reassemble it.  Unfortunately very little remains of the original white Carrara marble used by Bernini.  The remounting was done in travertine stone instead, and it was placed on the opposite side of the piazza at the foot of Via Veneto where it remains today. The fountain continues to be plagued by problems, as two years ago one of the sculpted bees was damaged by vandals and had to be repaired.


A curiosity


The handsome inscription on the face of the Fountain of the Bees says that the work was completed in the year 1644, the twenty-first (XXI) year of the pontificate of Urban VIII.  However, the original inscription which Bernini placed on the fountain said that it was the twenty-second (XXII) year of Urban's pontificate.  So what happened to the final digit on the original Roman numeral XXII?  Bernini was actually anticipating the date of the twenty-second year of pontificate by two months, because the inscription was finished in June, 1644 and the twenty-second year of the pontificate would begin on August 6. The pope, however, died on July 29, just eight days before beginning his twenty-second year of pontificate.  The citizens of Rome were offended by the arrogant Barberini family claim of twenty-two years of pontificate, and  they complained so loudly about it that Cardinal Barberini, brother of Urban VIII, ordered a stonecutter to chisel off the last digit of the numeral XXII, making it XXI. 


(Another interesting episode about Bernini and Urban VIII which angered the citizens of Rome at that time can be found in The Sights of Rome, Chapter 16, The Pantheon).


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