The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or "Fountain of the Four Rivers" is a fountain in Rome, Italy, located in the urban square of the Piazza Navona. It was designed in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Innocent X whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faced onto the piazza as did the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone of which Innocent was the sponsor.
The base of the fountain is a basin from the centre of which travertine rocks rise to support four river gods and above them, an ancient Egyptian obelisk surmounted with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive twig. Collectively, they represent four major rivers of the four continents through which papal authority had spread: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Río de la Plata representing the Americas.
Public fountains in Rome served multiple purposes: first, they were highly needed sources of water for neighbors in the centuries prior to home plumbing. Second, they were monuments to the papal patrons. Earlier Bernini fountains had been the Fountain of the Triton in Piazza Barberini, the Fountain of the Moor in the southern end of Piazza Navona erected during the Barberini papacy, and the Neptune and Triton for Villa Peretti Montalto, whose statuary now resides at Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Each has animals and plants that further carry forth the identification, and each carries a certain number of allegories and metaphors with it. The Ganges carries a long oar, representing the river's navigability. The Nile's head is draped with a loose piece of cloth, meaning that no one at that time knew exactly where the Nile's source was. The Danube touches the Pope's personal coat of arms, since it is the large river closest to Rome. And the Río de la Plata is sitting on a pile of coins, a symbol of the riches America could offer to Europe (the word plata means "silver" in Spanish). Also, the Río de la Plata looks scared by a snake, showing rich men's fear that their money could be stolen. Each is a river god, semi-prostrate, in awe of the central tower, epitomized by the slender Egyptian obelisk (built for the Roman Serapeum in AD 81), symbolizing by Papal power surmounted by the Pamphili symbol (dove). In addition, the fountain is a theater in the round, a spectacle of action, that can be strolled around. Water flows and splashes from a jagged and pierced mountainous disorder of travertine marble. A legend, common with tour-guides, is that Bernini positioned the cowering Rio de la Plata River as if the sculpture was fearing the facade of the church of Sant'Agnese by his rival Borromini could crumble against him; in fact, the fountain was completed several years before Borromini began work on the church.
From The Eternal City