Bernini's Famous Fountain Gets a Face-Lift

The scaffolding comes down from the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome.

ROME, Dec. 10, 2008— -- The scaffolding came down just in time for the holidays, and now Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 17th century masterwork -- the Fountain of the Four Rivers -- has reclaimed its place as the centerpiece of Rome's famed Piazza Navona.

Restored to its original splendor, the white marble of the fountain is no longer yellow-gray and dulled by layers of soot, bird droppings and calcium buildup but gleams instead in the winter sunlight as the water gushes out and flows into the large basin beneath it.

This imposing fountain has always been a landmark in one of Rome's most magnificent squares, just two steps from the Pantheon and the Spanish steps. And in recent years, it has acquired special intrigue, thanks to author Dan Brown, who set his prequel to "The Da Vinci Code" in Rome. Robert Langdon's clues in "Angels and Demons" lead him to Piazza Navona at night and, believe it or not, into the fountain itself where he proceeds to wrestle a mysterious foe underwater. "Angels and Demons" tourists can now fully appreciate where Langdon fought for his life.

In this open-air museum of a city, Romans and tourists gravitate regularly to Piazza Navona's elongated open space on their city strolls just because it feels grand to walk through. It is also the heart of Christmas in Rome.

From the beginning of December through the Epiphany Jan. 6, the square is crowded with stands selling Christmas tree decorations, sweet foodstuffs, toys and the little figures for the Nativity scenes that Italians traditionally craft in their homes at Christmastime. There is an old-style Carousel too, adding to the fun of Romans with happy, squealing children in tow, on their traditional Christmas pilgrimage to Piazza Navona.

This year there is an extra treat to marvel at: the refurbished Bernini fountain, one of Rome's most-beloved outdoor monuments.

Eighteen restorers from Rome's Central Institute for Restoration have worked on the fountain intently for more than 6,000 hours in the course of two years, an endeavor that cost the city of Rome $800,000.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers is an allegorical representation (in human form) of the four great rivers on the four continents that were known in Bernini's time: the Danube in Europe, the Rio de la Plata in America, the Ganges in Asia and the Nile in Africa (with his head veiled to indicate that the river's source was still unknown at that time).

Each river-figure is perched precariously on top of a mass of sculpted rocks and grottoes. The Ancient Egyptian obelisk, which forms the centerpiece of the fountain, appears to be resting on a open cavity. There are sculpted animals too: a lion and a horse emerge from the base of the obelisk, and a dove, a serpent and a strange-looking armadillo inhabit the imaginary planet as well.

Architect Annamaria Pandolfi, from the Central Institute of Restoration, directed the restoration work.

"It was a very difficult job, but I loved every minute of it," she told "What a privilege! What amazed me repeatedly was the utmost perfection of this work. Not only architectural and artistic but from an engineering point of view, too: It is also a fountain, and it forms the base for the obelisk ... a perfect static machine."

Although the genius of the design is Bernini's, his pupils and their sculpture workshops contributed to its creation, each artisan assigned to sculpt either a figure, a coat of arms or an animal. "Getting a papal commission to sculpt just one part of this work was a big deal in those days," said Pandolfi.

The monumental fountain was commissioned by Pope Innocent X and was ceremoniously unveiled to the populace of Rome in 1651. According to written reports of the time, the people were amazed by the massive fountain with its towering lifelike figures; some were also angry that the fountain was built at public expense during a famine.

It is not known whether Bernini actually chiseled any part of the fountain himself. Some art historians claim he gave the finishing touches to the palm tree, the horse and the pile of rock, but Pandolfi will say only that "it is clear he designed and oversaw the installation of the completed sculptures and that was a very complex job." So did he stand by the fountain on tenterhooks as it was being carefully pieced together? "We have no way of knowing," sighed Pandolfi. "Bernini was a very busy man at that time and very much in demand. He had a number of jobs to oversee at the same time, but I am sure he was there for the more delicate moments of its construction."

Since the restoration of the fountain, an "electric-static" system has been installed to curb the pigeons from perching on the sculptures, and a new water-recycling system that will prevent calcium buildup will be activated soon. Surveillance cameras watch the fountain nonstop from above: Romans were shocked when the fountain was vandalized in 1997 and the tip of a water-creature's marble tail was snapped off.

"It is essential that maintenance work is done on these fountains each year," said Pandolfi. To keep the Four Rivers sparkling in the magic light of Rome for years to come, upkeep is a must.