Long before Dan Brown made it a crime scene in one of his grisly thrillers, I had come to the conclusion that the Piazza Navona in Rome was a very “thin place,” an earthly intersection between this temporal world and the next spiritual one. In fact, I had even gone so far in my young (mind you, this was more than fifty years ago!) brain to think it was the really the center of the known universe, so perfect was it in concept, design, symmetry, and aesthetic harmony that everything else in the world must surely revolve around its sublime axis. Even now, all these years later, I think maybe I was privy to some cosmic secret.
I was lucky. I stumbled on the Piazza Navona early one summer morning having wandered through a warren of streets in a workingman’s neighborhood in Rome. Suddenly, in that clear early morning light, the space seemed to magically appear out of thin air. It was still a quiet time of day: no streams of gawking tourists, no caricature artists, just a pair of blue-habited nuns walking out of the old convent that overlooked the square. I sat down to take it all in—the play of light and water on Carrara marble—lost in that ephemeral suspended moment of time that is the hallmark of a truly thin place.
Today’s piazza is also an ancient place. Built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian in the first Century AD, it follows the oblong form of an open arena where ancient Romans used to congregate to watch games. It was officially designated a public space in the 15th Century. Today, art historians acknowledge the piazza as a superb example of Baroque Roman architecture, but I’m sticking with my personal designation: it’s a superbly thin place.
If God is in the details, then the Piazza Navona must surely be a part of heaven. In the center, the Fountain of Four Rivers (the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges, Asia, and the Rio de la Plata, the Americas) dominates the space. Designed and crafted by Lorenzo Bernini in 1651, the fountain adds a rather base human emotion to an otherwise divine vision. One of its stone gods faces the church of Sant’Agnese, designed and built by Francesco Borromini, a contemporary and rival of Signor Bernini. Apparently Signor Bernini didn’t think much of Borromini’s architectural acumen because one of the gods on Bernini’s fountain has his hand raised in a cowering gesture as though he fears one of Borromini’s twin Adam-and-Eve towers is about to topple over on his stone head. (Today, that same mocking message would probably be delivered in a tweet!)
There are two other fountains in the Piazza. The Fontana del Moro (the Moorish Fountain) is located at the southern end of the Piazza while the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune’s Fountain) provides balance at the northern end. On a warm evening, the splash and spray of the three fountains add a refreshing note to the cobblestones of the Piazza and the graceful facades of the surrounding buildings.
Be that as it may, it’s the life around and within the Piazza Navona that gives it a beating heart. There are bars and cafés, gelateria, ristoranti; people eating, drinking, talking, laughing, gesturing—after all, this is Italy. And yet, for all the buzz of the place, on this perfect evening, sitting next to my wife sharing a glass of wine, there is a pervading sense of serenity and heavenly peace hovering over all the earthly activity in the Piazza. Even the jealousy and rivalry of the hands of two men that created part of it seem to join in celebration of the gift bequeathed to us. They must have had God whispering in their ears, too.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.