Piazza Barberini is named after Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) who was from the Barberini family and who commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to create a piazza in Rome which would immortalise the Pope's family name.
Originally this area was dominated by a vineyard until it was bought by Pope Urban VIII (birthname Maffeo Barberini) in 1625. He paid for this square, adjacent to the vineyard, to be remodelled by Carlo Maderno and after him Gianlorenzo Bernini. Both these men worked on Saint Peter's Basilica, being the second last and final architect of that building. You can tell Bernini was involved in this square thanks to the big hotel in the background which bears his name, Hotel Bernini.
This square has two fountains which were both designed by Bernini in the early sixteen thirties and forties. Initially here in the middle, there was an Obelisk, like in most of the squares of Rome. However this was moved in 1822. They decided to replace it with Bernini's Triton Fountain, which now dominates the piazza.
The Triton fountain is the oldest fountain in Piazza Barberini, completed by Bernini in two years over 1642/3*.
It depicts a Triton, one of the servants of Neptune, the Roman God of the sea, sitting in an open clam shell blowing water through a conch. The conch is the water shell, which acted as trumpet to announce the arrival of Neptune or to call a whale or sea monster. Underneath him is the Papal family crest of Urban VIII. He was one of Bernini's foremost Patrons. Any time a Pope pays for anything his family crest is depicted on the monument. The bees are their family symbol. Originally these were horseflies, back in the 13th century, but horseflies are not aristocratic, so they were changed to bees by an ancestor of the Pope as bees are considered more industrious and productive. All Papal crests have a tiara or crown on top of the family heraldry and the crossed keys of Saint Peter beneath. The crown indicates the Popes are the kings of Vatican City (and before that the Papal States). The keys are the metaphorical keys that Jesus gave to Saint Peter (Matthew 16:17-19), appointing him head of the Christian Church, or Pope. The Vatican believes the Popes are the natural successors to the episcopate Peter established in Rome, being the Christian communities' first bishop or overseer here. Underneath the crest are four evil looking dolphins or fish who support the whole structure. Bernini worked in collaboration with Francesco Borromini and they seem to have been inspired by the Fountain of the Eagle which has sat in the Vatican Gardens since 1612.
The Triton fountain took two years to sculpt and it was originally in front of the Barberini Palace on the right before it was moved here in 1822 when a prior obelisk was removed.
The other Bernini Fountain is the Fontana delle Api or Fountain of the Bees. This is a year younger than the Triton fountain, taking four years to make and completed in 1644. It was originally made as a drinking trough for horses and was located in front of the Barbernini palace which is the National Ancient Art Museum to the right of the piazza.
For over two hundred years horses and people would get their drinking water from these public fountains as private pipes in to your house were only for the rich until the last century. The fountain consists of an opened clam shell made of grey travertine marble with the Barberini bees seemingly drinking the water which pours in to the basin beneath. The inscription in Latin above simply states that Pope Urban the Eighth had Bernini make this and very generously gave it to the people. The fountain's original location made it a traffic obstacle so it was removed in 1867 and put in to storage by the city of Rome. When it was relocated to its current location fifty years later, it required significant restoration by local sculptor Adolfo Apolloni.
Slightly off the piazza on the left hand side is the Church of Sant Mary of the Immaculate Conception.
It is more commonly known as the Church of the Bones as it has an underground capuchin crypt with a series of rooms decorated with the actual bones and skulls of 4,000 dead capuchin monks. The church dates from the late 1620s when Bernini was redesigning the square.
It was the new home of a Capuchin order of monks who relocated their home and the remains of their brethren here. The remains were initially buried, but were exhumed and additional monks were buried here from the 1500s onwards. There is no record of who came up with the idea to use their bones to decorate the walls. The first women were allowed in here from 1818 receiving special permission from the Pope to get in. The church of the bones is one of the most remarkable sights in Rome. It now has a visitors centre and costs €10 per person to get in.Footnotes
* Some books list the the Triton Fountain as being created in 1632 to 1637.
Regardless it was the first fountain in the square and the second one made.
Piazza Barberini is a little visited square in Rome that gives you a great opportunity to see the work of Bernini. It is in walking distance to Piazza del Popolo, the Via del Corso shopping street and other attractions in the city. If you would like to take a walking or diving tour of the squares of Rome inlcuding Piazza Barberini you can contact me via the menu.
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