My first view of the Piazza Navona was the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
It was there that my love affair began. In front of me was the most incredible piece of sculpture I had ever seen. The almost ubiquitous obelisk rose out of the centre, but at its base were sculptures of such beauty and power that I was awe-struck.
Four men, river gods, their perfectly proportioned, magnificent musculature made my fingers tingle. I wanted to trace my hands across their torsos, run my fingers through their hair; they almost breathed. Four figures frozen in a moment, their size telling me that these were not mortal men of flesh but gods created by human hand - Bernini’s hands; hands that turned cold marble into warm flesh.
Ganges, the river of Asia, held in his strong left hand an oar, representing his navigability; his body twisted as his right arm, biceps and triceps bulging, rested on the travertine rock beneath which the water poured into the fountain’s basin. Danube, his curly long beard cascading onto his chest, faced inwards, his hand touching the papal coat of arms. The creases in his stomach as he leant back and turned slightly gave him a softness that contrasted to his muscular strength. Between Danube and Plata, a horse emerged from the creviced rock, mane flowing and forelegs raised as, nostrils flaring, it plunged through the water. Above the horse a snake slithered towards Plata who recoiled in fear, hand raised, fingers splayed. Plata’s veins bulged with increased blood flow from the fear, his toes gripped the rock. I found him singularly unattractive, with huge ears and snub nose. From besidse Danube, Plata looked as if he was about to slip from the pile of coins upon which he sat, the coins symbolic of the riches of the Americas. From the other side he was firmly sat on his coins defending his riches from the snake – symbolic of the fear of rich men of losing their wealth. And then there was Nile. Nile’s head was covered, his body ripped with muscles. Africa’s representative demonstrated his power and potency and the mystery of his source. He sat next to a plam tree beneath which a lion crouched ready to attack. Each river god and animal had movement, life and power within it. Bernini’s hands had changed the hard, inflexible material so that it appeared supple, soft and graceful.
This was going to be an enduring love affair.