The traditional Befana party in piazza Navona
Probably Rome is one of the few cities where the Epiphany is loved more than Christmas, in Italy. It is not casual the eternal city has always set one of its most beautiful and important places as a location for the traditional Epiphany party: Piazza Navona. This is Rome: cynical and disdainful, it hates conventions, it deconsecrates everything, it doesn't forgive anything. Ancient Roman people used to show thumbs down. Christmas has never been a Roman festivity: too much sugar, too much happiness and too easy.
The Epiphany is completely different. If Santa Claus is a funny old good man, too much available, on the other side, the old woman on her broom is not attracting and if children had a bad behavior sheet punishes them, by charcoal. Rome likes Befana, it welcomes her in piazza Navona, even if she will probably bring just charcoal. Yes, because she will surely be angry as during the last four years she hasn't been celebrated.
The last it was in 2013, but now the tradition is starting again. The festivity takes place from almost one century in Rome, lots of Roman children experienced it with their parents and so on during the years, walking around the stands, buying cotton candy and candied peanuts.
The story of the square
Piazza Navona is a Baroque square, probably the most beautiful of the city. It is situated on the ancient Stadio di Domiziano and it has the shape of the ancient arena. You will see the Northern side is curved, indeed, and the buildings are situated where the stairs were in the past.
The stadium was built in 86 AD, on Domiziano request, to host di Athletic Games. If we calculate the measure of the steps, we understand there were about fifty thousand people watching the games, even if Roman people didn’t like them, because they considered them not very serious. But the emperor liked it and so it was. The games were called "agones" and the name of the square comes from its evolution: "agone", then "in agone", "innagone" and finally "navone" . Today it is called "Navona".
If you are going around, you will see a 1500s palace. The origins of Piazza Navona took place in 1630, when Cardinal Pamphilj, before becoming Pope Innocenzo X,ordered the built of a building there. Palazzo Pamphilj was designed by Girolam Rainaldi. Near it, there are two twin three floors buildings and a balcony on the main door. One of the most famous women of Rome lived there, Donna Olimpia Pamphilj, named the Pimpaccia de Piazza Navona, from a Roman comedy. Pimpa was the character she resembled to and they were very similar: smart, despotic and pretentious. As Donna Olimpia got widowed, she collected so much money, to be considered the boss of Rome. Her brother in law was Innocenzo X, indeed. Palazzo Bernini is now the site of the Brazilian Embassy.
The Four Rivers fountain
The most important monument in the square is the Four Rivers fountain. You can see it even if is it is surrounded by the Epiphany stands. Innocenzo X decided to change the square, in 1647. He decided to put a fountain where a horses drinking trough was. At the beginning, he commissioned the project to Borromini, as the famous Bernini didn’t have a good relationship with Donna Olimpia. Bernini got Innocenzo X and the Pimpa’s trust again, by sending them a model of the fountain, made of silver. The Pope loved it and commissioned the project to Bernini. It is said Bernini won the commission just because he offered the present to Donna Olimpia.
The fountain was inaugurated in 1651 and we can consider it a people work, as they realized it thanks to the food taxes, such as bread and wine. It represents the four rivers, known at the time: the Nile, the Ganges, the Rio de la Plata and the Danube. The four white marble statues representing them are 5 metres tall. The Nile is by Fancelli; the Egyptian river has a veil on the face because they didn’t know the springs at the time. It was said the veil expressed Bernini’s disdain for the church Sant’Agnese in Agone, designed by his rival Borromini. The Ganges is by Poussin and the Danube by Raggi. On the top of the fountain there is the Agonale Obelisk, found along Appia Antica street, in Massenzio circus, in 1647.
The Epiphany festivity, holy and profane
Walking around the square, admiring its beauties, you can imagine the tales about it. The Four Rivers fountain is usually surrounded by a lot of stands selling sweets and toys, during the Epiphany. It gets completely different, illuminated by colored lights and songs. Walking on the sampietrini, you will have the sensation that holy and profane live together. That’s Rome, from centuries. There are artists selling caricatures of the famous Hollywood stars, in front of Sant’Agnese in Agone church. Nothing best tells about the city: the music and the chaos and a never stopping carousel in front of a holy place.
The market is usually open every day until 1am. The great final is on 6th January, when Befana arrives to share sweets and charcoal to the children in the square. That’s Rome.
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