Piazza Navona in Rome

There are lots of piazzas in Rome, but what does ‘piazza’ mean?

piazza: a free area, limited in whole or in part by buildings, with various urban functions, at the crossroads of several roads or along the route of an important artery: it can have monumental significance and be indicated with a particular denomination.

The photo on this page is of Piazza Navona in the heart of Rome, at night.

The buildings that line the piazza curve around at one end, so that if viewed from above, the piazza is a long ‘U’ shape. Five metres down below ground are the remains of what was the racecourse that stood here in ancient Roman times. 

One can imagine chariots racing around. And which way did they race – clockwise or anticlockwise? Perhaps both ways, depending on the mood?

A friend told me recently that the ancient Greeks raced anticlockwise.

The reason was that in the majority of case’s a spear thrower would be right handed and so have a stronger right throwing arm. Consequently, the driver would want to swerve to the left – anticlockwise – when approaching an enemy and then swerving away. That gave room for the spear thrower standing by his side to have room to throw with his stronger arm.

Piazza Navona in Rome, at night

Here’s a comment by a Peter Lovesey, in the comments section of the Guardian, answering the question why runners run anticlockwise nowadays:

THE ancient Greeks may have run anti-clockwise round their stadia, but it is a mistake to assume that the tradition was unbroken until modern times. Contemporary illustrations show that when running on tracks was revived in the nineteenth century, clockwise running was probably just as common. Oxford and Cambridge universities ran clockwise – Oxford until 1948, Cambridge until some time later. The first modern Olympic Games in Athens (1896 and 1906) and Paris (1900) used the clockwise direction, but in 1906 there were complaints, as many countries had by then settled for the anti-clockwise practice. From 1908 the Games have all been run ‘left hand inside’.

And here is a comment by a Goteti Mvsr Krishna. also in the comments section of the Guardian, with this fascinating insight into human physiology:

The Superior vena-cava collects de-oxygenated blood to the heart aided by heart suction. This vein carries blood from left to right. Centrifugal force due to anticlockwise running helps this suction. If we run clockwise, the centrifugal force impedes suction. That is why, in olden days, health officers ensured that all carnival merry-go-rounds were run only in the anti-clockwise direction. As the heart is on the left side, for humans and animals, running anticlockwise makes the centrifugal force in the body to act from left to right. Whereas it is from right to left for clockwise running. Racing tracks, animal shows in circuses, bullock-drawn pelt on wheels, all mostly have only left turns. Stairways in temple towers have only left turns for going up. Clockwise running tires people.

What About the Romans

So did the Romans (when the piazza was a racetrack, five metres down from today’s street level) also race anticlockwise?

The Obelisk in the Fountain in Piazza Navona

The Obelisk at Piazza Navona is not Egyptian but made in the reign of Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). We know this because the inscriptions include the names of Domitian, his father Vespasian, and his brother, Titus.

In the 1820s, French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion was able to show that hieroglyphics were a combination of phonetic and ideographic symbols. The first text he deciphered was a message from Egyptian priests to Ptolemy V written in 196 B.C. Then in the 1830s he deciphered the obelisk in Piazza Navona.

According to the Journal of Mediterranean Archeology, the obelisk was originally in Circus of Maxentius, and then lay broken, abandoned, and buried, for centuries. Then it was rediscovered and installed in Piazza Navona.

I have been able to track down it was erected in the piazza when Pope Innocent was pope, but which Pope Innocent?

It may refer to: Pope Innocent I (401-417) Pope Innocent II (1130-1143) Pope Innocent III (1198-1216).

The obelisk is part of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s (1598 – 1680 CE) Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers), so that would suggest that the fountain was built around the obelisk.

It still doesn’t tie down when the obelisk was erected in the piazza, though.


  1. Joan E. Miller says:

    One of my favorite memories is that piazza and the fountain. Are there three? Or just the one? I loved the drama of the statues.


    1. You’re right, three fountains. The big one and two smaller ones near either end.


  2. Joan E. Miller says:

    I just looked it up. It’s the Fountain of the Four Rivers that is my favorite.


    1. Thanks for prompting me to find out more. I knew the fountain was a the fountain of the four rivers, but I thought the obelisk was Egyptian. Wrong, it’s Roman. I just added a section about its history to the article.


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