All tour-books which list the top sites of Rome will tell you to visit Piazza Navona. They’ll mention the Bernini fountain, the Borromini church, the artwork for sale by local artists, and the (bad and overpriced) restaurants where you can sit and people-watch.
And that’s a shame, because they’re failing to explain the origins of this piazza, and its tremendous historical significance!
The fact is, Piazza Navona was once the ancient Roman Stadium of Domitian, built by that Emperor in the 90’s A.D. As you can easily see, the piazza is roughly oval in shape, because the buildings which surround it were all built directly over the stadium’s ancient bleacher-seats. In the basement-foundations of many of these buildings are stones from the original stadium, which are still fixed in their original positions.
Here’s a model, built to scale, showing an accurate reconstruction of how the Stadium of Domitian used to look. During several Christian persecutions, especially that of Emperor Domitian in the early 300’s A.D., unknown thousands of martyrs were executed here, including most famously a young girl named Agnes. That church by Borromini mentioned previously was later built in her honor.
And at the north end of the piazza, it is possible today to see, and even to visit if you like, the excavated entrance to the stadium. Now, of course, it is underground, as the level of the modern pavement is significantly higher than the Roman roads were 1900 years ago. A bank building that was built in the 1930’s atop these ruins was designed so as to encase them in its lobby–and they can still be seen through the bank’s glass windows today.
But if you rely exclusively on your tourbook, it’s very likely that you’ll never know anything about this. You’ll wander through the piazza, admiring some of the paintings for sale, and getting ripped off by its tourist-trap restaurants… and you won’t even notice Piazza Navona’s distinctive shape, which gives its original use away. Tour Rome with us, and we’ll show you how to view this piazza with a more historical eye.