by Roderick Conway Morris

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In Search of Rome's Dreamer in Stone

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 21 January 2000
Palazzo Spada, Rome
Borromini's Perspective Gallery at Palazzo Spada, 1652



Few practitioners ever had as profound a knowledge of every aspect of architecture as Francesco Borromini, nor were able to break the rules with such breathtaking self-assurance.

Borromini did not subscribe to the classical view that the human body should form the basic measure of architectural proportion, but saw buildings as combinations of geometrical shapes, indeed as 'a study in applied mathematics.'

Following this credo, he produced works of immense complexity, but whose impact was immediate, and whose dynamism and uncanny sense of movement have never been surpassed.

Bernini was Borromini's lifelong rival, repeatedly scooping up commissions that might otherwise have gone to Borromini. A factor in this was their diametrically opposed personalities, for while Bernini was urbane, worldly and a natural-born diplomat, Borromini was farouche, tortured and touchy.

It is consistent with the two men's contrasting luck in both life and in death that the 500th anniversary of Bernini's birth should have fallen in 1998, and was duly celebrated with much pomp and publicity, while that of Borromini last year was almost eclipsed by pre-Jubilee fever - though an interesting show, 'Borromini and the Baroque Universe,' has opened at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni here and will continue until Feb. 28.

However, several of Borromini's major works have recently been restored, so this is a good moment to discover or revisit them, since, although they are in central Rome, almost all are discreetly tucked away off the main tourist and pilgrimage routes.

Borromini was born on the shores of Lake Lugano, an area renowned for its stonecutters and masons. He served his initial apprenticeship on the construction site of Milan's cathedral. The interconnected stoneworking families of northern Italy's lakeland had already provided Rome with two prominent architects, Domenico Fontana and Carlo Maderno (to whom Borromini was related on his mother's side), and when Borromini went to the papal capital in 1619 he was able to go at once to join the team building St. Peter's. Having carved the angels' heads and decoration around the basilica's Holy Door, his astonishing flair as a draftsman hastened his promotion to the grade of architect, one of his first jobs being to design the grille now at the entrance of the chapel of the Holy Sacrament.

But his single most important contribution at St. Peter's was probably the part he played in the design and construction of the Baldacchino - the great bronze canopy over the high altar, a work long attributed to Bernini alone.

Unlike Borromini, the sculptor Bernini had no professional architectural training and Borromini looked down on him both for this and for his lack of formal technique in carving stone. Bernini certainly leant on Borromini's superior expertise, an understandable source of resentment. (Some years later Bernini's bell towers at St. Peter's were declared unsafe by Borromini and pulled down, an event that guaranteed that the antipathy between them became mutual.)

Yet the two men continued to work together under Maderno on the rebuilding of Palazzo Barberini (now the National Gallery). Untangling the individual input of the several talented architects that cooperated on this building is exceedingly problematic - but the strikingly elegant and unusual windows on the upper part of the main façade, with their scallop shell ornaments and swags of carved foliage wittily threaded through holes in the projecting frames, are certainly Borromini's.

When Maderno died, Borromini was passed over in favor of Bernini, who assumed his post, but in 1634 Cardinal Francesco Barberini was instrumental in Borromini's winning his first independent commission for a brand new church and monastery on the Quirinal Hill near the palazzo. San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane is still occupied by the order for which it was built - the Trinitarians, originally founded in 1198.

The Trinitarians were not rich and the parcel of land available to them was small, but Borromini produced for them a miniature masterpiece. The two-tiered cloister is a gem of harmonious simplicity, and the church's unconventional oval honeycomb dome and undulating façade embody for the first time the audacity of his ideas and his ability to realize them.

The Trinitarians were delighted, and as the father entrusted to write the official report on the complex recorded: 'Nothing could be found as inventive, fantastic, rare or extraordinary.'

Not far away, near Piazza di Spagna, are two later works by the architect. At the church of Sant' Andrea delle Frate, the only part of Borromini's scheme to be completed was the campanile, a charmingly bizarre construction revealing his detailed understanding of some of the more outlandish byways of ancient building, and his ability to blend symbols into the architecture itself rather than adding them as ornament.

Despite the mental perturbation that Borromini suffered throughout his life, he clearly found his profession immensely fulfilling and his buildings almost always convey a strong sense of flamboyant risk-taking and exhilaration. But his Collegio di Propaganda Fide, next to Sant' Andrea, has an air that is somber, even menacing. The college was founded as a training center for Catholic missionaries and contains its own internal chapel. And Borromini no doubt gained considerable satisfaction from the fact that it gave him the opportunity to demolish an earlier chapel by Bernini when he came to remodel the site.

Borromini's other principal buildings are in and around Piazza Navona, where he contributed to the design of Palazzo Pamphili and was mainly responsible for the Sant' Agnese church. Borromini's most revolutionary proposals for the latter were rejected and he was sacked from the job before its completion, but his final plans, including the sweeping concave façade linking two belltowers framing the dome, were finally executed more or less as he conceived them.

The Four Rivers Fountain in front of the church is by Bernini, and according to local legend, the figure of the Nile has his hand thrown up in front of his face not to shade it from the burning African sun, but in horror at Borromini's edifice.

Close by, Borromini built the Oratory of San Filippo Neri, a fraught enterprise where he was initially expected to carry out a pre-existing project and during which he suffered continual interference from the fathers. Against all the odds, however, he left them with a majestic façade, a tour de force of sinuous architectural molding in brick - from the man who once declared his regret that it was not possible to create an entire façade out of a single piece of terra-cotta.

Cramped, irregular sites were a repeated challenge to Borromini's ingenuity. And his most amusing illusion of grandeur in a seemingly absurdly narrow space can be seen at nearby Palazzo Spada, where his brilliant trompe l'oeil Perspective Gallery - a colonnade leading into a garden with a statue and box hedges - is in reality only about eight-and-a-half meters long, but appears three times that length.

He also worked on Palazzo Falconieri, around the corner, adorning the facade, in honor of its owners' name, with tall pilasters topped with sideways-turned, beady-eyed falcons' heads, which unblinkingly guard the building like surveillance cameras.

Borromini's Sant' Ivo della Sapienza, his church for Rome's university near Piazza Navona, was his ultimate triumph over space and the conventions of his own and previous times. Three sides of the institution's courtyard had already been constructed by other hands and only a modest patch of land remained on the open end. Borromini filled the void with an upwardly soaring structure that is almost dizzying to behold, its final thrust being given by a stepped ziggurat dome, crowned by a helter-skelter spiral tower rocketing skywards.

The stucco work of the wonderfully lofty and light-filled interior was only completed shortly before Borromini's death, when he was shutting himself away for weeks on end, 'making new designs for great and fantastic buildings from his imagination and invention.'

In August 1667, he died of a wound he inflicted on himself with a sword in a fit of despair. Yet in Sant' Ivo above all, he left an uplifting vision of the joys of artistic mastery and unfettered creativity.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023