Borromini: Rome’s Forgotten Genius

At a guess, I would say that 3/4 of new visitors to Rome have never heard of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who leaves without knowing his name. He is after all the seventeenth century superstar with over 3,000 credits in this city alone, whose vision transformed Rome into the baroque wonderland it is today. Yet as first-timers gaze awestruck at his Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, too often they remain oblivious to the fact that just behind them stands a work courtesy of the era’s other fierce contender for the title. It seems that in death, as in life, Francesco Borromini is condemned to stand in Bernini’s shadow.

And that really is a shame.

Bernini's Fountain and Borromini's Church
Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers next to Borromini’s Church

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Upon arriving in Rome from Lombardy, Borromini’s first gig was working under Carlo Maderno on St. Peter’s Basilica, which lead to him contributing to the immense bronze baldacchino which stands over the high altar. But it was with his first commission that his genius truly began to shine.

After leaving the job at St. Peter’s over a spat with Bernini, he agreed to work for free for an order of friars called the Discalced Trinitarians, who had just purchased a small property near the Quirinal Palace. He got to work on the monks’ residence, then the cloister, and finally the church: San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. If someone asked me, “Who is Borromini?” I would take them there.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Geometry is at the heart of San Carlo. For the floor plan, Borromini placed two equilateral triangles back to back, like a diamond. He then used the center of each triangle to draw two circles, forming an ellipsis. The symbolism is already coming into play: the triangle is a representation of the Holy Trinity, and the circle reflects the eternity of God.

The church is entirely white stucco, with walls that seem to surge in and out. I’ve heard more than one visitor remark that it feels like the place is breathing. There are no windows. All the light comes from the dome, both from the lantern and a series of openings around the base that are invisible from the floor. The dome itself is the crowning feature. It’s decorated with a series of octagons, hexagons and crosses, a design borrowed from a mosaic in another church and rendered in 3D. The shapes diminish in size as they reach the top, creating an optical illusion of depth and height. The whole thing kind of resembles a honeycomb, which might not be an accident: Pope Urban VIII, Borromini’s patron, had adopted the bee as his family emblem.

In the centre of the dome, the highest point in the church, is an image of a dove, within a triangle, within a circle.

San Carlo Borromini
Inside of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Palazzo Barberini

In 1626, the Barberini family purchased a piece of property on the slope of the Quirinal Hill. Carlo Maderno was hired to build a palace on the site, and he brought both Bernini and Borromini on board to assist. Who deserves the bulk of the credit for the baroque palace-turned-gallery we have today remains in dispute. Bernini of course got most of the praise during his lifetime, though numerous early drawings and contemporary testimony attribute it to his underdog rival. One thing for certain is that the building contains two staircases, one in the east wing and one in the west, respectively designed by the two artists who came closer to reaching the divine through stone than anyone else in their lifetime.

And I’m trying really, really hard not to make a Stairway to Heaven joke here.

Palazzo Barberini in Rome
Palazzo Barberini in Rome

Bernini was a sculptor who tried his hand (and generally succeeded) at architecture, while Borromini was an architect through and through. Never is this more apparent than when comparing their staircases.

Bernini’s is practical: sixty-two steps in diagonal flights that line the sides of a small courtyard below. It gets you where you’re going, but you’ll forget it once you reach the top.

Bernini Staircase Palazzo Barberini
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Staircase inside Palazzo Barberini

Borromini’s on the other hand is splendid: an oval-shaped spiral that draws the eye upward. Even with the pairs of Doric columns along the side it feels like a force of nature.

Borromini Staircase Palazzo Barberini
The Oval Staircase Designed By Borromini in Palazzo Borromini

Palazzo Spada

A stone’s throw from Campo de’ Fiori stands a palace which, from the outside, appears fairly nondescript and unassuming. However, just beyond the entrance is one of the more ingenious feats of Borromini’s career.

Cardinal Bernardino Spada purchased the palace in 1632. Later, Borromini was hired to build a colonnade gallery for the cardinal’s internal garden which would be visible from the main room. He turned the project into an exercise in forced perspective. The colonnade itself is quite short at only 8.82 meters (less than 30 feet), though with the techniques he employed it appears much longer. The barrel-vaulted corridor is lined with Doric columns which gradually decrease in height, creating the optical illusion of distance. A statue of Mars stands at the far end. While it might look life sized, in reality it’s only 60 cm high.

Borromini Galleria Spada
Palazzo Spada

If you’ve been to the Vatican, you may have seen Bernini’s glorious Scala Regia as you left the Sistine Chapel, which employs a similar technique. It’s possible that this is where he got the idea.

Bernini vs Borromini

The fact that only one of these artists was wildly successful during his lifetime was largely a matter of charisma. Bernini had it. He was flamboyant, for the most part agreeable and easy going, and with an innate sense of showmanship that could charm the socks off the room. Borromini did not. He was morose, withdrawn, celibate, hard to deal with and constantly dressed like he was on his way to a funeral.

Another factor was style. It isn’t hard to be wowed by a Bernini. Whether it’s his sculptures, fountains or chapels, their overt theatricality is designed to enthrall. Borromini’s work is much more cerebral and conceptual. It’s been said that even amongst his admirers, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane was probably more discussed than praised.

Yet in terms of brilliance they are equal. Bernini expressed his by touching marble and infusing it with life. Borromini took the laws conveyed by the great mathematicians and shaped space to render the perfection of reality. To him this was the visible face of God. You might not see him on the postcards, but he remains a perfectly cut diamond in the rough.

Bernini Vs Borromini
Francesco Borromini on the left. Gian Lorenzo Borromini on the Right.

Where else to see Borromini in Rome

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, located near Piazza Navona, is considered one of his greatest buildings. Unfortunately it’s rarely ever opened to the public. When checking out Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, don’t overlook the magnificent church Sant’Agnese in Agone—Borromini gave us the facade and the twin belfries (which probably helped sooth his ego after Bernini snatched up the fountain job and stole his idea.) No one interested in baroque architecture or Catholic history should leave Rome without visiting San Giovanni in Laterano. As the cathedral of Rome it’s technically the most important Catholic church in the world. While exploring it, know that Borromini redesigned the main nave and the isles—all those pillars and the niches housing statues of the apostles are his.

Sant Ivo Borromini
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza designed by Francesco Borromini

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