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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Francesco Borromini

Nothing could better symbolize the peculiar relationship of these to talented architects better that the Barberini Palace staircase. Borromini designed it, Bernini saw it to completion after his competitor's death.
Every once in a while as I'm writing on another artist or work of art I decided to link to a previous artist or topic I thought I'd covered only to find that, damn, there's nothing to link to. An outstanding artist has slipped through the cracks to be unceremoniously neglected. A few days ago, I was writing as to how one major artist so dominated a given era or medium from that virtually all others got crowded out. In this particular case I was referring to the Italian Baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Like Michelangelo, a generation or two earlier, everything the man touched quite rightly fell into masterpiece territory. Bernini was both sculptor and architect, and despite the fact he is probably more remembered as a carver of marble, he was the reigning architectural genius of his time as well.
Bernini's Shadow
See the resemblance?
Pity his chief competitor in that relatively new profession for its time, Francesco Borromini. I should point out that due to the similarity of their surnames, it's easy to get them confused. They even looked somewhat alike (above and left). To add to the confusion, they were born just a year apart, Bernini in 1598, Borromini in 1599. Bernini died in 1680, outliving his friend and colleague by thirteen years. Two of their churches, Bernini's San Andrea al Quirinale (left) and Borro-mini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (below) are on the same street in Rome (Via Quirinal,) and less than a block apart. It's amazing seeing one right after the other and to compare the different ways these contemporaries created majestic places in such small spaces. Both are oval, but that’s where the similarities end.

As any artist will tell you, the more limitations, the more difficult the work. Borromini had dozens of them to contend with, not the least of which was costs.
Though Borromini and Bernini, were the two stalwarts of 17th century Italian architecture, were both masters of the Baroque style, they were very different in their approach to work and artistic expressions. Bernini, suave and charming, sought drama and theatrics in his works. His flamboyance oozed out through his creations. Bernini knew how to play with the audience’s emotional and spiritual responses. Borromini, on the other hand, was cold, melancholic, and somewhat lacking in the social graces of Bernini. He depended heavily on his studies of geometry and classical architecture. Borromini’s work was idiosyncratic with a modest approach towards purposeful dramatization, distancing the audience who failed to fully comprehend it even though they were unanimous in accepting its superiority. The great act of providence had both of these artist’s path intertwined for the rest of their career.

Baroque? Yes, but with Borromini's restrained drama and elegance to temper Bernini's overindulgence.
Four Rivers Fountain,
Piazza Navona, Rome,
Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Perhaps, no example would better exemplify the intermingling of Bernini and Borromini's careers than the story of the Four Rivers Fountain, the visual centerpiece of Rome's elongated Piazza Navona. It is one of Bernini’s most famous works taking him four years to complete. The base of this structure, which supports a Roman version of an Egyptian obelisk, topped with a dove holding an olive branch in its beak--the Pamphili family symbol. It is decorated with four large allegorical figures, representing the major rivers from the four regions of the world: Danube representing Europe, Nile representing Africa, Ganges representing Asia and the Rio de la Plata the Americas. Ironically, this was Borro-mini’s original suggestion, yet the commission for which after many fateful shifts and papal inter-ventions, went to Bernini.

To add further irony, Borromini got the commission to complete the Church of St. Agnese in Agone which forms the backdrop for Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain.
Francesco Borromini was born Francesco Castelli in 1599. He grew up in Bissone, Switzerland (which was then part of the Old Swiss Confederacy). The son of a stonemason, Francesco grew up listening to a constant lullaby of stone cutting pouring out from his father’s workshop. Thus, it surprise no one when he chose stonemasonry as his career later on in his life. Borromini was influenced by the work of Michelangelo and, in turn, influenced the work of late Baroque architect Camillo-Guarino Guarini. The boy was about 10 years old when he went to Milan to study and perfect his craft. Around 1619 he migrated to Rome where he started working for his distant relative Carlo Maderno, often considered one of the fathers of Baroque architecture. Together, Francesco and Maderno, worked at St Peter’s and then on the Palazzo Barberini. Under Maderno’s guidance, his protégé developed excellent technical and drafting skills that would become one of his greatest asset.

A modern day student notebook featuring different aspects of Borromini's version of the Baroque style.
Out of a high regard for St. Charles Borromeo, or his mother’s new family name Brumino from her second marriage, Francesco Castelli changed his name to Borromini. Meanwhile, Maderno passed away in 1629 with the work at Palazzo Barberini still to be completed. It fell to Borromini and Bernini, Borromini’s greatest rival, but also a friendly collaborator on many projects, to complete the task. In beginning his own career as an architect, in 1634 as he was asked to design the church, cloister and monastic buildings of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. It was his first "neighborhood" church, but certainly not his last.

Borromini went on to design the Church of St. Ivo alla Sapienza (left), working on the Dome and Facade periodically from 1640 through 1660. At the same time Borromini designed the church of Maria dei Sette Dolori starting in 1642, the Palazzo Pamphili (Piazza Navona) in 1645, St Giovani in Laterano, and the Villa Falconieri, Frascati during about the same time. And finally, in 1653, near the end of his life, came the commission from the influential (and wealthy) Pamphili family to work on the Church of St. Agnese in Agone, located just down the street on the Pizza Navona from his earlier Pamphili Palace.
Church of St Ivo alla Sapienza
1640-60, dome and facade

Copyright, Jim Lane
Church of St Agnese in Agone, Rome, 1653, Francesco Borromini
Borromini was one of several architects involved in the building of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome. The decision to rebuild the church was taken in 1652 as part of Pope Innocent X’s project to enhance the Piazza Navona, the urban space onto which his family palace faced. The first plans for a Greek Cross church were drawn up by Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo, who relocated the main entrance from the Via di Santa Maria dell'Anima to the Piazza Navona. The foundations were laid and much of the lower level walls had been constructed when the Rainaldis were dismissed due to criticisms of the design. Borromini was appointed in their stead. However, not only were some of his design intentions changed by succeeding architects but the net result is a building which reflects, rather unhappily, a mix of different approaches. In 1656, Innocent X died and the project lost momentum. The following year, Borromini resigned and Carlo Rainaldi was recalled. He made a number of significant changes to Borromini’s design. Further alterations were made by Bernini including the façade pediment. Further large scale statuary and colored marbling were also added. Once more, these were not part of Borromini’s design repertoire.

Tomb of Pope Innocent X, Gian Lorenzo Bernini,
Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome
Always a forlorn man, and despairing of his own underachievement, not to mention a growing conflict with Bernini, Borromini succumbed to deep depression. In July, 1667 after learning that Bernini had been commissioned to design the tomb of Pope Innocent X, Borromini burned all his writings and designs then locked himself into his house. In a fit of despair he threw himself on a ceremonial sword and committed suicide. He lingered in agony an entire day before dying. He was sixty-seven.


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