Mirabilia Urbis: Rome Walking Tours

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Roma Barocca
Day one: Bernini and Borromini, Dueling Geniuses

We meet near the Pantheon in an enchanting piazza called Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The visit starts with a brief explanation of Baroque art and its origins. We then briefly outline GianLorenzo Bernini's biography, his birth in boisterous Naples and his upbringing in Rome. In the piazza where we meet, we'll discuss his mischievous marble elephant, used as a base for an ancient obelisk, both seen in the picture here (left). Afterwards, we're off through Rome's historic center in search of other works by this eminent element of the Baroque era, as well as those by his rival, Francesco Borromini.
Before arriving in Piazza Navona, we must dedicate some time to Bernini's foil. Born Francesco Castelli, near Milan, this hard-working architect changed his last name to Borromini in order to distinguish himself from an extensive crowd of anonymous stonemasons with the last name Castelli. His adopted last name may also be homage to the patron saint of Milan, Charles Borromeo, reflecting Borromini's deeply rooted Catholic sentiments. Even his trip from Milan to Rome when he was 17 was an act of hopeful devotion; he traveled the entire distance on foot, treating the excursion as a pilgrimage. After considering his intense and brooding personality, we will examine his handiwork in the courtyard of Rome's old university, La Sapienza. Borromini's extravagant church, dedicated to Sant'Ivo, commands the courtyard and its facade is pictured here (right).
How could we skip Piazza Navona, which is just next door? This picturesque piazza houses three graceful fountains; Bernini sculpted the central one, I Quattro Fiumi (The Four Rivers), for Pope Innocent X. The story persists that Innocent X, eager to inaugurate his new fountain, called on Bernini when he had nearly finished the fountain. He asked Bernini if he could see the mighty composition with water running through it, Bernini said the fountain was still weeks away from completion. The disappointed Pope had turned to leave when Bernini gave a secret signal--the water was turned on and the sound of four crashing rivers caused Innocent X to turn and stare in marvel. Nearly 400 years later, it is still an unforgettable centerpiece (left) and we, too, could feast our eyes on it for hours.
Instead, we continue our walk, discussing the lives and achievements of our two polar-opposite architects. We cross the river at Ponte Sant'Angelo, an ancient Roman bridge theatrically refurbished by Bernini to celebrate the brief pontificate of Pope Clement IX. Strolling into the Vatican's Piazza San Pietro, we will examine the monumental commission that Bernini planned for Pope Alexander VII. Classical inspiration meets Catholic aspirations: the portico that embraces the faithful as they enter the Piazza is clearly a hymn to Greek and Roman temple fronts.

Next we're off to Saint Peter's Basilica. Among other notable works, it contains one of Borromini's and Bernini's most arduous projects: an undertaking for which the young and inexperienced Bernini, as Chief Architect of Saint Peter's, hired the more experienced Borromini. Having tricked Borromini into designing Saint Peter's spectacular baldacchino, Bernini then cheated him out of his share of fame and fortune. This low blow would only intensify the rivalry between these two geniuses who are so emblematic of the Baroque style.