Bernini and Borromini, Dueling Geniuses
We meet near the Pantheon in an enchanting piazza called Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. We’ll start with a brief explanation of Baroque art and its origins and then discuss the more salient moments of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s life. We’ll then turn our attention to his mischievous marble elephant in the Piazza, used as a base for an ancient obelisk, both seen in the picture here (on the right). Afterwards, we’re off through Rome’s historic center in search of other works by this pilaster of the Baroque era, as well as those by his rival, Francesco Borromini.
Before arriving in Piazza Navona, we will dedicate some words to Francesco Castelli, born near Milan and later known as Borromini. (The hard-working architect was attempting to distinguish himself from numerous stonemasons with the same last name.) “Borromini” may pay 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 devotion: he traveled the entire distance on foot, treating the journey as a pilgrimage. After considering his intense and brooding personality, we will examine his extravagant church, dedicated to Sant’Ivo, in the courtyard of Rome’s old university, La Sapienza.
Piazza Navona is just next door… This picturesque piazza houses three graceful fountains. Bernini created the central one, i Quattro Fiumi (The Four Rivers), for his employer Pope Innocent X. Rumor had it that Innocent X, eager to inaugurate his new fountain, visited Bernini as he was wrapping up the project. When the Pope asked Bernini if he could see the fountain with the water running, Bernini said the fountain was still weeks away from completion. Disappointed, the Pope turned to leave… That’s 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 a masterpiece (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 colonnade that embraces the faithful as they enter the Piazza is clearly a hymn to Greek and Roman temple architecture.
Inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, we’ll admire the Canopy over the High Altar (otherwise known as the Baldacchin). Immediately after Pope Urban VIII nominated the young Bernini Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s, he assigned him this project. A brilliant sculptor (and businessman), Bernini’s knowledge of architecture was limited. So he in turn farmed the job out to Borromini. Using Borromini’s design (and paying him a fraction of what he deserved), Bernini furthermore cheated him out of his share of recognition. (After all, even today, most people credit Bernini with the creation of the Baldacchin!) This low blow would only intensify the rivalry between the two geniuses who are so emblematic of Rome’s Baroque style.