Bernini and Borromini, Dueling Geniuses
We meet near the Pantheon in the enchanting piazza Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. We’ll start with a brief introduction to Baroque art and then discuss the more salient moments of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s life. We’ll then turn our attention to the mischievous marble elephant in the Piazza. It was sculpted by Bernini to serve as a base for an ancient obelisk (seen here in the picture). It is also a laugh–and we’ll talk about the joke! After that, we’ll stroll 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.
Francesco Borromini’s last name was really Castelli. (The hard-working Milanese architect changed his last name to distinguish himself from numerous stonemasons with the last name Castelli.) “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.
At that point, 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 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 (seen in the picture) and we, too, could feast our eyes on it for hours.
Instead, we’ll continue our walk and we’ll continue discussing the lives and achievements of our two polar-opposite architects. We’ll cross the Tiber River on the 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 nominating the young Bernini Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s, Pope Urban VIII assigned him this project. A brilliant sculptor (and businessman), Bernini’s knowledge of architecture however was limited. So he farmed the job out to Borromini. Using Borromini’s design (and paying him a fraction of what he deserved), Bernini cheated the timid architect 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.