Project Description

Bernini and Borromini in Rome’s Downtown

The fight between Rome’s dueling geniuses was unfair.  The saturnine and asocial Borromini was no match for the gregarious and charismatic Bernini.  But both Bernini and Borromini left innumerable works of art and architecture in Rome’s downtown.

We meet in the enchanting piazza Santa Maria Sopra Minerva just behind the Pantheon.  And there, we’ll tackle a brief introduction to Baroque art.  Then we’ll discuss the life of its most prolific proponent, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  After that, we’ll then turn our attention to the mischievous marble elephant in the Piazza.  Bernini sculpted it as a base for an ancient obelisk (seen here in the picture).  It was also a stab at the Domenican brothers whose monastery stood nearby.  Of course, we’ll talk about that too!  Then we’ll stroll through Rome’s downtown in search of other Baroque masterpieces by Bernini and his rival, Francesco Borromini.

Bernini's humorous elephant protesting the presence of its Domenican neighbors

Saint Ivo alla Sapienza, Borromini’s Masterpiece

We’ll discuss Francesco Borromini, whose last name was originally Castelli.  The hard-working Milanese architect changed it to distinguish himself from numerous stonemasons with the last name.)  “Borromini” may pay homage to the patron saint of Milan, Charles Borromeo, reflecting Borromini’s deeply rooted Catholic sentiments.  Even Borromini’s trip from Milan to Rome when he was 17 years old 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.  The break taking underside of its spire is seen in the picture.

Dueling Baroque Geniuses in Piazza Navona

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 the 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 his workmen a secret signal.  They turned on the water, and the sound of four crashing rivers stopped Innocent X in his tracks!

The photo shows a detail of the Ganges River.  Legend has it that he lifts his hand to protect his sight from the Church of Saint Agnese (whose facade Borromini created).  A good story, but somewhat inexact, since Borromini received his commission after Bernini finished the fountain!  The story does testify however to the rivalry that Bernini and Borromini expressed as they worked in Rome’s downtown.

A river god from Bernini's Four River's Fountain supposedly shields his eyes from Borromini's work, i.e. the facade of Saint Agnese

Bernini vs. Borromini: The Baldacchin in Saint Peter’s Basilica

baroque baldacchin by bernini and borromini!

Continuing our stroll, we’ll discuss 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 that Bernini theatrically refurbished to celebrate the brief pontificate of Pope Clement IX.  In Piazza San Pietro, we will focus on the monumental colonnade that Bernini designed at Pope Alexander VII’s request.  Classical inspiration meets Catholic aspirations: the colonnade that embraces the faithful as they enter the Piazza is a hymn to Greek and Roman temple architecture.

Inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, we’ll admire the Canopy (aka Baldacchin) over the High Altar.  Immediately after nominating the young Bernini Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s, Pope Urban VIII assigned him this project.  While a brilliant sculptor (and businessman), Bernini was less familiar with architecture.  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 era.

Bernini and Borromini in Rome’s Downtown and Elsewhere

If you’re passionate about seeing more Bernini and Borromini in Rome’s downtown, consider the tour Bernini and Borromini on the Quirinal Hill.  Although we focus on a wider range of topics (like the Quirinal during the Empire, late Renaissance town planning, and the importance of infrastructure), Bernini’s magnificent Church of Sant’Andrea is a marvelous foil for Borromini’s austere and forceful Church of San Carlo.

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