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Francesco Borromini: An Innovative Baroque Architect

Self-portrait of Francesco Borromini

Self-portrait of Francesco Borromini

Classicism gives way to Baroque

Francesco Borromini was one of the three main architects of the Roman Baroque who changed the face of 17th century Rome from the classicism of the Renaissance and introduced a bold new style in both sacred and secular buildings. Of the three (the other two being Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona) Borromini was probably the most influential as he devoted a greater proportion of his time to architecture, Bernini being known mainly as a sculptor and Cortona as a painter.

Francesco Borromini

Francesco Borromini (real name Castelli) was born on 25th September 1599 at Bissone on Lake Lugano in southern Switzerland. He arrived in Rome in about 1620 where he worked for some time as a stonemason and draughtsman.

His first independent commission came as late as 1634, this being for the church of the monastery of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. However, the building was not finally completed until after Borromini’s death in 1667. The design was a revolutionary one, based on a roughly oval plan and with the walls flowing in a continuous movement of concave and convex shapes. The middle of the lower half of the design is convex but the section immediately above is concave.

The use of the curve was to be Borromini’s trademark, and the feature that most distinguished his work from the classicism of the past.

Bernini also used the curve in his building designs, but he subjected it to the basic Renaissance premise that a design consisted of simple units repeated many times. Borromini rejected this idea in favour of flow and dynamism. There is no point of rest in his buildings, with the parts being related in ways that are both subtle and relentless and which convey a sense of buoyancy and rhythm.

Borromini’s conceptions owed a lot to his long apprenticeship as a draughtsman and a stonemason. He was keenly interested in geometrical shapes and he knew what was and was not technically possible in terms of shaping pieces of stone.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome

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Three important commissions

In 1637 Borromini won a competition to design an oratory for the brethren of the Congregation of St Philip Neri, the building to comprise a complex of a refectory, sacristy, library and living quarters next door to the church of the Order. The work was completed by 1650 and is notable for its façade which again incorporates many curves and unusual mouldings round the windows, although Borromini worked in brick rather than stone on this occasion.

His genius is seen to best effect in what was possibly his greatest work, the church of St Ivo the Wise in Rome, begun in 1642 and completed in 1660. The plan is an intricate star shape at the end of a long arcaded courtyard. It is highly dramatic in conception, with giant pilasters all the way round. The wall surfaces have a continuous and unbroken pattern that alternates between convex and concave. Borromini’s inventiveness is best seen as one looks upwards to a lantern topped by a spiral shape on which the final cross is mounted. Architecture seems to meld into sculpture in a way that is far from classical and has more in common with the work of the 19th/20th century Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.

In 1653 Pope Innocent X had a major disagreement with Carlo and Girolamo Rainaldi, who were working on The Church of St Agnes in the Piazza Navona. The Rainaldis were dismissed and Borromini was called in to take over, thus being forced to work on a half-completed project that would not have started the same way had he been in charge from day one. However, that did stop him from adjusting the design to his own preferences, so that a formal Greek cross design acquired curves, moulded details and a high-drummed dome that look today as though they were always intended to be part of the plan.

The Church of St Ivo the Wise, Rome

The Church of St Ivo the Wise, Rome

His contribution and legacy

Francesco Borromini’s originality sometimes fell over into eccentricity and he might well have been mentally unbalanced at various times in his life. Giovanni Passeri, in his “Lives of the painters, sculptors and architects who practiced in Rome”, stated that at the time of his death by suicide on 2nd August 1667 Borromini was “afflicted by a fever which gave signs of some violence and malignance”. He was, by all accounts, not an easy man to deal with.

However, although Borromini's approach to classicism was highly personal, he never allowed his imagination to destroy the sense that an architectural design consists of the repetition of simple units. The difference between his work and that of the classicists was that his units were not quite so simple

Despite his faults, Francesco Borromini left behind some wonderful and intriguing buildings that, whatever one’s opinion of the Baroque as an artistic and cultural movement, always involve and challenge the viewer. Unlike the Mannerist buildings of the previous century, which always obeyed the rules of classical proportion and were often dull and lifeless, those of Borromini appealed to the emotions, just as did the statues and paintings of the same period.

Church of St Agnes, Piazza Navona, Rome

Church of St Agnes, Piazza Navona, Rome

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