Saturday, August 2, 2008

Geometry vs. Theatricality: A Comparison of Style between Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale

Catharine Killien
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

Standing atop the Quirinal Hill, opposite the imposing and seemingly endless façade of the Quirinal Palace, two small churches act as the most iconic representations of the rival architects who transformed the Roman Baroque era: Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. Although Bernini and Borromini worked at the same time, in the same city, and on many of the same projects, they could not have been more different. While Bernini was charming, ambitious, and well connected with the powerful papal families of Rome, Borromini was antisocial, inflexible, and difficult to work with. Perhaps a result of their diverging personalities, Bernini and Borromini had incredibly different approaches to architecture: Bernini saw architecture as a staging of an experience, and used theatricality and drama in his design to heighten the visitor’s emotional and spiritual response. Borromini, on the other hand, stretched the limits of classical architecture that had made a revival during the Renaissance by distorting pure classical elements to create dynamic, sculptural spaces. These vastly different approaches to design presented two distinct visions of what baroque architecture was, and nowhere is this difference better illustrated than in the quintessential works of the two architects: Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale and Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.
Despite their differences in personality and architectural style, Bernini and Borromini had surprisingly similar upbringings. Both were born at the dawn of the 17th century to successful craftsmen and began their careers very young at a time of vibrant building and patronage of the arts in Rome. Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Naples in 1598 to the successful Mannerist sculptor, Pietro Bernini. Upon coming to Rome at age 7, Bernini’s skill was quickly recognized and he was brought to the Vatican to be mentored by Cardinal Borghese, the pope’s nephew. Under Borghese’s patronage, the child protégé quickly rose to become the preeminent sculptor of Rome. Bernini’s lifelong rival, Francesco Borromini was born in Lombardy in 1599 to a master stone mason, and went to Milan at age 10 to work as a sculptor’s apprentice. At age 16, he moved to Rome, where he began his work as a decorative sculptor at St. Peter’s under the guidance of Carlo Maderno, a distant relative and the chief architect of St. Peter’s basilica. Borromini thrived under Maderno’s instruction, developing excellent technical and drafting skills that would become his most important advantage over Bernini in coming years.

The skilled architectural draftsman and the master sculptor didn’t cross paths until 1624, when Urban VIII became pope and commissioned Bernini to design the baldacchino for St. Peter’s. Bernini and Borromini worked on St. Peter’s together for the next 9 years, a collaboration that was instrumental in the development of each man’s individual architectural style and spurred the rivalry that spanned the next four decades. Although Borromini was responsible for many of the technical aspects and for a large part of the design of the baldacchino, his contributions received little notice and the baroque masterpiece was credited to Bernini. When Borromini’s mentor, Maderno, died in 1629, Urban VIII appointed Bernini the new chief architect for St. Peter’s. Borromini was infuriated by this decision—he felt cheated and was convinced that he deserved the position because he had worked for so long under Maderno and knew the details of St. Peters, while Bernini was simply a young sculptor with no architectural experience. Further angering Borromini, Urban appointed Bernini the architect of Palazzo Barberini, a position previously held by Maderno. Despite the grudge Borromini held over Bernini, Borromini was persuaded to work as an assistant for Bernini, as Bernini acknowledged that he would need Borromini’s technical skill for the completion of the two important commissions. However, as in St. Peter’s, Borromini’s work on Palazzo Barberini received little notice, and thanks to his overwhelming popularity at the time, Bernini received the majority of the credit and money for the project. Reacting to his second snub, Borromini stated, “I do not mind that he [Bernini] has the money, but I do mind that he enjoys the honor of my labors.”[1] Borromini eventually broke with Bernini’s workshop, abandoned his work on St. Peter’s and Palazzo Barberini, and devoted the rest of his career to his own architecture.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
Borromini’s swift exit from two high-profile building projects appeared to his contemporaries to be reckless and self-destructive, but Borromini never showed any regret over his decision. In 1634 Borromini accepted his first independent commission to build a church and monastery for an impoverished Spanish order of Trinitarians who had acquired a small, irregular site on the top of the Quirinal Hill in Rome. The Trinitarians monks initially received financial support from Cardinal Francesco Barberini whose palace was across the street, but Barberini soon lost interest in the project and abandoned his patronage. San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane took over 40 years to complete, but the Trinitarians were well satisfied with Borromini’s final design. Despite the church’s originality and complexity, it was also practical and economical, costing only 11,678 scundi—a bargain by the standards of the time. Borromini accepted no money for the project, desiring only due credit for his work. The finished result is quintessentially Borromini: he was granted full artistic freedom in the design, and thus the church perfectly illustrates his architectural ideals.

A preview of Borromini’s spectacular design for the church can be seen in his design for the cloister at San Carlo, completed in 1635. By pushing the corner columns in towards the center to form a narrow octagon, Borromini successfully transformed a cramped rectangular courtyard into an energetic, vibrant space (Fig. 1). In February 1638, when Borromini was 38 years old, he began work on the church of San Carlo. Borromini faced limitations due to the irregular size and shape of the site: the two bounding streets were at obtuse angles and one corner of the site was cut off by a fountain that Pope Sixtus V had placed several years earlier. Although the asymmetry of the site presented difficulty, Borromini came up with an ingenious solution that reflects his incredible imagination and creativity at a time when the Baroque era was just reaching its climax in Rome.

Fig. 1: cloister, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Geometry permeates every aspect of Borromini’s design for San Carlo, as he believed that geometry reflected the rationality of the world created by God. In his architectural design process, Borromini began with a simple plan, and gradually made it more complex and dynamic through a series of geometric manipulations of adding variations and distorting elements. San Carlo is based entirely on the geometry of the circle and the triangle—the two most elemental shapes in geometry and the most important images in Christianity: the triangle represents the holy trinity and the circle represents the eternity of God. Borromini designed the plan of San Carlo as an ellipse with the entrance and the high altar at opposite ends of the long axis, evoking a distorted Latin cross plan (Fig. 2). To create this oval shape, Borromini placed two equilateral triangles side by side and inscribed circles in each of them to create the outer curve of the ellipse. The geometry of the floor plan is reiterated in the top of the dome, the point of the church closest to heaven, where a dove—the symbol of The Holy Spirit—is enclosed in a triangle surrounded by a circle.

Fig. 2: plan, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Borromini divided the space of the church into three distinct horizontal zones—the wall surface, the continuous entablature above the walls, and the dome floating on top—to create an effect of vertical ascension. Though there appears to be a lack of unity between the different levels, Borromini purposefully created this discontinuity to emphasize the progression from complex to simple geometries. The incredible sculptural treatment of the walls represents significant move away from the flat, crisp surfaces of Renaissance architecture and the plasticity of the surface forms an undulating curvilinear surface that is distinctly Borromini. The eight pairs of columns throughout the lower portion of the church provide essential order and support to the space, but are ingeniously set into the wall so they do not interrupt the dynamic flow of the wall. Above the wall surface, Borromini took a classical element—the entablature—and completely distorted it, giving it a free and vibrant expression (Fig. 3). The entablature runs continuously around the church, acting as a breaking point between the geometry of the wall and the geometry of the dome. While the lower levels appear complex and distorted, the pure oval shape of the dome illustrates that the design of the church is based on simple geometry (Fig. 4). On the interior surface of the dome, a series of complex geometrical shapes fit like pieces of a puzzle and become smaller near the top, making the dome seem taller than it actually is. The incredible progression from the complexity of the walls, to the distorted yet organizing entablature, to the pure oval shape of the dome beautifully illustrates Borromini’s idea of the baroque as something based on the classical architectural elements, but taken to a new level through the free expression of the architect.

Fig. 3: wall surface and entablature, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Fig. 4: dome, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

In order to emphasize the geometry of the architecture, Borromini used relatively little decoration in San Carlo. While Bernini was known for his use of different artistic media to create a theatrical effect in a space, Borromini hoped to deliver the same sense of awe using only architecture. Aside from the altarpieces and the Trinitarian symbol—a red, equal sided cross—that appears throughout the church, the entire space is painted stark white, emphasizing Borromini’s incredible use of light to make the tiny church seem open and free. No windows permeate the wall surface but the church appears full of light due to the seemingly mysterious light sources at the base of the dome and the lantern. The few sculptures that do appear in the church—mostly winged cherubs, Borromini’s favorite motif—serve to bring out the architecture, not overpower it.

Though the church interior was completed in 1641, the façade wasn’t begun until 1665 and construction continued after Borromini’s death in 1667. The highly sculptural concave-convex façade is an incredible expression of the baroque sense of movement and influenced the design of later church facades throughout Rome (Fig. 5). While it is unclear how much of the façade was designed by Borromini, it is known that he planned for a curved façade when he designed the interior of the church in the late 1630s—before a single curved church façade existed in Rome.

San Carlo solidified Borromini’s reputation as a talented architect of unparalleled imagination and creativity. The church incited much talk when it was completed, as nothing quite like it had ever been seen in Rome. Borromini never received another commission that allowed him as much artistic freedom as San Carlo. While many of his later churches—particularly Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza—illustrate his same ideas about geometry and movement, San Carlo was his most famous commission. Following the completion of San Carlo, Borromini fell out of popularity under Alexander VII’s papacy—just when his lifelong rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was coming back into the spotlight.

Fig. 5: facade, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

San Andrea al Quirinale
After a short period of decline under Pope Innocent X, Bernini regained his position as the preeminent sculptor and architect of Rome when Alexander XII rose to the papacy in 1655. In 1658, Bernini was selected by Alexander for the commission of San Andrea al Quirinale, a small Jesuit church atop the Quirinale hill, just a block away from Borromini’s San Carlo. San Andrea was built at the height of the Counter Reformation in Rome when Catholics were trying to bring people back to the church. The patron, Prince Camillo Pampilli, wanted an extravagant church that would show the glory of god, and Bernini delivered. Rather than simply designing a dynamic space, Bernini combined sculpture, painting, dramatic lighting, and architecture together to create a transcendent spiritual experience that aimed to restore people to Catholicism. Like Borromini at San Carlo, Bernini was granted full artistic freedom in his design, and thus San Andrea is a perfect illustration of his belief that through theatricality in design, architecture acts as a staging of an experience.

From the exterior, the rounded and lively entrance of the church acts as a stark contrast against the static Renaissance facades of the neighboring buildings. In true baroque fashion, the exterior uses a combination of convex and concave forms to create a dynamic effect, and the semicircular portico draws visitors inside, welcoming them into the church (Fig. 6). The oval shape of the plan is evident from the exterior, as the curved walls on either side of the portico act as the curtains of a theater, providing a glimpse of the stage beyond.

Fig. 6: exterior, San Andrea al Quirinale

The drama of the church overwhelms the visitor upon entrance, as the majestically ornate high altar comes into view immediately. The plan recalls that of Borromini’s San Carlo but the oval shape is kept pure (Fig. 7). Bernini did not distort any of the geometry of the plan and the oval is clear from the lower level of the church. Furthermore, unlike at San Carlo where the altar is placed at the long axis of the oval, the high altar at San Andrea is placed on the short axis of the oval, necessitating that one walk around the church to fully experience and understand the space—an important aspect of baroque design. The church is tiny by the standards of the day, but its theatricality makes it appear grand. Bernini used a rich palate of materials and colors on the interior to achieve a greater sense of complexity and drama in the space. Pink colored marble inundates the church, creating an opulent vision of splendor (Fig. 8). Enormous square pilasters are placed evenly around the church, drawing the eye toward the high altar.

Fig. 7: plan, San Andrea al Quirinale

Fig. 8: interior, San Andrea al Quirinale

Bernini’s vision of theatricality reaches its climax in the high altar, where he uses painting, sculpture, lighting, and architecture to create an effect of vertical ascension. Depicted in a painting over the altar is the martyrdom of St. Andrew, the namesake of the church. St. Andrew looks up, directing the eye toward Bernini’s masterful sculpture of the cloud born spirit of St. Andrew, ascending into heaven. A hidden window above the altar illuminates the statue, giving life to the sculpted rays of light bursting out from the clouds (Fig. 9). The eye continues upward, past the vibrant sculptures that ring the entablature, along the ribs of the elliptical dome symbolizing rays of sunlight, and finally to the lantern and the image of a dove surrounded by the golden light of heaven (Fig. 10). This incredible sequence from the earthly to the celestial realm is a powerful dramatic effect, recalling Bernini’s vision of architecture as a staging of a religious experience.

Fig. 9: altar, San Andrea al Quirinale

Fig. 10: dome, San Andrea al Quirinale

Bernini’s incredible theatricality in San Andrea would have overwhelmed the visitor with its majesty and drama. Completed in 1672, the church was Bernini’s last major commission and the only work he ever considered perfect. Bernini refused payment for the church, and visited the church every day until he died. Reacting to his magnificent work, Bernini told his son, “I feel a special satisfaction at the bottom of my heart for this one work of architecture. I often come here as a relief from my duties to console myself with my work.”[2]

Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fonante and Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale offer two very different visions of what architecture meant during the Baroque age in the hands of two very different architects. Both men were deeply religious, but expressed their devotion through different architectural styles. While Bernini sought to display the grandeur of god through drama and emotion, Borromini aimed to venerate God through geometry that emphasized the rationality of nature. Borromini was a master of manipulating classical elements and pure geometries to create a dynamic, flowing space. He never used any color in his church design and any sculpture or lighting effects were used to emphasize, not overwhelm, the architecture. The incredible sculptural expression that Borromini achieved in the walls of San Carlo is the epitome of the Baroque sense of movement that would come to influence future architectural design throughout the world. Bernini, on the other hand, tended to use simple forms and more pure, yet dynamic, geometries. To achieve the dramatic and theatrical effect he strived for, he fused painting, sculpture, and architecture to elicit a deeply emotional response from the visitor. Bernini and Borromini were crucial to the development of the Rome we know today, and their rivalry produced some of the greatest artistic works of the 17th century. Perfectly illustrating the incredible though drastically different genius of the two architects, Morrissey states, “Bernini astounded by letting his talent spring from his heart; Borromini by arranging and controlling the wonders of the infinite. Bernini, at heart, was a sculptor who manipulated space. Borromini was an architect who sculpted it.”[3]

[1] Morrissey, 92
[2] Morrissey, 245
[3] Morrissey, 179

Works Cited
Blunt, Anthony. Borromini. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1979.

Conners, Joseph. “ Bernini’s S. Andrea al Quirinale: Payments and Planning,” JSAH, XLI: 1, March 1982.

Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Morrissey, Jake. The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry that Transformed Rome. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Trachtenberg, Marvin, and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture, from Prehistory to Postmodernity, Second Edition. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2002.

Varriano, John. Italian Baroque and Rococo Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.