Francesco Borromini

Francesco Borromini

One of the very prominent figures of the Roman Baroque architecture and a lifelong rival to Bernini was Francesco Borromini. Likewise to Caravaggio, he, too, had a short temper that affected his reputation and career development as his critics would often describe him as neurotic, daring and perfectionist. But this negative personality of Borromini could have stemmed from his jealousy toward Bernini’s higher level of success.

Nevertheless, Borromini had a successful career as an architect in Rome. He was among the greatest artists to be sent to Rome to beautify it and the St. Peter’s Basilica. His style and skill were unique for he had a distinctive eye for designing classical building forms and spatial awareness or rationales that he would often combined with symbolic meanings.

Some of Borromini’s major works include the façade of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Oratory of St. Phillip Neri and the courtyard and façade of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza.

Early Life

Born with the given name, Francesco Castelli, Borromini was born around 1599 in Bissone, Ticino. He was of Swiss descent being born and raised in Bissone, a territorial enclave of the Swiss Confederacy. His father was a stonemason, whom he spent his earliest trainings with. He began as a stonemason before evolving into becoming an architect.

Early Training

Borromini received his Italian training in Milan. Subsequently, he transferred to Rome in 1619 to work for Carlo Maderno as an assistant. The two worked on rebuilding the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Palazzo Barberini. During this time it was presumed that he might have met Bernini already because they were both in Rome working on the basilica.

In fact, at some time in his career, Bernini supervised the young Borromini as he took over Maderno’s project due to his master’s death by 1629. He worked alongside Pietro da Cortona and had shared a successful stint together. However, he felt bitterness toward the fame of Bernini which began the early rivalry between the two so this fueled him to work on his style by taking risks and experimenting.

He experimented with his knowledge of the ancient Roman architecture and the style of Michelangelo. He looked upon Michelangelo as an inspiration for his architectural works. He developed a great ability in forming geometric rationales that he could manipulate them easily as he design buildings. Apparently, this gave him an opportunity to develop his own personal style albeit unconventional.

Major Commissions

Borromini received his first major commission by San Carlino in 1634. This essentially began his independent career and eventual rivalry against Gian Lorenzo Bernini. For the edifices of San Carlino, he had designed them a few number of monasteries and cloisters.

For instance, he built a complex for the Spanish Trinitarians which would be placed at the Quirinal Hill in Rome. It was composed of a cloister and monkish buildings while the construction began in 1638 to 1641. It now became one of his official masterpieces and hence a major art work produced during the early Roman Baroque period. Later on, he directly indicated that the church was a dedication to San Carlo Borromeo.

The construction of the San Carlino church was a display of Borromini’s ability to finding opportunities in crisis. The site that he was given to was a difficult one for it was said to be a corner site and not so spacious. He created a plan that would hold the ground of the church through geometrical interlocks. To this effect, the building would have lower walls on the interior and it should appear as though they are interweaving to depict a cross figure. He combined hexagonal and oval forms to decorate the dome at the center.

Working for the Congregation of the Filippini

Towards the end of 16th century, some architects were commissioned to rebuild the Santa Maria in Vallicella church located at Rome. Borromini was responsible first for decorating the significant offices in the building and oratory for the congregation’s fathers. This oratory is a prayer room in which they could conduct spiritual exercises like musicals and preaching.

In 1629, Paolo Maruscelli was among the first architects to begin the re-construction of the oratory. He devised some plans that were used in 1635 and later on, his role was succeeded by Borromini in 1637. He finished the building and the prayer room became open for private use by 1640. A couple of years after the chief architect added a library to complete the entire commission.

Borromini’s employment with the Oratorians ended in 1650 after getting involved with a series of heated arguments with his colleagues over the building design, construction and its materials. The situation came to the attention of the Fathers which resulted to the termination of Borromini’s contract and then he was replaced by a new architect in 1652.

From 1640-1650

Within this decade, Borromini had been working on the design and construction of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza as well as its courtyard. Plans on the development of this church began in 1632, when he was just starting out in Rome specifically when he was still under the direct supervision of Bernini.

The cramped site served as a challenge for Borromini to maximize the potential perspectives. He later on decided to erect the building at the close-end of Giacomo della Porta’s courtyard. The design showed distinct forms of the dome and of the cochlear tower, which reflected the architect’s idiosyncratic personality. The nave is designed to look in semi-circular fashion by having convex and concave cornices at the ending. He also added some stars and putti in the design plus geometrical forms from the floor, cornice and columns.

1650’s Onward

In 1652, Pope Innocent X was working on project with a goal to improve the overall aesthetic of Piazza Navona. It was an urban site where his Palazzo Pamphili was located nearby. This project involved a small number of artists like Carlo Rainaldi, Girolamo Rainaldi and Francesco Borromini.

When the Rainaldi’s got ejected from the project, Borromini took over their position and he immediately began on devising a revolutionary approach to building the façade. This area had been expanded for him to be able to add some pieces like two bell towers and to extend the borders to the Palazzo Pamphili.

Although Borromini had been having a successful stint in this commission, it was cut short due to the death of Innocent X in 1656. He resigned from the project and Carlo Rainaldi assumed his position as he was re-hired by the project advisors.

Re Magi Chapel

In 1648, Borromini received one of his last major commissions in Rome. He was asked to build the Re Magi Chapel of the College of Propaganda Fide. The chapel was a masterpiece in terms of its spatially and visually unified interiors. It became a relevant piece of Roman architecture, and a worthy competition to Bernini’s.

The construction of the chapel began in 1660 and was finished by five years later. The façade of the building had an elaborate detailing designed with pilasters and seven bays. Meanwhile, the centerpiece which is the bay in a concave form welcomes the visitors as they enter the courtyard and then it the entranceway of the Re Magi Chapel was erected at the left wing while the college area at the right wing.

Borromini’s Illusion of the Space

When he was working on the Palazzo Spada in 1632, he showed great ability in utilizing forced perspective in his designs. It was a unique approach that contributed a lot to the early success of the young architect. It was through this forced perspective technique that he would make shorter corridors against smaller sculptural works, making the corridor appear to be longer that it actually is.

Advanced Years and Death

One of the major achievements of Borromini was his acknowledgement of being a Knight of Christ in 1652, honored by the incumbent Pope of that year. Although he had a highly successful career his reputation was tainted by the prejudices of his critics based on the fact that he was bitter toward Bernini. It is thought that Borromini would destroy his drawings angrily if he felt disappointed by its imperfections.

In 1667, he was under close observation by a servant because he was neurotic or suffering from nervous breakdown. Unfortunately this servant was distracted by whatever reason but this gave Borromini a chance to take away his life by stabbing himself. He got treated immediately and during those times that he was able to recover he wrote his last will and testament. He died on August 3, 1667 at the age of 67.

After his tragic death, he left several unfinished works including a series of engravings for some buildings. His engravings were published six decades later and entitled it as Opus Architectonicum equitis Francisci Boromini.

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