Bernini and Borromini – the battle for the Baroque


Most of my knowledge of the art and history of Italy focuses around Florence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For this article, I am delighted to move away to the city of Rome in the seventeenth century. The inspiration for this work was a Sky Arts documentary entitled ‘The Dark Baroque’, focusing on the life and work of Francesco Borromini, a man about whom I knew virtually nothing. After watching the programme several times, I was drawn to a number of aspects of his story, around which this article crystallises.

He co-existed, and I choose that word carefully, with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the greats of the baroque art movement, whose work as a sculptor was familiar to me. What I did not realise was the huge impact he had on the urban fabric of Rome as it exists today. I am a tad ashamed to admit I have never properly visited Rome and therefore have not seen with my own eyes the sights I will shortly begin to describe. I write these articles for many reasons; this one will serve as a travel guide when I eventually scratch this particular itch and immerse myself in the splendour of the Italian capital.

Bernini and Borromini, to be euphemistic, had a tricky co-existence and their rivalry is fascinating. It leads us to an examination of the psyche of Borromini, who seems a perfect example of a species to which I am always drawn – the troubled genius. Borromini is not the only character with a forceful ego in our story, however, which leads to a huge area of Italian political history which I was keen to explore – the papacy. Florence gave us the Medici but, in Rome, almost without interruption, the power source was the leader of the Holy Roman Empire. We shall meet three successive popes who influenced the architecture of Baroque Rome and whose fluctuating favours impacted upon the relative successes of Bernini and Borromini.

As with previous articles, I shall now outline the contents of the material I will present to you, allowing those who do not want to progress in a linear fashion to proceed directly to what it is that you find most of interest. To begin with, I shall present biographies of both Bernini and Borromini. These focus on the patronage they received, with particular regard to how successive popes conferred favour on one or other of the architects. We shall consider the list of works they have left us and examine how their styles developed as individuals whilst diverging one from the other. With Borromini, we learn how, particularly in the latter stages of his career, the toll taken on his mental health had an increasingly destructive influence on his output.

Now it is time to introduce the three popes involved in our story – Urban VIII, Innocent X and Alexander VII. We learn the path that took each to the highest ecclesiastical office, examine their political and artistic legacy and focus on the favour and commissions they bestowed upon one or other of our architects.

We then pause to take an overview of the Roman Baroque, a style essentially invented by our two proponents, and to consider where the Roman style fits into the wider picture of the Baroque as an art movement.

Next, we examine the rivalry that existed between Bernini and Borromini, trying to discover why it began, what sustained and indeed deepened the schism and the ways in which their competitive natures were manifest. It becomes clear as we do so that their architectural styles were clearly distinct from one another and to illustrate this we take an in depth look at two buildings only a few hundred metres apart which exemplify this – San Carlo alle Quattro Fontana, Borromini’s first major commission, and Sant’Andrea al Quirinale a masterpiece by Bernini.

But the two did have periods during which they worked alongside each other. We consider two of these projects in more detail; the Palazzo Barberini and the Baldacchino in the basilica of Saint Peter’s. The latter project is best understood in the context of the overall programme to modernise the greatest building in Christendom, a project overseen by Bernini for fifty years, beginning in 1629 and encompassing the rule of six popes. There is no example in history of such continuous and continually innovative creativity, on such a scale, on a single project, over such a long period, by a single artist; unsurprisingly, we shall conclude our studies here.

I hope you enjoy reading about, and looking at, a series of stunning architectural works, created under fascinating circumstances by two very different individuals whose impact can still be seen at every turn in the Eternal City.

Biography of Bernini

Self portrait 1623, Galleria Borghese, Rome

Gian Lorenzo (or Gianlorenzo) Bernini (7 December 1598 – 28 November 1680) was both a major figure in the world of architecture and the leading sculptor of his age, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. As one scholar has commented, “What Shakespeare is to drama, Bernini may be to sculpture: the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful …” In addition, he was a painter (mostly small canvases in oil) and a man of the theatre: he wrote, directed and acted in plays for which he designed stage sets and theatrical machinery. He also produced designs for a wide variety of decorative art objects, including lamps, tables and mirrors.

As an architect and city planner, he designed secular buildings, churches, chapels, and public squares, as well as massive works combining both architecture and sculpture, especially elaborate public fountains and funerary monuments and a whole series of temporary structures (in stucco and wood) for funerals and festivals. His broad technical versatility, boundless compositional inventiveness and sheer skill in manipulating marble ensured that he would be considered a worthy successor of Michaelangelo, far outshining other sculptors of his generation. His talent extended beyond the confines of sculpture to a consideration of the setting in which it would be situated; his ability to synthesise sculpture, painting, and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole has been termed by art historians the “unity of the visual arts”.

Bernini was born on 7 December 1598 in Naples to Angelica Galante, a Neapolitan, and Mannerist sculptor Pietro Bernini, originally from Florence. He was the sixth of their thirteen children and was recognised as a prodigy when he was only eight years old by his father, who was a constant encouragement to him. In 1606 his father received a papal commission to contribute a marble relief in the Cappella Paulina of Santa Maria Maggiore and moved from Naples to Rome, taking his entire family with him and continuing in earnest the training of his son Gian Lorenzo.

Several extant works are, by general scholarly consensus, collaborative efforts by both father and son: they include the Faun Teased by Putti (c. 1615, Metropolitan Museum, New York), and Boy with a Dragon (c. 1616–17, Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Sometime after the arrival of the Bernini family in Rome, word about the great talent of the boy Gian Lorenzo got around and he soon caught the attention of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew to the reigning pope, Paul V, who spoke of the boy genius to his uncle. Bernini was therefore presented before Pope Paul V, curious to see if the stories about Gian Lorenzo’s talent were true. The boy improvised a sketch of Saint Paul for the marvelling pope, and this was the beginning of the pope’s attention on this young talent.

Boy with a Dragon (c1617)

It was in this world of 17th-century Rome and the international religious-political power which resided there that Bernini created his greatest works. Bernini’s works are therefore often characterised as perfect expressions of the spirit of the assertive, triumphal but self-defensive Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic Church.

Partnership with Scipione Borghese. Under the patronage of the extravagantly wealthy and most powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the young Bernini rapidly rose to prominence as a sculptor. Adapting the classical grandeur of Renaissance sculpture and the dynamic energy of the Mannerist period, Bernini forged a new, distinctly Baroque conception for religious and historical sculpture, powerfully imbued with dramatic realism, stirring emotion and dynamic, theatrical compositions. In addition, he possessed the ability to depict highly dramatic narratives with characters showing intense psychological states, but also to organise large-scale sculptural works that convey a magnificent grandeur.

His reputation was definitively established by four masterpieces, executed between 1619 and 1625, all now displayed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome:—

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius (1619)

The Rape of Proserpina (1621-22)

Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625)

David (1623-24)

By common agreement, these works inaugurated a new era in the history of European sculpture.

Papal artist – the pontificate of Urban VIII. In 1621, Pope Paul V Borghese was succeeded on the throne of St. Peter by another admiring friend of Bernini’s, Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, who became Pope Gregory XV. It was he who bestowed upon Bernini the honorific rank of ‘Cavaliere,’ the title with which for the rest of his life the artist was habitually referred. In 1623 came the ascent to the papal throne of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini as Pope Urban VIII, and henceforth (until Urban’s death in 1644) Bernini enjoyed near monopolistic patronage from the Barberini pope and family; Urban saw Bernini as a reincarnation of Michaelangelo. Although he did not fare as well during the reign (1644–55) of Innocent X, under Innocent’s successor, Alexander VII (1655–67), Bernini once again gained pre-eminent artistic domination and continued in the successive pontificate to be held in high regard by Clement IX during his short reign (1667–69).

Under Urban VIII’s patronage, Bernini’s horizons rapidly and widely broadened: he was not just producing sculpture for private residences, but playing the most significant artistic (and engineering) role on the city stage, as sculptor, architect, and urban planner. His official appointments also testify to this – curator of the papal art collection, director of the papal foundry at Castel Sant’Angelo, commissioner of the fountains of Piazza Navona. Such positions gave Bernini the opportunity to demonstrate his versatile skills throughout the city. To great protest from older, experienced master architects, he, with virtually no architectural training to his name, was appointed Chief Architect of St Peter’s in 1629, upon the death of Carlo Maderno. From then on, Bernini’s work and artistic vision would be placed at the symbolic heart of Rome.

Bernini’s artistic pre-eminence under Urban VIII and Alexander VII meant he was able to secure the most important commissions in the Rome of his day, namely, the various massive embellishment projects of the newly finished Saint Peter’s basilica, completed under Pope Paul V with the addition of Maderno’s nave and facade and finally re-consecrated by Pope Urban VIII on 18 November 1626, after 100 years of planning and building. Within the basilica he was responsible for the Baldacchino, the decoration of the four piers under the cupola, the Cathedra Petri in the apse, the tomb monument of Matilda of Tuscany, the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the right nave, and the decoration (floor, walls and arches) of the new nave. We shall look closely at his role in Saint Peter’s later in this article. Despite this busy engagement with large works of public architecture, Bernini was still able to devote himself to his sculpture, especially portraits in marble, but also large statues such as the life-size Saint Bibiana (1624, Church of Santa Bibiana, Rome). Bernini’s portraits show his ever increasing ability to capture the utterly distinctive personal characteristics of his sitters, as well as his ability to achieve in cold white marble almost painterly-like effects that render with convincing realism the various surfaces involved: human flesh, hair, fabric of varying type, metal, etc. These portraits included a number of busts of Urban VIII himself, the family bust of Francesco Barberini and most notably, the busts of Scipione Borghese – the second of which had been rapidly created by Bernini once a flaw had been found in the marble of the first.

Santa Bibiana
Urban VIII (1637) Palazzo Barberini
Francesco Barberini (1623) National Gallery of Art, Washington
Two busts of Scipione Borghese (1632) Galleria Borghese

Beginning in the late 1630s, now known in Europe as one of the most accomplished portraitists in marble, Bernini also began to receive royal commissions from outside Rome, for subjects such as Cardinal Richelieu of France, Francesco I d’Este, the powerful Duke of Modena, Charles I of England and his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. The sculpture of Charles I was produced in Rome from a triple portrait executed by Van Dyck, that survives today in the British Royal Collection. The bust of Charles was lost in the Whitehall Palace fire of 1698 (though its design is known through contemporary copies and drawings) and that of Henrietta Maria was not undertaken due to the outbreak of the English Civil War.

Temporary eclipse and resurgence under Innocent X. In 1644, with the death of Pope Urban with whom Bernini had been so intimately connected and the ascent to power of the fierce Barberini-enemy Pope Innocent X Pamphili, Bernini’s career suffered a major, unprecedented eclipse, which was to last four years. This had not only to do with Innocent’s anti-Barberini politics but also to Bernini’s role in the disastrous project of the new bell towers for Saint Peter’s basilica, designed and supervised entirely by Bernini.

Although he received no personal commissions from Innocent or the Pamphili family in the early years of the new papacy, Bernini did not lose his former positions granted to him by previous popes. Innocent X maintained Bernini in all of the official roles given to him by Urban, including that of chief Architect of Saint Peter’s. It is not without reason that Pope Alexander VII once quipped, “If one were to remove from Saint Peter’s everything that had been made by the Cavalier Bernini, that temple would be stripped bare.”

When, in 1648, Bernini won, in controversial circumstances, the Pamphili commission for a prestigious fountain in Piazza Navona, this marked the end of his disgrace and the beginning of yet another glorious chapter in his life, ushered in by the unqualified success of the marvellously delightful and technically ingenious Four Rivers Fountain, featuring a heavy ancient obelisk placed over a void created by a cavelike rock formation placed in the centre of an ocean of exotic sea creatures.

Four rivers fountain, designed 1651, Piazza Navona

Bernini’s boundless creativity continued as before, seeing the creation of new types of funerary monument were designed, such as, in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with the seemingly floating medallion, hovering in the air for the deceased nun Maria Raggi.

Memorial to Maria Raggi (1647-1653), Santa Maria sopra Minerva

One of the most accomplished and celebrated works in this period was the Cornaro Family Chapel in the small Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Vittoria showcasing Bernini’s ability to integrate sculpture, architecture, fresco, stucco, and lighting into “a marvellous whole”. The central focus of the Chapel is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa depicting the so-called “transverberation” of Spanish nun and saint-mystic, Teresa of Avila. Bernini presents the spectator with a theatrically vivid portrait, in gleaming white marble, of the swooning Teresa and the quietly smiling angel, who delicately grips the arrow piercing the saint’s heart. On either side of the chapel the artist places (in what can only strike the viewer as theatre boxes), portraits in relief of various members of the Cornaro family – the Venetian family memorialised in the chapel, including Cardinal Federico Cornaro who commissioned the chapel from Bernini – who are in animated conversation among themselves, presumably about the event taking place before them. The result is a complex but subtly orchestrated architectural environment providing the spiritual context (a heavenly setting with a hidden source of light) that suggests to viewers the ultimate nature of this miraculous event.

Cornaro chapel (1647-52)

Nonetheless, during Bernini’s lifetime and in the centuries following until this very day, Bernini’s Saint Teresa has been accused of crossing a line of decency by sexualising the visual depiction of the saint’s experience, to a degree that no artist, before or after Bernini, dared to do: in depicting her at an impossibly young chronological age, as an idealised delicate beauty, in a semi-prostrate position with her mouth open and her legs splayed-apart, her wimple coming undone, with prominently displayed bare feet (Discalced Carmelites, for modesty, always wore sandals with heavy stockings) and with the seraph “undressing” her by (unnecessarily) parting her mantle to penetrate her heart with his arrow. Matters of decorum aside, Bernini’s Teresa was still an artistic tour de force that incorporates all of the multiple forms of visual art and technique that Bernini had at his disposal, including hidden lighting, thin gilded beams, recessive architectural space, secret lens, and over twenty diverse types of coloured marble: these all combine to create the final artwork—”a perfected, highly dramatic and deeply satisfying seamless ensemble”.

Embellishment of Rome under Alexander VII. Upon his accession to the Chair of Saint Peter, Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655–1667) began to implement his extremely ambitious plan to transform Rome into a magnificent world capital by means of systematic, bold (and costly) urban planning. In so doing, he brought to fruition the long, slow recreation of the urban glory of Rome – the “renovatio Romae” – that had begun in the fifteenth century under the Renaissance popes. Over the course of his pontificate, Alexander commissioned many large-scale architectural changes in the city – indeed, some of the most significant ones in the city’s recent history and for years to come – choosing Bernini as his principal collaborator (though other architects, especially Pietro da Cortona, were also involved). Thus commenced another extraordinarily prolific and successful chapter in Bernini’s career. Bernini’s major commissions during this period include the piazza in front of Saint Peter’s basilica and, within the basilica and the Vatican, systematic rearrangements and majestic embellishment of either empty or aesthetically undistinguished space that exist as he designed them to the present day and have become indelible icons of the splendour of the papal precincts.

Not all works during this era were on such a large scale. Indeed, the commission Bernini received to build the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale for the Jesuits was relatively modest in physical size (though great in its interior chromatic splendour), a commission which Bernini executed completely free of charge. Sant’Andrea shared with the Saint Peter’s piazza – unlike the complex geometries of his rival Borromini – a focus on basic geometric shapes, circles and ovals to create spiritually intense buildings. Equally, Bernini moderated the presence of colour and decoration within these buildings, focussing visitors’ attention on these simple forms that underpinned the building.

Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (1658-70)

Visit to France and service to King Louis XIV. At the end of April 1665, and still considered the most important artist in Rome, if indeed not in all of Europe, Bernini was forced by political pressure (from both the French court and Pope Alexander VII) to travel to Paris to work for King Louis XIV, who required an architect to complete work on the royal palace of the Louvre. Bernini would remain in Paris until mid-October.

But things soon turned sour. Bernini presented finished designs for the façade, which were rejected on the level of physical security and comfort (such as the location of the latrines). It is also indisputable that there was an interpersonal conflict between Bernini and the young French king, each one feeling insufficiently respected by the other. Bernini failed to forge significant friendships at the French court. His frequent negative comments on various aspects of French culture, especially its art and architecture, did not go down well, particularly in juxtaposition to his praise for the art and architecture of Italy (especially Rome); he said that a painting by Guido Reni, the Annunciation altarpiece (then in the Carmelite convent, now the Louvre Museum), was “alone worth half of Paris.”

Guido Reni ‘Annunciation’ (1629), Louvre, Paris

Later years and death. Bernini remained physically and mentally vigorous and active in his profession until just two weeks before his death, which came as a result of a stroke. The pontificate of his old friend, Clement IX, was too short (barely two years) to accomplish more than the dramatic refurbishment by Bernini of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, while the artist’s elaborate plan, under Clement, for a new apse for the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore came to an unpleasant end in the midst of public uproar over its cost and the destruction of ancient mosaics that it entailed. The last two popes of Bernini’s life, Clement X and Innocent XI, were both not especially close or sympathetic to Bernini and not particularly interested in financing works of art and architecture, especially given the disastrous conditions of the papal treasury.

In  his last two years, Bernini supervised the restoration of the historic Palazzo della Cancelleria, a direct commission from Pope Innocent XI. The latter commission is outstanding confirmation of both Bernini’s continuing professional reputation and good health of mind and body even in advanced old age, inasmuch as the pope had chosen him over any number of talented younger architects plentiful in Rome.

Shortly after the completion of this final project, Bernini died in his home on 28 November 1680 and was buried, with little public fanfare, in the simple, unadorned Bernini family vault, along with his parents, in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Though an elaborate funerary monument had once been planned, it was never built and Bernini remained with no permanent public acknowledgement of his life and career in Rome until 1898 when, on the anniversary of his birth, a simple plaque and small bust was affixed to the face of his home on the Via della Mercede, proclaiming “Here lived and died Gianlorenzo Bernini, a sovereign of art, before whom reverently bowed popes, princes, and a multitude of peoples.”

Architecture. Bernini’s architectural works include sacred and secular buildings and sometimes their urban settings and interiors. He made adjustments to existing buildings and designed new constructions. Among his most well known works are:

  • Santa Bibiana (1624-26)
  • Piazza San Pietro (1656–67) – the piazza and colonnades in front of Saint Peter’s
  • Interior decoration of the basilica.
  • Palazzo Barberini (from 1630) on which he worked with Borromini
  • Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio, started 1650)
  • Palazzo Chigi (started 1664)
  • Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (from 1658)

Fountains. True to the decorative dynamism of Baroque which loved the aesthetic pleasure and emotional delight afforded by the sight and sound of water in motion, among Bernini’s most gifted and applauded creations were his Roman fountains, which were both utilitarian public works and personal monuments to their patrons, papal or otherwise.

These include:

  • The ‘Barcaccia’ (commissioned in 1627, finished 1629) at the foot of the Spanish Steps
  • Fontana del Tritone
  • Fontana delle Api for the Barberini (sometimes attributed to Borromini)
  • Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona
Barcaccia Fountain

Tomb monuments and other works. Another major category of Bernini’s activity was that of the tomb monument, a genre on which his distinctive new style exercised a decisive and long-enduring influence.

Included in this category are his tombs for:

  • Popes Urban VIII and Alexander VII (both in St. Peter’s Basilica)
  • Matilda of Canossa (St. Peter’s Basilica)
  • Cardinal Domenico Pimental (Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome, design only)

Among his smaller commissions, the Elephant and Obelisk is a sculpture located near the Pantheon, in the Piazza della Minerva, in front of the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pope Alexander VII decided that he wanted a small ancient Egyptian obelisk (that was discovered beneath the piazza) to be erected on the same site, and in 1665 he commissioned Bernini to create a sculpture to support the obelisk. A popular anecdote concerns the elephant’s smile. To find out why it is smiling, legend has it, the viewer must examine the rear end of the animal and notice that its muscles are tensed and its tail is shifted to the left as if it were defecating. The animal’s rear is pointed directly at one of the headquarters of the Dominican Order, housing the offices of its Inquisitors as well as the office of Father Giuseppe Paglia, a Dominican Friar, who was one of the main antagonists of Bernini, as a final salute and last word.

Paintings and drawings. Bernini would have studied painting as a normal part of his artistic training begun in early adolescence under the guidance of his father, Pietro, in addition to some further training in the studio of the Florentine painter, Cigoli. His earliest activity as a painter was probably no more than a sporadic diversion practiced mainly in his youth, until the mid-1620s, that is, the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII (reigned 1623–1644) who ordered Bernini to study painting in greater earnest because the pontiff wanted him to decorate the Benediction Loggia of Saint Peter’s. The latter commission was never executed most likely because the required large-scale narrative compositions were simply beyond Bernini’s ability as a painter. According to his early biographers, Baldinucci and Domenico Bernini, Bernini completed at least 150 canvases, mostly in the decades of the 1620s and 30s, but currently there are no more than 35–40 surviving paintings that can be confidently attributed to his hand. The extant, securely attributed works are mostly portraits, seen close up and set against an empty background, employing a confident, indeed brilliant, painterly brushstroke (similar to that of his Spanish contemporary Velasquez), free from any trace of pedantry, and a very limited palette of mostly warm, subdued colours with deep chiaroscuro. His work was immediately sought after by major collectors. Most noteworthy among these extant works are several, vividly penetrating self portraits (all dating to the mid 1620s – early 1630s), especially that in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, purchased during Bernini’s lifetime by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici. Bernini’s Apostles Andrew and Thomas in London’s National Gallery is the sole canvas by the artist whose attribution, approximate date of execution (circa 1625) and provenance (the Barberini Collection, Rome) are securely known.

As for Bernini’s drawings, about 350 still exist; but this represents a minuscule percentage of the drawings he would have created in his lifetime; these include rapid sketches relating to major sculptural or architectural commissions, presentation drawings given as gifts to his patrons and aristocratic friends, and exquisite, fully finished portraits, such as that of Scipione Borghese.

Red chalk drawing (1632) Morgan Library, New York

Rivals. Bernini’s rivals in architecture were, above all, Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona. Early in their careers they had all worked at the same time at the Palazzo Barberini, initially under Carlo Maderno and, following his death, under Bernini. Later on, however, they were in competition for commissions, and fierce rivalries developed, particularly between Bernini and Borromini.

Biography of Borromini

Francesco Borromini, born Francesco Castelli (25 September 1599 – 2 August 1667) was an Italian architect from the modern Swiss canton of Ticono who, with his contemporaries Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona was a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque architecture. Later, after he had established himself in Rome, he called himself Borromini, which was a name used in his mother’s family, but which may also have been in deference to Saint Carlo Borromeo and his nephew Cardinal Federico.

A keen student of the architecture of Michaelangelo and the ruins of Antiquity, Borromini developed an inventive and distinctive, if somewhat idiosyncratic, architecture employing manipulations of Classical architectural forms, geometrical rationales in his plans and symbolic meanings in his buildings. He seems to have had a sound understanding of structures, which perhaps Bernini and Cortona, who were principally trained in other areas of the visual arts, lacked. His soft lead drawings are particularly distinctive. He appears to have been a self-taught scholar, amassing a large library by the end of his life. He lived in a house which he filled with a thousand books and all kinds of curiosities, like snail shells, mice, sea shells, a horse’s head. These would shape his architecture, which sprang from nature, employing curves rather than straight lines.

Borromini was related to Domenico Fontana and Carlo Maderno, both of whom had moved to Rome and established themselves as the most successful papal architects of the last decades of the sixteenth and the first of the seventeenth centuries, working for Sixtus V (1585-90) and for Paul V (1605-21) respectively. He was trained as a stone mason in the Milan cathedral, for ten years, under the supervision of Andrea Biffi. In 1619, he went to Rome, where he worked first in Saint Peter’s workshop headed by Maderno. After Maderno’s death, Bernini became architect of Saint Peter’s and, while Borromini worked for a time under Bernini, they soon became rivals.

Borromini spent the last years of his life in completing some unfinished building projects:

  • Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
  • The interior of San Giovanni in Laterano
  • San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Early training and architectural development. Borromini reached Rome at the end of a period during which Roman architecture had been almost dormant. Arriving in 1619, Rome had a major impact on Borromini. His plan from the beginning was to be an architect. This in itself was a challenge but Borromini aimed higher, to convince others that his vision was the one. However, it was as a decorative sculptor rather than as a stonemason or a builder that he first obtained work as an assistant to a relative, Leone Garovo, who was engaged in the decoration of the portico of Saint Peter’s under Maderno, for whom he worked till the older architect’s death in 1629 and through whom he established his reputation, first as a decorative sculptor and then as an architect.

At Saint Peter’s he was engaged in ironwork, and the wrought-iron gates to the Cappella del Santissima Sacramento are from his designs. The most remarkable work of sculpture with which he was connected at this time is the Fontana delle Api in the Palazzo Barberini, which has also been attributed to Bernini.

In the same years he developed his astonishing ability as an architectural draughtsman, becoming Maderno’s most important assistant. Maderno, who was old and in bad health, began to allow him to design details himself and to make contributions to his plans. In 1623, as a culmination to this development, he was allowed by Maderno to design the lantern on the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle.

Borromini had been 15 years in Rome without securing major patronage and decided to go independent. This is now when he branded himself as Borromini and set out to be different from Bernini in style, architecturally and personally through his appearance and personality. He sought another kind of patronage – small religious orders trying to spread the message of the Catholic church and looking for architects. To curry favour, he worked for them for free at times. The freedom allowed him to express himself; it became his manifesto.

In the last years of Maderno’s life, Borromini was responsible for directing the work on the major commission on which he was engaged, the building of the Palazzo Barberini for the newly elected pope, and here also he made positive contributions, as did Bernini.

In 1637, eight years after Maderno’s death, Borromini was called in to complete the decoration of the church of Santa Lucia in Selci, which Maderno had rebuilt between 1605 and 1619. His work there shows a few personal touches, such as the cornice in which the eggs of the egg-and-tongue motif are replaced by cherubs’ heads, a trick which he was to use many years later on the outside of Sant’Ivo della Sapienza.

He quarrelled with many of his patrons and on several occasions threw up commissions, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because he was threatened with dismissal. On one occasion in 1649 he caused his workmen to beat up a man whom he found tampering with the stonework of San Giovanni in Laterano, to such effect that the man died, and it was only owing to the intervention of the pope that the architect was saved from severe punishment. He was so frightened that other architects would steal his ideas that just before his death he destroyed a great part of his unexecuted designs.

Borromini’s mind became unsettled towards the end of his life and it can have been no surprise to his few friends when he finally took his own life. But this intensely strained and nervous side of his character was accompanied by a passionate and total devotion to his art. He cared nothing for the things of the world and, according to his early biographers, often refused to take money in order to keep complete freedom in directing the buildings of which he was in charge.

Borromini began with a simple plan and gradually elaborated it by introducing variations, replacing straight lines with curves, and then making those curves more complex till the final refinement of movement and space was attained. We can trace his steps along this path in his designs for San Carlo and the Palazzo Carpegna.

The contrast between Bernini and Borromini appears clearly if we examine the patrons for whom they worked. Bernini began as the infant prodigy discovered by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Soon after the election of urban VIII in 1623 he was commissioned with important papal works and his favour continued unabated till the pope’s death in 1644. During this pontificate Borromini received a single public appointment, and that not directly from the pope: he was made architect to the university of the Sapienza, building the church of Sant’Ivo.

For the most part, he worked for religious orders, including the Oratorians, to whom he was introduced by a priest, Virgilio Spada, who was to help him more than any other patron in his career. When Urban VIII died in 1644, Spada became artistic adviser to his successor, Innocent X (Pamphili). As we shall see, Innocent was determined to reverse the policy of his predecessor in all fields, including the arts, and as a result Bernini found himself pushed aside, and Spada was able to bring his favourite to the notice of the pope. Through his agency Borromini received the most important commission of his career, to restore and remodel the interior of San Giovanni in Laterano. At about the same time, he was made Architect of the College of Propaganda Fide, a post which Bernini had previously held. However, within a few years Bernini gradually recaptured the favour of the pope, partly because of Borromini’s constitutional inability to play the courtier, and, with the election of Alexander VII (Chigi) in 1655, he was fully reinstated. Borromini was allowed to complete the works that he had in hand – Sant’Ivo, Propaganda Fide and the Lateran – but he never received any major commissions from Alexander.

Patrons were well satisfied by Borromini’s approach to architecture, which despite the originality and complexity of his buildings, was both practical and economical. His works included:

  • The church and monastery of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, for a Spanish Order of Trinitarians
  • Santa Lucia in Selci and Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori for the Augustinian nuns
  • The dome and campanile of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte for the Minims
  • The church of San Giovanni di Dio or San Giovanni Calabita (never executed) for the Padri Benefratelli who ran a hospital on the Isola Teverina
  • The Oratory built for the order founded by San Philip Neri
  • The private patrons who commissioned him to build palaces or villas were distinguished – the Spada, the Carpegna, the Falconieri, the Giustiniani, the del Bufalo. With the exception, for a short time, of the Pamphili, he was spurned by the much richer and more powerful papal families.

Borromini worked on a small scale, usually in brick and stucco, but some times in travertine; he never used colour, and all the interiors of his churches are painted white; if he introduces sculpture, it is incorporated in the decoration of the building; and the light is used to emphasise the space, not to create dramatic contrasts. He attains his effects by purely architectural means, employing the utmost inventiveness. His spaces flow into one another; walls are curved or articulated in depth by columns and niches; he uses novel forms of arches, sometimes twisting them in three dimensions, and he invents fantastic forms for his domes, belfries and lanterns. The result is an architecture in which the essentially Baroque feature of movement is given its most brilliant expression, undisturbed by the distractions of colour, richness of materials or drama. Whilst one looks at Bernini’s buildings with the eyes; one feels Borromini’s with the whole body.

Borromini’s works in Rome

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontaine. We look closely at this building in a later section.

Oratory of the Chiesa Nuova. In the late sixteenth century, the Congregation of the Filippini (also known as the Oratorians) rebuilt the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (known as the Chiesa Nuova) in central Rome. In the 1620s, on a site adjacent to the church, the Fathers commissioned designs for their own residence and for an oratory in which to hold their spiritual exercises.

The sacristy was begun in 1629 and was in use by 1635. After a substantial benefaction in January 1637, Borromini was appointed as architect. By 1640, the oratory was in use, a taller and richer clock tower was accepted, and by 1643, the relocated library was complete. The striking brick curved facade adjacent to the church entrance has an unusual pediment and does not entirely correspond to the oratory room behind it.

The Oratory was created by Neri as a safe place for orphans to play and learn music and Borromini elected to reflect this in his design of the façade, intended to represent a central chest and two outstretched welcoming arms. Borromini’s desire to change the way peopled lived through his architecture is a little studied and important aspect of his work. This desire to change people through his designs was thwarted, ironically, by the fact that he was controlled by his patrons. Sadly, most of his projects were never fully realised in the ways he wanted.

The white oratory interior resembles a box with round edges, simple yet complex. Borromini’s interest in music is reflected in him designing spaces dedicated to musicians and singers. The nave has a ribbed vault and a complex wall arrangement of engaged pilasters along with freestanding columns supporting first level balconies. The altar wall was substantially reworked at a later date.

Borromini’s relations with the Oratorians were often fraught; there were heated arguments over the design and the selection of building materials. By 1650, the situation came to a head and in 1652 the Oratorians appointed another architect. As we shall now see, Virgilio Spada leapt to Borromini’s defence.

Spada’s defence of Borromini. Under Innocent X , Virgilio Spada was one of the most powerful men in Rome. He retained part of that power under Alexander VII. He supervised the reconstruction of San Giovanni in Laterano under Innocent X and was involved in the commission to investigate flaws in Bernini’s campanile of Saint Peter’s. Perhaps he did more to shape the physical fabric of Baroque Rome than any other single patron of his generation. Spada gained his expertise as a patron and critic on Borromini’s Oratory and was a vocal supporter of the architect, leading me to ask the question– why didn’t Borromini gain more by his support?

In 1657, Spada failed, unusually for him, to persuade his fellow Oratorians to take Borromini back to finish the Casa dei Filippini after 13 years of service. Borromini and Spada wrote a monograph on the building, the Opus Architectonicum, (1646-7). It shows a stormy relationship between architect and patron, one in which only Spada could mediate. But when Spada left the Oratorians to live in the Vatican in service of Innocent X, trouble began and Borromini was eventually replaced by Camillo Arcucci in 1652.

The Oratorians essentially refused to acknowledge that Borromini was the better architect. While admitting it is not easy to define a ‘good’ architect, Spada came to Borromini’s defence, advising that one look first at an architect’s origins, next his ability to solve problems in plan, then his knowledge on calculating costs and, finally, the recommendations of the best practitioners in the field.

Perhaps perilously, given the purported rivalry between the two, Spada quoted Bernini: ‘Bernini himself said to me many years ago, before the altar of Saint Peter’s, that Borromini alone understood the profession but that he was never satisfied, that he wanted to enclose one thing inside another, and that inside another, with never an end.’ As the exact date of this quote is disputed, it is hard to know how much of Borromini’s work Bernini had seen and to what aspect of it he was referring – critics have applied his comments to the technical aspects of the Baldacchino or to Borromini’s technique of layering drawings on transparencies to obtain a three-dimensional model effect.

Spada is quoted as saying – ‘Cardinal Barberini told me a few days ago that the Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane was, in great part, the work of Borromini’. Borromini had also spoken of his significant role at this time and in the margins of Martinelli’s guide wrote that the palazzo was the work of many people, not just Bernini. Baldinucci, is biographer, meantime, continued to attribute the palazzo to Bernini.

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. A similar reading emerges with regards to the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. La Sapienza was originally founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII. The block was torn down and the new building constructed with a church dedicated to St. Yves (1253–1303), the patron saint of lawyers. Somewhat unexpectedly, it was Bernini who recommended Borromini as architect, after which Borromini designed the building, over ten years from 1640, as if it were fitted into an older structure by using the institutional spaces as part of the “frame” for the church, which sits at the back of a long courtyard piazza, seemingly embedded within the fabric of the building. It was a very awkward space in which to plan such a building.

The church was designed in plan as two intersecting triangles, with circles added at the perimeter to add or subtract space. The result is a space that is centralised and yet axial. Its simplicity is ingenious. As at San Carlo, the facade and the space of the church just barely intersect. In fact, the church has no actual facade in the traditional Renaissance sense, since it is here nothing more than an elaboration of the courtyard’s facade. The church has a high drum on which the dome is placed. The dome is surmounted by an ornate cupola with an unique spiralling top, inspired by the helical geometry of the shells Borromini collected and studied.

The interior of Sant’Ivo presents another complex fusion of architectural forms. Though the central space is essentially circular, it is composed of six bays, three of which are semi circular, and three others of an irregular shape. The geometry of the structure is a symmetric six-pointed star; from the centre of the floor, the cornice looks like a two equilateral triangles forming a hexagon, but three of the points are clover-like, while the other three are concavely clipped. The wall surfaces are articulated by a series of niches and a string course serving to divide the wall into two sections. Instead of columns, we find pilasters, distributed in a complex rhythm, which are in turn combined with a series of broken pilasters, creating a similar sense of spatial disorientation as that found at San Carlo.

In Borromini’s architecture, geometry is not necessarily meant to only generate form, but becomes a sort of hidden dimension, disguised by a profusion of structural and decorative manipulations. The fusion of feverish and dynamic baroque excesses with a rationalistic geometry is an excellent match for a church in a papal institution of higher learning.

It is an architecture which reaches upwards, free from the weight of gravity. The complicated shape reveals itself when one looks up – a complexity which at ground level is very difficult to comprehend is replaced, above, by the perfect circle of the dome.

Borromini’s other works

San Giovanni in Laterano. Innocent X, largely on the recommendation of Spada, gave Borromini his only big papal project, the renovation of San Giovanni in Laterano, which was structurally compromised, the nave tilted to forty degrees from perpendicular. The timetable was tight, for completion by the jubilee year of 1650. As his work progressed, much of which was reparation, Borromini still found the time and the will to play with admitting, guiding and reflecting light. His sculpture in the building – cherubs, palm fronds, stars – is part of the architecture, not decoration like Bernini. Despite this, Innocent asked Spada to stop Borromini decorating and covering the nave with his planned ribbed vault, which was deemed ahead of its time. Borromini was frustrated at being misunderstood and under appreciated and left the site, his pride stung.

Sometime later, having found a young man damaging his marble, Borromini ordered his workmen to beat him up; he died of his injuries. The pope intervened to prevent Borromini from serious consequences.

San Giovanni dei Fiorentino. It is the Florentines’ church in Rome. Pope Leo X, of the Medici Family, gave the commission to build it to various architects including Michelangelo and Raphael; it was, however, Jacopo Sansovino who began it in 1519. The work was continued by others and completed towards the end of the century by Giacomo Della Porta. The High Altar is the result of the work of two great Baroque protagonists, Borromini and the artist and architect, Pietro da Cortona. The dome is by Carlo Maderno while the façade is from the 18th century. The interior of the church, in the shape of a Latin cross with side aisles divided by pillars, houses sculptures by Gianlorenzo Bernini and Alessandro Algardi and paintings by Lanfranco. The funeral monuments of the Falconieri on the sidewalls of the presbytery were begun by Borromini and completed by Ciro Ferri.

The Falconieri family crypt is under the high altar, and is reached by way of a small staircase placed behind the altar itself. Borromini designed this room. It is oval with a lowered vault and a run of ribs which, starting from the wooden frame, converge on an oval enclosing a stucco relief with two palm branches, ribbon and garland. The frame juts out linking the eight-half columns which frame the four doors which in turn have oval windows above them. Despite the small size, the design of the whole emits a sense of great energy and lightness. The entire chapel has recently been restored and painted white.

Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori. The church, planned by Borromini, is enclosed by the convent, built in various periods between 1643 and 1667. The façade with its brick curtain is bordered by two projecting wings that emphasise the angularity of the frontage. The architect seems to search for an effect of enclosure, almost alluding to the secluded life of the nuns. The main door opens onto a vestibule, the shape of which reveals knowledge and study of classic architecture. The church, parallel to the façade, is rectangular with a very dynamic interior. The pairs of columns, in fact, with a high cornice, emphasise the side chapels and the high altar. The interior was completely repainted in 1845, altering Borromini’s wishes to keep it white. The original floor, in brickwork, where smooth bricks alternated rose-coloured and clear, has been lost. The construction of the church was not completed by the architect because of the pressing commitments for the jubilee restoration of the Lateran Basilica.

Spada Palace. The palace was built and decorated with splendid paintings and stuccoes halfway through the 16th century by Cardinal Girolamo Capodiferro. Purchased in 1632 by Cardinal Bernadino Spada, the building was immediately transformed to house the residence of the important prelate. Borromini began work on the restoration of the Spada Palace around 1635. He transformed the grand interior staircase and built the two spiral staircases in the façade facing the garden. The most important work, however, was the surprising Gallery in Perspective, the wish of Cardinal Bernadino Spada, impassioned by those baroque virtuosities. The gallery was built in a year, from 1652 to 1653, in collaboration with the Augustinian mathematician, Giovanni Maria da Bitonto. The virtual depth of the gallery is about 35 metres, but the real measurement is 8.82 metres! The optical illusion was made through the convergence of the planes of the colonnade towards the vanishing point and the upward slope of the mosaic floor.

The Re Magi Chapel of the Propaganda Fide. The College of the Propagation of the Faith or Propaganda Fide in Rome includes the Re Magi Chapel by Borromini, generally considered by architectural historians to be one of his most spatially unified architectural interiors. The chapel replaced a small oval chapel designs by his rival Bernini and was a late work in Borromini’s career; he was appointed as architect in 1648 but it was not until 1660 that construction of the chapel began and although the main body of work was completed by 1665, some of the decoration was finished after his death.

His façade to the Via di Propaganda Fide comprises seven bays articulated by giant pilasters. The central bay is a concave curve and accommodates the main entry into the college courtyard and complex, with the entrance to the chapel to the left and to the college to the right.

Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. In 1626, a Spanish priest, Juan Baptiste Vives, gave the ex-Ferratini palace to the Congregation. An early work on the building, in 1634, is down to Bernini, who planned an internal chapel, dedicated to the Three Kings, with an independent entrance from the street. Later, the congregation decided to acquire the whole block (1644) and the façade in the square was built. In 1646, Francesco Borromini was commissioned to plan the new wing in Via della Mercede. At first, the architect thought of adapting the existing chapel to the interior of the new building, but later (1650), he decided to rebuild, making it bigger, causing contrasts with Bernini. The rectangular plan of the room was lightened thanks to the many sources of light and the great dynamism suggested by the design, with interlaced arched in the vault and large windows in the walls

Rebuilt at the beginning of the 1600s, the church has a taste of the late 1500s. The interior has a single nave with barrel vaulting and three chapels on each side. There are also two of the famous marble angels by Bernini for the St. Angelo bridge, donated by the nephew of Clement XI in 1729).

In 1653, Borromini was commissioned by the Marquis Paolo del Bufalo to complete the church, at that time still without the choir and the transept. After having suggested an oval dome, refused by the client, Borromini designed another but set in a high square tambour with rounded corners. The design of the campanile is bizarre and spectacular. It is square, taken from the tambour, culminating with cherubs with folded wings to act as herms and with the four scrolls supporting the emblems of the saint and of the family.

Sant’Agnese in Agone. Borromini was one of several architects involved in the building of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome. Not only were some of his design intentions changed by succeeding architects but the net result is a building which reflects, rather unhappily, a mix of different approaches. The decision to rebuild of the church was taken in 1652 as part of Pope Innocent X’s project to enhance the Piazza Navona, the urban space onto which his family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faced. The first plans for a Greek Cross church were drawn up by Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo who relocated the main entrance to the Piazza Navona. The foundations were laid and much of the lower level walls had been constructed when the Rainaldis were dismissed due to criticisms of the design and Borromini was appointed in their stead.

Borromini began a much more innovative approach to the facade which was expanded to include parts of the adjacent Palazzo Pamphili and gain space for his two bell towers. Construction of the façade proceeded up to the cornice level and the dome completed as far as the lantern. On the interior, he placed columns against the piers of the lower order which was mainly completed.

In 1655, Innocent X died and the project lost momentum. In 1657, Borromini was dropped from the project by Alexander VII, as we shall see next, and Carlo Rainaldi was recalled who made a number of significant changes to Borromini’s design. Further alterations were made by Bernini including the façade pediment. In 1668, Carlo Rainaldi returned as architect and Ciro Ferri received the commission to fresco the dome interior which it is highly unlikely that Borromini intended. Further large scale statuary and coloured marbling were also added; again, these are not part of Borromini’s design repertoire which was orientated to white stucco architectural and symbolic motifs.

Fallout from Borromini’s suspension

In 1657 Borromini was dropped from Sant’Agnese by Alexander VII, for a list of structural and administrative shortcomings but also with reference to his difficult and inflexible character. As if to prove the point, it must be admitted, Borromini retaliated by refusing to complete the installation of a set of bronze doors at the Lateran but Alexander simply removed from him the commission for the altar there.

At the same time, Borromini also refused to supervise work at the palace of Virgilio’s brother, Bernardino Spada. Despite this, Spada continued his heroic attempts to defend Borromini, depicting him as a man with a sense of honour and loyalty, expecting the same in return, sensitive and defenceless in the face of conflict. This pattern was familiar; it had been seen in 1647, when Innocent X passed a commission for the fountain in Piazza Navona to Bernini, following which Borromini had a series of angry interviews with the pope and handed work at the Lateran over to another architect.

Death and epitaph

Borromini seems to have been poorly equipped for a world of intrigue and favouritism, a world where, to his mind, nonentities with good manners rose meteorically while geniuses were shuffled off.

Living in solitude he drew obsessively, designing ever more outlandish projects on a huge scale that would never be created – a massive harbour near the Lateran, an entire city in the Lazio region, a huge tower with waterways and a giant aviary and zoo. At least he could still think like an architect. He was recognised as ill and treated by doctors but we do not recognise their disease classification – ‘hypochondria’, a ‘sickness of the soul’, ‘melancholia’; this might suggest our modern day depression but features of his symptoms suggest a more serious psychopathology.

Borromini knew he was ill and was afraid. He became socially isolated and burned many of his drawings which are beautiful works of art in their own right.This was out of fear that he would be misunderstood or turned into something other than his vision, or to stop those who came after stealing his ideas. He was always a controlling architect and had nowhere to go. Perhaps inevitably he took his own life, running himself through with a sword. At that time, suicide was a sin and he could not have been buried in church but Borromini was absolved of his sins and laid to rest in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini.

Three Popes who were patrons of the Baroque

Urban VIII (6 August 1623 – 29 July 1644). He was born Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini at Barbarino Val d’Elsa in April 1568. When his father died aged three, his mother brought him to Rome. An intelligent and keen scholar, he received a doctorate of law from the University of Pisa in 1589. A career in ecclesiastical politics beckoned and under Clement VIII he was made papal legate to King Henry IV of France in 1601 and Archbishop of Nazareth in 1604. He was raised to cardinal and papal legate of Bologna by Paul V in 1606.

When his uncle died he became rich by inheritance and built himself a luxurious Renaissance palazzo, the Palazzo Barberini, where we shall examine the relative inputs of the three Baroque architects, as it was one of the few projects on which they would collaborate.

Barberini was elected Pope at the age of 56 on the death of Gregory XV, choosing as his title Urban VIII. From the outset, his mission was to recreate, in the spirit of his great High Renaissance predecessors, an image of the unified, universal church centred on the tomb of the apostles, while affirming the Counter-Reformatory image of the church as the ultimate goal of the Christian’s spiritual pilgrimage. As always, the role of Pope involved him in not only religious affairs but also in politics and the arts.

Politics. Despite his stated objectives, rather than restoring Catholicism in Europe, he favoured adjusting the balance of power in Italy in his own favour. Without delay, he set out to extend the papal territories by a combination of force of arms and clever politics. In 1626, he incorporated the duchy of Urbino as new papal territories and influenced the succession in Mantua against his enemies, the Catholic Hapsburgs. He excommunicated the Duke of Parma and Piacenza, overcoming them in the Wars of Castro and again incorporating their territories. But this all came, quite literally, at a cost, significantly – and quickly – depleting the papal coffers. Huge debts accrued in the Wars of Castro significantly weakened successive papacies, resulting in waning political and military influence throughout Italy and beyond.

Relationships with other organisations. Urban was a reformer of church missions. Educated by Jesuits, he favoured their growth and development and, among those he canonised was the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola.

Opposed to Copernicanism, he summoned Gallileo to Rome to recant in 1633 and, unhappy with what he heard, ordered his subsequent trial.

Echoing many of his predecessors , and indeed those who would follow, Urban was a proponent of nepotism, elevating his brother and his two nephews to cardinals. He also made a cardinal of Giovanni Battista Pamphili, who would succeed him as Pope Innocent X.

Arts. He funded various substantial works by Bernini, including ‘Boy with a Dragon’, busts of himself and his family, work on Palazzo Barberini, the College of Propaganda Fide, Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini and works in Saint Peter’s basilica.

He also patronised Poussin, Claude Lorraine and Pietro da Cortona , who painted ‘Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power’ in Palazzo Barberini.

He bought the ‘Barberini vase’ found at the mausoleum of Roman Emperor Severus Alexander, now known as the ‘Portland Vase’ and in the British Museum.


Innocent X (15 September 1644 – 7 January 1655). Born in Rome as Giovanni Battista Pamphili on 6 May 1574, his family was descended from Pope Alexander VI. A career in church politics beckoned and he duly trained as a lawyer at the Collegio Romano, shortly thereafter succeeding his uncle as auditor of the Roman Rota, the ecclesiastical appellate tribunal. Having attained positions as cardinal-priest of Sant’Eusebio and as papal diplomat, Giovanni was sent to Naples in 1623 by Gregory XV.

Following his papal succession, Urban VIII sent him to accompany his nephew Francesco Barberini to France then to Spain in 1625. In May 1626 he was made nuncio to the court of Philip IV of Spain; his lifelong association with the Spanish would be decisive in securing him the papacy in the conclave of 1644 after Urban’s death.

One of the most politically shrewd pontiffs of the era, Innocent greatly increased the power of the papacy, despite inheriting financial difficulties. On his election, he immediately initiated legal action against the Barberini for misappropriation of public funds, confiscating the property of the brothers Francesco, Antonio and Taddeo.

His great antipathy towards his predecessor predates his accession to the papacy however; indeed, his rivalry with Urban VIII began when he was part of the College of Cardinals, along with the pope’s brother, Antonio. Antonio commissioned Guido Reni to paint ‘Archangel Michael Trampling Satan Underfoot’, where Satan has the features of the future Innocent X. Reni is said to have been insulted by rumours he thought were circulated by Cardinal Pamphili, but the future Innocent’s ire was directed not at the artist but at the family he accused of defaming his character. Innocent would spend considerable time undoing the projects of Urban, which would in turn impact on both Bernini and Borromini.

Guido Reni ‘Archangel Michael Trampling Satan Underfoot’ (1635), Santa Maria delle Concezione de Cappucini, Rome

In politics, he was involved with the English Civil War, supporting the independent Confederate Ireland in their attempts to found a Catholic-ruled country, but Cromwell succeeded in restoring Ireland to Parlimentarian rule. Troubles closer to home saw Innocent reengage with Parma over ongoing hostilities in the Wars of Castro, the city which he finally destroyed on 2 September 1649.

His artistic patronage centred latterly around the year 1650, a Jubilee, when Innocent ordered inlaid floors and a bas-relief in Saint Peter’s, erected Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona and ordered construction of the Palazzo Nuovo at the Campidoglio.


Alexander VII (7 April 1655 – 22 May 1667). Born Fabio Chigi on 13 February 1599 in Siena, he began his ecclesiastical career as papal legate to Ferrara in 1627. Ordained a a priest in 1635, he immediately was elected Bishop of Nardo and then Bishop of Imola in 1652. In between, he had been named papal nuncio to Cologne in 1639.

Made Secretary of State by Innocent X in 1651 and cardinal-priest of Santa Maria del Popolo in 1652, his upward trajectory was unremitting as he moved towards the highest position of all. Election to Pope as Alexander VII duly arrived on the death of Innocent X in January 1655 after a conclave lasting eighty days.

Initially opposed to nepotism, he even forbade his relations to visit Rome, but from 1656 his position reverted to the more typical nepotism seen in the office and his nephew was elected cardinal.

Politically, he was less abrasive than his predecessor and supported the Jesuits in retaking Venetian territories from which they had been expelled in 1606. However, strained relations with France, in particular Cardinal Mazarin, adviser to Louis XIV (1643-1715) resulted in the loss of Avignon and his forced acceptance of the Treaty of Pisa in 1664.

Quietly studious, he wrote on heliocentrism and the Immaculate Conception.

In distinction to his predecessor, Alexander had an intense interest in the arts and his main artistic interest was architecture, in which he had some training. He supported various urban projects in Rome, diverse in scope and scale, from Santa Maria della Pace and its piazza on a small scale to Piazza San Pietro on a grand scale, during which he demonstrated a consistent planning and architectural vision for the imposition of order and decorum. Central to his ideas was urban theatre, grand settings or showpieces appropriate to the dignity of Rome and the papacy.

His preferred architect was, as we shall see, Bernini but he also patronised Pietro da Cortona. Borromini fared less well; Alexander thought his architectural forms wilful and found him difficult. He did give him Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza as a project however, on the recommendation of Bernini.

A look at the list of projects undertaken during his tenure confirms how he stamped his mark on Rome:

  • Santa Maria della Pace and piazza
  • Via del Corso
  • Piazza Colonna
  • Porta del Popolo
  • Santa Maria del Popolo and piazza
  • Piazza San Pietro
  • Scalia Regia and interior embellishments at St Peter’s
  • Sant’Andrea al Quirinale
  • Palazzo della Quirinale
  • Piazza della Minerva
  • Palazzo Chigi


The Roman Baroque

Rome at the end of the sixteenth century was a city where architecture had been almost dormant. Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana were two most successful Roman architects in the preceding decades. One reason for this stagnation was that only one architect seemed to understand the revolutionary discoveries incorporated in Michelangelo’s last work, the Porta Pia and the Sforza Chapel – Giacomo del Duca, who in some ways acted as a sort of intermediary between Michelangelo and the Baroque.

Both Borromini and Bernini lived at the moment when the Baroque was being born in Rome and both contributed to the invention of the new style in architecture (indeed with Pietro da Cortona they could be said to have created it) but their contributions could hardly have been more different.

The Baroque style emerged in Rome essentially as a counter-statement to the Reformation. In the Baroque, art needs to be noticed, to bring people into the church. It must persuade, convert, act as propaganda.

Though we commonly use the label Baroque to describe the architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries, this designation was formulated only in the late 19th century. Nonetheless, the word is valuable for pinpointing certain important changes in attitude about art and architecture during this period. In this article I aim to describe a style that developed as a medium for propaganda during the Counter-Reformation, spanning the decades between 1620 and 1670.

The works generally recognised as heralding the Roman Baroque were:

Santa Bibiana, Bernini (1624)

Santi Luca e Martina, Cortona (1634)

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Borromini (1634)

Although I shall restrict my comments to Roman Baroque, it would be useful to place this in the wider context of  European Baroque. Baroque Rome waned after 1648 under Pope Alexander VII, from which time forward the papacy was no longer a major power in European architecture. With the ascendancy of France and Austria, the Baroque style began to change, assuming a more urban form and, as it was now also applied to châteaux and princes’ castles, acquiring elements such as public parks and waterworks. Approaches often extended far into the landscape with elongated perspectives.

In France it is exemplified by the Place Vendôme in Paris and the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte by André Le Nôtre (1656–61); in Austria, by the Schönbrunn Palace (1695). Eventually the Baroque became associated with the architecture of the late 17th-century European capitals – Rome, Paris, London, and Vienna – giving to these cities a profile that remains very much part of their identities today. At the same time, many buildings of the Middle Ages were given new Baroque facades or makeovers, their interiors upgraded to conform to the “modernising” trend of the Baroque.

Place Vendôme, circa 1900
Schönbrunn Palace

Baroque architects preferred curves and ovals to straight lines, deploying niches, walls, pilasters, and attached columns in a seamless way that made architecture seem pliant and rubbery – not framing the liturgical but part of İt. They also had an appreciation of rhythmic movement through space and intensified visual dynamics by using painting as well as sculptural putti, which often inhabit the higher reaches of the space, sitting on ledges and entablatures. While in medieval cathedrals stained glass modulated the light, Baroque churches had plain glass devoid of tracery. Yet the windows were often unseen, designed to create a mysterious and diffuse light. One often finds a Baroque church quite luminous upon entering – without first noticing any windows at all.

Baroque architects did not hesitate to go from one medium to the other when asked to fulfil the Counter-Reformation’s call to expound the mysteries of the faith and extol the virtues of the martyrs. Though treatment of walls and pilasters varied a good deal, careful thought was given to the effects of colour and lighting. Italians preferred rose and pink marble highlighted by shades of white and black. They made use of gilded and coffered domes illuminated from a cupola. South Germans preferred a white or cream coloured background accentuated with gilding, against which the furnishings were meant to stand out. Painters created elaborate ceiling frescoes portraying visions of the Church Triumphant.

There was also a tendency to intensify colour in the upward direction. The Baroque architect was an exponent of the theatrical, setting his stage with sculptures and paintings that were given just as much importance as the architecture itself. It was, however, not all show and no substance. Bernini and Borromini were both worldly and learned and well-acquainted with classical architecture, using it in a deliberately new way to bring the articulation of space up-to-date with recent developments in mathematics and geometry.

The rivalry

Both Borromini and Bernini lived at the moment when the Baroque movement was being born in Rome, fuelled by the expression of new feelings of optimism and aggression in the Roman Catholic Church after the austere years of the Counter-Reformation and both contributed to the invention of the new style in architecture. Borromini was born in 1598,  Bernini in 1599. One was a child genius, the other a slow starter and eventually a genius. Their styles and temperaments were wildly divergent. Was there space in Baroque Rome for two such talents, two such egos?

Borromini first came into contact with Bernini in 1624, when the latter was commissioned by Urban VIII to undertake the decoration of the crossing at Saint Peter’s and the construction of the Baldacchino, and he was also his subordinate when Bernini took over the construction of the Palazzo Barberini, which was only just begun when Carlo Maderno died in 1629. Bernini, who was only twenty-six when he was called in to work on Saint Peter’s, had made a sensational start as a sculptor, a field in which he showed unparalleled virtuosity and inventiveness, but he had no training or experience as an architect, and it seems possible that he relied on Borromini’s talent and technical skill to solve the many structural problems which arose in both commissions. In fact, there may be some substance in Borromini’s accusation, made later in life after he had finally quarrelled with Bernini, that the latter exploited him and took the credit for his inventions.

When Bernini and Borromini were jointly engaged in a project, what degree of cooperation existed between the two? Some commentators allude to ‘artistic discussions’ between the two, while others regards Borromini as a subordinate to Bernini’s guidance and control. For many, Borromini begins to emerge as inventive, even if from a subordinate position. We shall look at the evidence for their joint working on Palazzo Barberini and the Baldacchino of Saint Peter’s in more detail later.

But for now, we have two sublime talents, leaders in their fields, trailblazing a new dynamic style at the centre of the Catholic world, working for perhaps the most influential patron in Europe, the Pope. Was this a recipe for harmony or for division and acrimony?

Let us consider three questions, in the context of the unique factors which existed and impacted the relationship between these two Baroque masters:

  • Was there a rivalry between Bernini and Borromini?
  • If so why?
  • If so, what form did it take?

When we meet new colleagues, time is taken sizing each other up. Some collaborations come easily and harmoniously, others take time and effort. A few are doomed to be constantly difficult and draining, no matter how hard we try. For Bernini and Borromini, the die were cast. Their personalities were fundamentally different, making a clash of personalities almost inevitable.

Bernini was a consummate social animal, charming potential patrons, ingratiating himself effortlessly into society. Borromini, on the other hand, lacked all the social graces. He was melancholy, volatile, cantankerous, nervous and uncompromising, traits which soon turned into a neurotic fear of all human contacts and a suspicion of people, which almost reached the stage of paranoia. His deliberate, painstaking, laborious methods must have frustrated Bernini who was known to be quick, impulsive and elegant. Indeed, Bernini referred to himself as a ‘bad Catholic’, but that this was preferable to Borromini who was a ‘good heretic’.

There is nothing unique about artistic rivalries, particularly when commissions are restricted. An artist stands or falls by the number of commissions he can secure. Papal coffers appeared bottomless at times, but were significantly drained by the Wars of Castro under Urban VIII. The contrast in fortunes between Bernini and Borromini appears clearly if we examine the patrons for whom they worked. Bernini began as the infant prodigy discovered by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. Soon after the election of Urban VIII in 1623 he was commissioned with the decoration of the crossing of Saint Peter’s, the building of the Palazzo Barberini, the designing of Urban’s tomb and other important papal works, and his favour continued unabated until the pope’s death in 1644. During this pontificate Borromini received but a single public appointment, and that not directly from the pope: he was made architect to the university of the Sapienza, a post which enabled him to build one of his masterpieces, the church of Sant’Ivo.

When Urban VIII died in 1644, Virgilio Spada became artistic adviser to his successor, Innocent X. As we shall see, Innocent was determined to reverse the policy of his predecessor in all fields, including the arts, and as a result Bernini found himself pushed aside, and Spada was able to bring his favourite, Borromini, to the notice of the pope. However, within a few years Bernini gradually recaptured the favour of the pope, partly because of Borromini’s constitutional inability to play the courtier, and, with the election of Alexander VII in 1655, he was fully reinstated. He became even more completely dictator of the arts than he had been under Urban VIII and was able to work on an even grander scale. This neglect undoubtedly embittered Borromini, who found himself working for the modest patrons by whom he was employed rather than on the great papal commissions.

If we remember their origins, Bernini came to Rome from Naples when he was eight and therefore only knew styles based around Roman models, whereas Borromini was twenty and trained in Northern Italian stonemasonry techniques when he arrived from Milan. The two widely different developmental pathways must have created cultural tensions, between North Italian and Roman methodologies and between architecture and sculpture, Bernini’s prime medium of expression.

We shall look at the difference between their architectural approaches in the next section.

So we have two great talents with very different temperaments and architectural styles, upon whom papal favour was bestowed in an undulating fashion, but always significantly loaded in favour of one above the other. In which ways did the inevitable rivalry thus engendered make itself apparent?

In 1636, eager to finally finish the exterior of Saint Peter’s, Pope Urban had ordered Bernini to design and build the two, long-intended bell towers for its facade: the foundations of the two towers had already been designed and constructed decades earlier. Once the first tower was finished in 1641, cracks began to appear in the facade but, curiously enough, work nonetheless continued on the second tower and the first storey was completed. Despite the presence of the cracks, work only stopped in July 1642 once the papal treasury had been exhausted by the disastrous War of Castro.

Innocent summoned Bernini to Saint Peter’s to explain himself; as we know, there was considerable animosity between the pope and the architect. A commission was ordered, consisting of cardinals, Bernini and Borromini, charged with getting to the bottom of the problem. Taking their brief literally, the commission demanded the façade be excavated to a depth of thirty metres, finding water eroding the foundations. They were instructed by the pope to write a report for the congregation, in which seven separate solutions were proposed. Borromini stated his opinion that the tower had to be demolished, placing the blame entirely on Bernini. The subsequent investigations, in fact, revealed the cause of the cracks as Maderno’s defective foundations and not Bernini’s elaborate design, an exoneration later confirmed by the meticulous investigation conducted in 1680 under Pope Innocent XI. Nonetheless, Bernini’s opponents in Rome had succeeded in seriously damaging the reputation of Urban’s artist and in persuading Pope Innocent to order (in February 1646) the complete demolition of both towers, to Bernini’s great humiliation and indeed financial detriment (in the form of a substantial fine for the failure of the work). After this, one of the rare failures of his career, Bernini retreated into himself: according to his son, Domenico. his subsequent unfinished statue of 1647, Truth Unveiled by Time, was intended to be his self-consoling commentary on this affair, expressing his faith that eventually Time would reveal the actual Truth behind the story and exonerate him fully, as indeed did occur. In the meantime, however, Borromini had won a moral and practical victory.

Truth Unveiled by Time (1645-52) Galleria Borghese

Several years later, in 1651, Bernini would have his revenge. To glorify his name, Innocent wanted to utilise Piazza Navona, the seat of Pamphili power, to build a fountain. Borromini came up with the idea of a fountain of four rivers and, receiving a positive response, was next charged with the task of bringing water up to the Piazza. Meanwhile Bernini, having designed a magnificent fountain along the lines required, made a silver model of it, which he presented to Olimpia Maidalchini, Innocent’s sister-in-law, a formidable woman who filtered all commissions between artist and patron. Innocent was struck by its beauty when shown the model and changed horses, offering the commission for the fountain to Bernini over Borromini. This was a crushing blow to Borromini who angrily demanded a meeting with the pontiff, who predictably stood his ground. Innocent recorded his concern that Borromini might throw himself in the Tiber thereafter.

The most significant result of the schism between the two architects was that Borromini, frozen out of the papal commissions, secured smaller commissions from independent religious groups, thriving in a Rome emerging from the Counter-Reformation, which allowed him free reign to express his unique architectural vision. We have seen how he was a man ahead of his time, driven by a vision of how he wanted his creations to look, but had he co-existed peacefully alongside Bernini, sharing the papal commissions which were inherently less adventurous and more strictly defined, there is no doubt his genius would have been fettered.

Until the end of his life Borromini continued to have a deep respect and affection for his first master, Carlo Maderno, to the point of asking in his will he should be buried beside him. This was no doubt partly inspired out of respect to the fact that Maderno had been generous in allowing him a free hand and in encouraging his genius, but it may also be partly due to a desire on Borromini’s part to emphasise the difference between Maderno and the artist under whom he found himself working on the death of the older master, one Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

One obvious curiosity about the rivalry is the fact that it was Bernini who handed Borromini his first major commission, that for Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. Some see in this proof that Bernini on some level respected Borromini and, of course, this is possible, but I’m inclined to the notion that Bernini was trying to get Borromini out of the way with a difficult commission.

Comparison of architectural styles

We can see the differences between the styles of Borromini and Bernini if we study two churches 200 metres apart in the Quirinale district in Rome.

Borromini – San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane . San Carlo was dedicated to another newly created saint (canonised 1601) of the Counter-Reformation, Carlo Borromeo, (1538–84), who had been archbishop of Milan and papal secretary of state under Pius IV. Borromini was given the commission in 1634. The church is located at an intersection known for its four fountains – hence its name – situated on the Quirinal Hill.

The complex was designed for the Spanish Trinitarians, a religious order. The monastic buildings and the cloister were completed first after which construction of the church took place during the period 1638-1641; in 1646 it was dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo. The church is considered by many to be an exemplary masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture. San Carlo is remarkably small given its significance to Baroque architecture; it has been noted that the whole building would fit into one of the dome piers of Saint Peter’s.

The body of the church is nestled in an L formed by the entrance to the compound on the left of the church and a back wing of rooms. The site was not an easy one; it was a corner site and the space was limited. Borromini positioned the church on the corner of two intersecting roads. Only the front facade of the church is visible, as the church engages the street at its narrowest. Though relatively flat, the numerous segmented curves of the bases and entablatures creates a dynamic tension between the columns and walls. Borromini designed the facade to fit within a set of other facades that, though purposefully less remarkable, are all part of a single unit. To the right of the church facade, Borromini designed the monastery courtyard so that it ties in with the neighbouring structure on its right. The two-story entrance courtyard to the monastery is a play of geometrical inversions, but in keeping with the ideology of austerity, all its elements are plain white, giving the whole a strikingly modern aspect.

The design of the interior is an equally ingenious compromise between form and pragmatism. It is based on the prototype of a dome and four apses, but the apses have been flattened. The walls are composed of shallow and deep curved bays all linked by straight horizontal elements. The whole interior surface is articulated by columns set into walls, while the surfaces themselves are pierced by a series of niches of varying sizes, adding yet another rhythmic dimension. The inner surface of the oval dome is coffered with interlacing octagons, crosses, and lozenges. The first impression of the interior is of a flowing, almost dizzying, sense of movement, reflecting the intentions of the architect – to confuse and destabilise one’s sense of spatial orientation. Borromini devised the complex ground plan of the church from interlocking geometrical configurations, a typical Borromini device for constructing plans. The resulting effect is that the interior lower walls appear to weave in and out, partly alluding to a cross form.

In essence, the upper half of the church represents a synopsis of the lower half. The dome space, which contains the same geometric figures as the floor plan, is clearly meant to be understood as a metaphorical representation of the heavenly realm, which is explicitly shown in the lantern where we find the symbol of the Holy Spirit and behind it a series of rays depicting the spiritual light of revelation. This light is complemented by the natural light that emanates from the windows at the base of the dome, making this area the most brightly lit space in the whole church and, consequently, reinforcing the notion of a progression from temporal reality towards the perfection of the heavenly sphere, through the process of spiritual revelation.

San Carlo was a new kind of architecture, ahead of its time. Completed by the 1640s, it won instant fame and notoriety for Borromini – sadly most people just didn’t get it and complained Borromini was bizarre. He, on the other hand, thought he deserved glory and success. There was a sense that he believed in what he is doing rather than doing it to win plaudits or applause or medals. Unlike Bernini, Borromini did not seek, or need, the approval of others.

Bernini – Sant’Andrea al Quirinale. Bernini considered the church one of his most perfect works; his son, Domenico, recalled that in his later years, Bernini spent hours sitting inside it, appreciating what he had achieved. He received the commission in 1658 and the church was constructed by 1661, although the interior decoration was not finished until 1670. Commissioned by former Cardinal Camillo Francesco Maria Pamphili, with the approval of Pope Alexander VII, Sant’Andrea was the third Jesuit church constructed in Rome, after the Church of the Gesu and Sant’Ignazio.

The main façade of the church faces onto the Via del Quirinale, as does San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Unlike San Carlo, Sant’Andrea is set back from the street and the space outside the church is enclosed by low curved quadrant walls. An oval cylinder encases the dome, and large volutes transfer the lateral thrust. The main façade to the street has an aedicular pedimented frame at the center of which a semicircular porch with two Ionic columns marks the main entrance. Above the porch entablature is the heraldic coat of arms of the Pamphili patron.

Inside, the main entrance is located on the short axis of the church and directly faces the high altar. The oval form of the main congregational space of the church is defined by the wall, pilasters and entablature, which frame the side chapels, and the golden dome above. Large paired columns supporting a curved pediment differentiate the recessed space of the high altar from the congregational space. In distinction to the complex geometry of Borromini, the ground plan here is basically an oval with two small additions at the entrance and high altar.

In contrast to the dark side chapels, the high altar niche is well lit from a hidden source and becomes the main visual focus of the lower part of the interior. As a result, the congregation effectively become ‘witnesses’ to the theatrical narrative of Saint Andrew which begins in the High Altar chapel and culminates in the dome. 

Stucco cherubim heads cluster around the opening to the lantern and the lantern vault with the Dove of the Holy Ghost. This dramatic visual narrative is sustained not only upwards through the space of the church but employs different artistic modes. Bernini combined painting, sculpture and architecture into a synthesis to create visually the idea of the apotheosis of St Andrew in this spiritual theatre. All the work is in the theatre of the building , relying on marble and money. It is theatrical and exciting but not moving spiritually. He used a similar synthesis of artistic modes in his design of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Victoria. This synthesis has been referred to as the ‘unity of the visual arts’.


The rivalry between Borromini and Bernini embodied, indeed may have been created by, distinctions between artistic styles. Bernini used the weapons of scale, dramatic light effects, the fusion of the three arts of painting, sculpture and architecture into a single whole, dramatic extension of the action across the whole space of a church, and the use of rich materials, coloured marbles and gilding; but his architectural forms were simple, sometimes even rudimentary. Borromini worked on a small scale, usually in brick and stucco, but some times in travertine; he never used colour, and all the interiors of his churches are painted white; if he introduces sculpture, it is incorporated as decoration of the building and his light is used to emphasise the space, not to create dramatic contrasts. Though there is much that links these two great artists, Borromini clearly worked unremittingly with the language of geometry. Bernini was also certainly most interested in geometry, but in many respects, he was more the classicist. It is Borromini who brings the classical orders and requirements into alignment with an almost medieval fascination with geometric complexity. If Bernini was attracted to the historical symbolism of Rome, Borromini was attracted to the symbolic potential of space itself. He attains his effects by purely architectural means, and in devising these he showed the utmost inventiveness. His spaces flow into one another; walls are curved or articulated in depth by columns and niches, he uses novel forms of arches, sometimes twisting them in three dimensions, and he invents fantastic forms for his domes, belfries and lanterns. The result is an architecture in which the essentially Baroque feature of movement is given its most brilliant expression, undisturbed by the distractions of colour, richness of materials or drama. One looks at Bernini’s buildings with the eyes; one feels Borromini’s with the whole body.

Working together

Palazzo Barberini. The Villa Sforza had been bought from the Sforza family in 1625, two years after Maffeo Barberini ascended to the papacy as Urban VIII. Three great architects worked to create the Palazzo, each contributing his own style and character to the building; the design quickly evolved into a precedent-setting combination of an urban seat of princely power combined with a garden front that had the nature of a suburban villa with a semi-enclosed garden.

To build their new palace, the Barberini hired papal architect Carlo Maderno, who by now was in his seventies, with a long and illustrious career behind him. Though he died only a month after construction began on the palace, he is credited with much of the design, which is typical of his style as it is shown in his earlier palaces, such as the Palazzo Mattei di Giove. Maderno employed his nephew, Borromini, to work alongside him.

The palazzo is disposed around a with an extended wing dominating the piazza, which lies on a lower level. At the rear, a long wing protected the garden from the piazza below, above which it rose from a rusticated basement that was slightly battered like a military bastion.

The palace itself was shaped like an H, with wings on the north (the old Sforza palace) and south, connected by a forecourt centred on Bernini’s grand two-storey hall backed by an oval salone. The southern wing was entirely new, and this side was for the ecclesiastical side of the family, namely Cardinal Francesco. The salone is where Pietro da Cortona painted his masterpiece. The ceiling at that time was surpassed in size only by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, emphasising the Barberinis’ role as pioneers in secular palace decoration and establishing their position through opulence.

Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (1633-9)

The main block presents three tiers of great arch-headed windows, like glazed arcades, a formula that was more Venetian than Roman. On the uppermost floor, Borromini’s windows are set in a false perspective that suggests extra depth, a feature that has been copied into the 20th century.

Flanking the hall, two sets of stairs lead to the piano nobile, a large squared staircase by Bernini to the left and a smaller oval staircase by Borromini to the right.


The controversy about ‘who did what’ and the relative merits of each is perhaps less bitter than it was at Saint Peter’s but still bears consideration. In his letter supporting Borromini around the time of his split with the Oratorians in 1657, Spada is quoted as saying – ‘Cardinal Barberini told me a few days ago that the Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane was, in great part, the work of Borromini’. Borromini had also spoken of his significant role at this time and in the margins of Martinelli’s guide to the sights of Rome, Borromini wrote that the palazzo was the work of many people, not just Bernini. Baldinucci, meantime, continued to attribute the palazzo to Bernini.

On the death of Maderno (1629), Bernini became manager of the building site; he continued to use the help of Borromini until 1632. Bernini, who at that time was renowned as a sculptor, had done very little architectural work; this was to be his first large architectural commission. Based on his inexperience, and on the architectural plans that survive, we can see that Bernini followed quite closely to Maderno’s original design, with the help of Borromini. The changes we do see are mostly in the details, for example, the introduction of sculpted figures or addition of reliefs on the façade. These show the influence of a sculptor, and it is quite likely that these revisions were Bernini’s changes. The six smaller doors in the saloon of the palace are basically from Borromini’s design and most of the existing drawings for them are by him. Borromini must also have played an important part in the execution of the central pavilion of the garden front, in which the brick work is of a delicacy only paralleled in his facade of the Oratory of San Filippo Neri, built a few years later.

Borromini was certainly responsible for the oval spiral staircase in the right wing, elegant, balanced and harmonious. In one of the preliminary drawings the steps are shaped in very elongated S-curves, a form which Borromini was frequently to use later, but the architect abandoned this idea and, as built, the steps are straight. Borromini was also responsible for some of the particularly revolutionary details. The doors to the main room (even if limited by the Bernini plan), the side windows next to the gallery in the façade (important in the development of the baroque style in Rome and copied from those of his uncle in the façade of St. Peter’s) and those on the opposite side clearly influenced by Michelangelo but with a bizarre anthropomorphic connotation which make them look like masks, can be attributed to Borromini. Most remarkable are the windows opening on the top floor of the loggia on the west front, which are set in false perspective arches, and the two in the bay flanking the loggia, which foreshadow many features of Borromini’s later designs.

Saint Peter’s. The Baldacchino was envisaged as the focal point of a newly coherent and unified architectural and ideological concept of Saint Peter’s. This was indeed the principle Bernini followed through the entire process of designing the crossing of Saint Peter’s and I have no doubt that it was indeed a sympathetic response to the pope’s own ideology and ambitions. While absolutely saturated with references to tradition, the monument also broke with tradition in fundamental ways and inaugurated a new epoch in the history of art. Is it architectural sculpture or sculptural architecture? The project created a chimeric marriage between two distinct and traditionally mutually exclusive forms of symbolic markers of sacral distinction, one commemorative, monumental, and stationary – the architectural ciborium; the other ritual, ephemeral, and mobile – the processional canopy carried on staves. It is important to bear in mind that what became the final solution was not reached only at the end, as is often assumed, but was repeatedly considered from the very beginning.

There are a range of opinions expressed by expert commentators regarding the relative contributions made by Bernini and Borromini to the design of the Baldacchino:-

  • Artistic discussions between the two generated jointly the Baldacchino’s design. This is the most widely cited position, one which allows for the genius of both to shine through while, at the same time, recognising the enormous differences between the two creative processes
  • Borromini served as an assistant to Bernini, acting solely on his instruction
  • Bernini generated the design and structure as a solo practitioner

It is not my intention to provide a definitive answer to this question; it may not even be possible to do so. As is often the case, one could select from the available body of ‘evidence’ those parts which support one’s viewpoint. You may well be thinking – ‘does it even matter?’. To me, I think of this question in terms of the consequences of its resolution. The issue speaks to the relationship between the two great architects and, given the facts (largely accepted) that each was a key player in the Roman Baroque, the style which shaped much of the civic architecture of the Rome we see today, and that each had his own distinctive style, it seems a sine qua non that the relative contributions of each to the overall urban plan would materially alter the appearance of Rome today. The urban fabric of Rome is largely dependent on the churches and palazzos which enrich its streets. Many of these are by Bernini and Borromini. Two facts determine the ratio of each – the patronage bestowed upon each by the papacy and the professional relationship between the two men. Therefore, the question seems to me to be worthy of further consideration.

In trying to distinguish between the possibilities, there are three areas which might be called the ‘hard evidence’, the contemporary evidence in its three forms:

  • Payment for work done
  • Drawings that testify to the contributions of each artist
  • Reference to the subject in literary sources

Payments. The work on Saint Peter’s, especially during the reign of Urban VIII, is one of the best documented projects in the entire history of art. The minute financial records kept by the papal paymasters and accountants are preserved virtually intact. The documents make it clear that Borromini was employed at Saint Peter’s throughout the reign of Urban VIII under Bernini’s direction, on a great variety of projects: he is mentioned no less than 37 times, working as stone mason, marble and wood carver, wax modeller, and as a draughtsman, but never as architect. Only two sets of payments to him concern the baldachin, very distinctly separate both in time and in character.

Between January 10, 1627, and April 4, 1628, Borromini was paid for work as a mason (scarpellino) and carver on the the foundations of the columns.

Payments to Bernini confirm his completion of the architrave and frieze on the altar stairs, and on the models of the pedestals of the bronze columns. There follows a gap of three years, until he was paid between April 12, and January 22  for work on the crown of the baldachin, designing and carrying out the beaten copper ornaments that cover the superstructure; that is, large scale drawings and carvings in wax and drawings on copper for the carpenters and copper workers (beaters), drawings for all the arches, plants, cornices and other carvings that go inside the ribs and mouldings and for tracing them on the copper.

This evidence supports Bernini as the designer of the Baldacchino and supports his position as one who physically worked on its materials.

Drawings. Borromini’s drawings of the baldacchino are neatly divided into two completely contrasting groups. The earlier group consists of three amazing perspective views of the baldachin, to serve in judging the scale and proportions of the monument and its relation to the surrounding architecture. They were made during the design phase of the crown, including full-scale models, and while they show details that appear in the final work there is nothing to suggest that Borromini was trying out new ideas of his own in these contextual renderings. Unlike many, indeed the majority of Borromini’s drawings, none of those for the baldacchino show the slightest graphic suggestion of trial, error or experimentation. We know from Borromini’s perspective drawings and especially from the documents, which record a whole series of models ranging up to full scale that were actually erected in situ, that an unprecedented effort was expended to study the problem.

The second Borromini group consists of three very large wash drawings for details of the ornament. These elaborate and delicately finished sheets were clearly made as demonstration models, perhaps even to be copied as templates for transfer to the sheets of copper that the workmen were then to hammer into conformity with the moulds.

Borromini, Royal Collection Trust

In contrast to Borromini, experimentation is precisely what takes place in a series of sketches by Bernini in which he studies a variety designs for the crown intended to diminish its weight, raise its centre of gravity, and ensure the stability of the structure. A crucial step further is then taken in the sketch by Bernini that returns to the cornice-lappets solution with the undulating curvature of the ribs and the angels standing on the columns.

Albertina, Vienna

Above all, the evidence of the drawings is consistent with the idea that Borromini was completely extraneous to the design process of the Baldacchino and that his drawings function as a go-between converting Bernini’s design into its structure.

Literary references. If we start at ‘the horses mouth’ various sources report Borromini saying of Bernini at Saint Peter’s – ‘what galls me is not that he had the money, but that he enjoys the honour of my efforts’.

In 1685, Bernardo Castelli-Borromini, his nephew, wrote a biography of his uncle. He attacked Bernini viciously for his arrogance and unscrupulous exploitation of others, especially Borromini. He claims Bernini left all the architectural work at Saint Peter’s to Borromini while taking the credit and the payments. But he does not make any claim for him designing the Baldacchino; instead he emphasises Borromini’s talent for making highly accomplished drawings, claiming that this was what first motivated Maderno to employ his young relative and protege: “he attended to drawing with great diligence and perfection, and realising this his relative Carlo Maderno gave him work and had him make finished drawings for him.”

Bernini’s biographer, Baldinucci and the artist’s son Domenico, make it clear thar Bernini’s own concern was not with the design of the Baldacchino, but with the problem of determining its scale and proportions in the vastness of Saint Peter’s. Borromini’s scale drawings which generated models up to full scale which were installed in situ played a key role; imagine his reaction to Bernini’s claim that the project succeeded ‘by chance’.

Urban VIII biographer Cesare D’Onofrio is unequivocal in his assessment: ‘The artist was Bernini, who acquired great applause and fame, but the thought and idea was of Urban himself.’

Virgilio Spada, a friend and patron of Borromini, defended his friend in a monologue of 1657 (Opus Architectonicum): ‘Bernini himself said to me many years ago, before the altar of Saint Peter’s, that Borromini alone understood the profession but that he was never satisfied, that he wanted to enclose one thing inside another, and that inside another, with never an end.’

In this same monologue, Spada quotes Pietro da Cortona as expressing high regard for Borromini’s worth and knowledge.

In a guide to the artistic monuments of Rome, written between 1660 and 1663 by a friend, Martinelli, Borromini wrote a number of comments in the margins. He was critical of several aspects of the Baldacchino design: many argue that this proves he did not make the design – if he had, he would have sought praise for the work instead.

The history of Saint Peter’s basilica

We shall examine the contributions made by Bernini and Borromini to the fabric of Saint Peter’s as it exists today in more detail shortly. But, before this, it might help to briefly outline the history and current design of the basilica. Of course, this is, by necessity, a very concise summary of a building with a huge, complex history and further reading is recommended.

The Old Saint Peter’s Basilica was begun by the Emperor Constantine the Great between 319 and 333 AD. It was of typical basilica form. By the end of the 15th century, having been neglected during the period of the Avignon Papacy, the old basilica had fallen into disrepair. It appears that the first pope to consider rebuilding or at least making radical changes was Pope Nicholas V (1447–1455) who commissioned work on the old building from Leon Battista Alberti and Bernardo Rossellino who were asked to design a plan for an entirely new basilica, or an extreme modification of the old one. When Nicholas died, little had been achieved. He had, however, ordered the demolition of the Colloseum and by the time of his death, 2,522 cartloads of stone had been transported for use in the new building. The foundations were completed for a new transept and choir to form a domed Latin cross with the preserved nave and side aisles of the old basilica. Some walls for the choir had also been built.

In 1505, Pope Julius II made a decision to demolish the ancient basilica and replace it with a monumental structure to house his enormous tomb. A competition was held, and a number of the designs have survived at the Uffizi in Florence. It was the design of Donato Bramante that was selected, for which the foundation stone was laid in 1506. This plan was in the form of an enormous Greek cross with a dome inspired by that of the huge circular Roman temple, the Pantheon.

When Pope Julius died in 1513, Bramante was replaced with Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giocondo, who both died in 1515. Raphael was confirmed as the next architect of Saint Peter’s on 1 August 1514. The main change in his plan was a nave of five bays, with a row of complex apsidal chapels off the aisles on either side. Raphael’s plan for the chancel and transepts made the squareness of the exterior walls more definite by reducing the size of the towers, and the semi-circular apses more clearly defined by encircling each with an ambulatory.

In 1520 Raphael also died, aged 37, and his successor Baldassare Peruzzi maintained changes that Raphael had proposed to the internal arrangement of the three main apses, but otherwise reverted to the Greek Cross plan and other features of Bramante. This plan did not go ahead because of various difficulties of both Church and state; in 1527 Rome was sacked and plundered by Emperor Charles V.

Next, Antonio da Sangallo the younger submitted a plan which combined features of Peruzzi, Raphael and Bramante in its design and extended the building into a short nave with a wide façade and portico of dynamic projection. His proposal for the dome was much more elaborate of both structure and decoration than that of Bramante and included ribs on the exterior. Like Bramante, Sangallo proposed that the dome be surmounted by a lantern which he redesigned to a larger and much more elaborate form. Sangallo’s main practical contribution was to strengthen Bramante’s piers which had begun to crack.

On 1 January 1547 in the reign of Pope Paul III, Michelangelo, then in his seventies, succeeded Sangallo the Younger as “Capomaestro”, the superintendent of the building program at Saint Peter’s. He is responsible for a large part of the building as it stands today. Even though the work had progressed only a little in forty years, Michelangelo did not simply dismiss the ideas of the previous architects. Above all, Michelangelo recognised the essential quality of Bramante’s original design and reverted to the Greek Cross.

The dome of Saint Peter’s rises to a total height of 136.57 metres from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross. It is the tallest dome in the world while its internal diameter of 41.47 metres is slightly smaller than two of the three other huge domes that preceded it, those of the Pantheon, 43.3 metres, and Florence cathedral, 45.5m.

Bramante’s plan for the dome of Saint Peter’s (1506) follows that of the Pantheon very closely with the exception of the lantern that surmounts it. The profile is very similar, except that in this case, the supporting wall becomes a drum raised high above ground level on four massive piers. The solid wall is lightened by Bramante piercing it with windows and encircling it with a peristyle.

Michelangelo redesigned the dome in 1547, taking into account all that had gone before. His dome, like that of Florence, is constructed of two shells of brick, the outer one having sixteen stone ribs, twice the number at Florence but far fewer than in Sangallo’s design. As with the designs of Bramante and Sangallo, the dome is raised from the piers on a drum. The encircling peristyle of Bramante and the arcade of Sangallo are reduced to 16 pairs of Corinthian columns, each of 15 metres high which stand proud of the building, connected by an arch. 

Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana brought the dome to completion in 1590, the last year of the reign of Sixtus V. His successor, Gregory XIV, saw Fontana complete the lantern and had an inscription to the honour of Sixtus V placed around its inner opening. The next pope, Clement VIII, had the cross raised into place and appointed Carlo Maderno in 1602.

On 18 February 1606, under Pope Paul V the dismantling of the remaining parts of the Constantinian basilica began.  The building of the nave began on 7 May 1607; to the single bay of Michelangelo’s Greek Cross, Maderno added a further three bays. He made the dimensions slightly different from Michelangelo’s bay, thus defining where the two architectural works meet. In December 1614 the final touches were added to the decoration of the vault and early in 1615 the partition wall between the two sections of the nave was pulled down.

The façade, begun in 1608 and designed by Maderno, is 114.69 metres wide and 45.55 metres high and is built of travertine stone, with a giant order of Corinthian columns and a central pediment rising in front of a tall attic surmounted by thirteen statues: Christ flanked by eleven of the Apostles (except Saint Peter, whose statue is left of the stairs) and John the Baptist.

As it stands today then, Saint Peter’s has been extended with a nave by Maderno. It is the chancel end with its huge centrally placed dome that is the work of Michelangelo.

The decision to add a longitudinal nave was not due to a failure of the Bramante/Michaelangelo plan but a result of a profound change in values which radically altered the relative importance attached to the building’s functions, in particular those which allowed the ceremonial processions now deemed important in ecclesiastical devotions and celebrations.

Urban VIII strongly opposed the demolition of the old church. He was now faced with the challenge of a hybrid structure which needed to combine two complementary but contradictory ideological and functional traditions, reconciling the merger of centralised and longitudinal building types.

Let’s look in more detail at some of the key areas of the basilica as it developed going forward. The work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini is considered in detail in the next section of this article.

Apse and crossing. The first areas to be attended to when the longitudinal nave was added were the high altar and choir. The solution chosen involved installing two altars, the isolated high altar dedicated to Peter and Paul over their subterranean burial space, and a second altar placed towards the apse for papal functions involving the cardinals, associated with a choir. In fact, no solution for a permanent choir was ever achieved: to this day, when required, temporary wooden structures are installed.

Baldachins and ciboria. The solution in favour of two altars was taken in the reign of Paul V, around 1605. Thereafter, continuing under Gregory XIV, the two altars were given contrasting forms of covering to reflect their different functions.  The high altar in the apse was covered by a traditional ciborium surmounted by a cupola. The altar over the tomb was marked by a series of temporary baldachins supported on four staves carried by standing or kneeling angels. The open design thereof permitted maximum visibility towards the apse and fulfilled the Counter-Reformation decree that the Sacrament be on display in every church.

The Baldacchino (1624-35). Urban VIII and Gian Lorenzo Bernini made two monumental decisions ; to return the high altar to the tomb and to mark it with a structure melding the baldachin and ciborium. We shall look closely at the history of this project shortly.

The Tomb of Urban VIII (1627-47). Designed by Bernini.

Crossing piers. The plan was to integrate the choir, crossing and nave in one comprehensive programme. A decision was made in June 1627 to treat all four crossing piers in the same way, devoting each niche to a Saint whose relic was preserved in the basilica, the overriding concern being the display of the relics and the figures associated with each. The ideology of the crossing was as a unified sacred place devoted to the Christian process of salvation achieve through the sacrifice of Christ.

Tomb of Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1633-44). Another Bernini funerary monument.

Nave decoration (1647-8). Urban was succeeded by the Pamphilj pope Innocent X. Under his reign came the concept of devoting the longitudinal axis to the history of the church.

The piazza and colonnades. Commissioned by Alexander VII, bringing to completion the longitudinal extension of the basilica and again entrusted to Bernini.

Cathedra Petri. The piazza, colonnades and Cathedra Petri were simultaneous and interrelated projects under Alexander VII and entrusted to Bernini, who designed the throne as a reliquary to contain the very chair Peter was supposed to have used.

The Constantine and Scala Regia (1662-70). This project created a crucial juncture between the corridor from the north colonnade, the portico of the basilica extended by a vestibule and a stairway connecting with the Vatican palace. Here, an equestrian monument honouring Constantine the Great was placed by Bernini. It depicts the spiritual nature of Constantine’s historical role including his baptism and construction of the first St Peter’s.

Scala Regia

Carved from a single piece of stone it is a magnificent feat. As it is attached to the rear wall, the rearing horse needs no artificial support and appears to leap both to the side and forwards. A large sweep of drapery and light streaming from a large window intensify the sense of movement.

The Vision of Constantine

Tomb of Alexander VII (1671-8). Alexander ordered Bernini to prepare a design for his tomb months after his election to the papal throne. It was, in fact, only executed long after his death, in a niche in the outer wall of the south aisle of the choir.

The Altar of the Holy Sacrament. Begun under Urban VIII, taken up again under Alexander VII and completed under Clement X, Bernini worked intermittently on this work for decades.

Bernini at St Peter’s

I have chosen here to order the sections initially according to an approximate geographical progression through the building, from the altar to the piazza, before looking at some of the less central projects which Bernini undertook. By necessity, this is at the cost of a linear timescale for the works.

The Baldacchino (1624-35). Urban VIII and Bernini made two monumental decisions; to return the high altar to the tomb of Peter and Paul and to mark it with a structure melding the baldachin and ciborium. Bernini was a polymath, truly gifted in several artistic spheres. He believed that, for the architect, the challenge was to make disadvantages appear to have been invented on purpose and to ‘surpass the rules without breaking them’. His complex and ingenious design ensures that the baldachin and ciborium truly merge while retaining the essential integrity of both in a single structure which reconciles the conflicting values of minimal structure and open visibility with the need for architectural permanence and monumentality. Massive in scale and ponderous in proportions, the Baldacchino manages yet to writhe in powerful paroxysms of movement and energy.

Bernini’s Baldacchino is a perfect, inextricable and indissoluble fusion of the immediacy of the processional baldachin, the animated suspense of the hanging canopy and the monumental stability of the ciborium, a new art form never replicated to this day. Similar superlatives are frequently used when describing the architecture of Borromini so, inevitably, the question arises – did Borromini have an input into the design of the Baldacchino?

That both were involved in some way is not in dispute. Borromini produced detailed perspectival drawings, unlike anything seen before, which visualised the relationship between the proposed Baldacchino and the church itself. Three dimensional models in various sizes, up to full scale, were created from these drawings and installed in situ. Borromini had obsessively precise draftsmanship and a brilliant grasp of perspective and spatial relationships so was the ideal man for the job; his drawings on the Baldacchino are fully developed working drawings. And yet, they were designed to visualise, not to create, ideas, to serve as models for artisans or to aid in judging the projected work in situ. On the other hand, all known drawings by Bernini, for any of his projects, are rapid sketches of ideas in which he experiments and tries out various solutions to problems. Bernini never made detailed architectural drawings; he left these to his assistants.

The rivalry between Bernini and Borromini is legendary. Borromini is recorded as having felt that Bernini, architecturally inexperienced and insecure, had exploited his professional expertise here. And yet Bernini, who lacked neither ambition nor self-confidence, was the one charged by Urban VIII with the task of creating the Baldacchino whilst Borromini was employed by the pope at St Peter’s in a secondary capacity, as a carver of minor works in wood and marble and to make large detailed drawings as templates for other artists to follow. Therefore, there appears to be no convincing evidence that Borromini played any role in the design of the Baldacchino.

Some time after it’s completion, in a guide to the artistic monuments of Rome, written by a friend, Borromini wrote comments in the margins. He was critical of several aspects of the Baldacchino: surely this proves he did not make the design – if he had, he would have sought praise for the work instead.

It is fascinating to imagine these two brilliant, egotistical minds at work on the same project and yet, somehow, completely failing to engage in any meaningful synergism. One can only wonder what might have transpired had the two united their creative imaginations.

The crossing. Under Urban VIII and Bernini, the sacrifice of Christ was the focus of the ideology of the crossing and the subject of papal succession was the focus of the building’s longitudinal axis. The plan was to integrate the choir, crossing and nave in one comprehensive programme. The papal altar crowned with the Baldacchino was surrounded in the crossing piers with relics and images of saints evoking Christ’s passion.

A decision was made in June 1627 to treat all four crossing piers in the same way, devoting each niche to a Saint whose relic was preserved in the basilica, the overriding concern being the display of the relics and the figures associated with each. To allow this, it was necessary first to move the tomb of Paul III and pair it with that of Urban VIII in the niches flanking the altar in the apse. Bernini reinstalled Paul’s tomb, retaining the figures of Justice and Prudence and conceived the monument to Urban as a matching partner, with Justice and Charity as sculptures. The paired tombs evoke the basic typology established by Michaelangelo at the Medici monuments in the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo.

Returning to the crossing , the four relics were:

  • The kerchief of Veronica, imprinted with the face of Christ
  • The lance of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ at the crucifixion
  • The head of Saint Andrew
  • A portion of the True Cross, obtained from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

The ideology of the crossing was as a unified sacred place devoted to the Christian process of salvation achieved through the sacrifice of Christ. Bernini provided the basic designs for the four figures and remained in overall charge. The figures express a variety of psychological states and together create a space charged with powerful emotions into which the spectator is ineluctably drawn. The majestic St. Loginus was executed by Bernini himself, whilst the other three are by other contemporary sculptors François Duquesnoy, Francesco Mochi, and Bernini’s disciple, Andrea Bolgi.

Saint Loginus

The structures used for the relics are akin to the three-level free-standing tabernacles of Old St Peter’s. Lowermost is a fully developed chapel in the grotto beneath the piers, with wall frescoes depicting the lives of the saints and altarpieces referring to their martyrdom. Above this stands the figure. The uppermost compartment is now a niche transformed by Bernini into a tabernacle where angels and putti carry aloft the relics, partly rendered in three-dimensions.

Crossing with pier tomb of True Cross

Nave decoration (1647-8). Urban VIII was succeeded by the Pamphili pope, Innocent X. Under his reign came the concept of devoting the longitudinal axis to the history of the church. The theme is history in action. The story begins in the atrium above the main portal to the basilica with a grandiose relief depicting the theme ‘Feed my Sheep’ (Bernini, 1633-46). This work illustrates Christ assigning to Peter the task of nurturing his flock, taken as the divine sanctity for Christianity and the authority of the popes.

In the nave itself, Bernini undertook a programme of redecoration, replacing the abstracts designs of flat, multicoloured marble revetments on the pillars with a simple, articulated structured voice. The white marble sculpted portraits of the popes are arranged not in a linear fashion but in a zigzag back and forth across the nave, a pattern adopted from the Sistine Chapel. Only those popes who were sainted were represented. The medallions are borne aloft, along with the papal tiara and keys, by pairs of winged putti.

In the spandrels of the arches, huge female personifications of the virtues recline.

The piazza and colonnades. When I think of Saint Peter’s (I have actually never been there!), I think of the basilica and the piazza which lies before it as a unified space. This, in fact, is exactly what Bernini intended. He famously wrote (and sketched) of the piazza and colonnades being the arms of the church, reaching out to embrace the faithful. The development was commissioned by Alexander VII as a means of bringing to completion the longitudinal extension of the basilica. Once again, the driving force was the functioning of the religious order of the Catholic church; this would facilitate the annual procession of Corpus Domini, when the pope paraded the Sacrament through the nearby streets.

However, the piazza faced the same problem as the church building itself had – reconciling centrally and longitudinally organised forms and functions. The undertaking was to provide work for the indigent unemployed of Rome, especially after the plague of 1656.

The area was also subject to territorial restrictions, being fixed by the Vatican palace and the Leonine wall to the north, thus requiring a trapezoid shape be created. Bernini approached the problem with his typical mixture of attention to detail and flair. Sixtus V had erected an obelisk in the centre of the piazza, which Bernini saw formed a point of intersection between two axes – one longitudinal to the centre of the church facade and one oblique, parallel to the façade. A third axis ran from the north end of the church façade along the palace façade to the front of the Castel Sant’Angelo, determining the arc of the colonnades so as to provide maximum views of the church from the Borgo Nuovo, the main thoroughfare from the centre of Rome.

Bernini designed the ellipsoidal space using the oval shape, defined by intersecting circles, in adherence to the tradition of Pythagorean geometry. The whole has a complex appearance which changes and simplifies as one walks around the piazza. The columns of the colonnades are aligned in concentric circles behind one another so that the centres of the lateral circles serve as vanishing points from which the columns seem simple regular and stable, the outer one hidden by the inner. Viewers instinctively move towards these points, which are in fact physically marked on the pavements today.

The columns themselves have a surprisingly simple Doric order, not the elaborate Baroque design one might expect from Bernini. This is a conscious decision which he made to emphasise by contrast the height (even without bell-towers) and magnificence of the church façade. It also has echoes of Bramante’s tempietto which, marking as it does the spot of Peter’s martyrdom, is the second most important Petrine building in Rome.

Tempietto by Bramante

The entrances to the colonnades are stepped and pedimented with horizontal entablatures. The vaults are simple raised semicircles with flat wings.

Statues of saints surmount the balustrades, appearing to stand directly on the columns.

Four plaques with inscriptions chosen by Alexander VII himself were placed at the outer and inner extremities of the arms of the colonnades. They are passages of scripture which exhort the viewer to follow the pope’s example.

Cathedra Petri. Contemporary and planned in concert with the piazza was the decision finally to resolve the problem of the choir of St. Peter’s – foreseen “providentially” by Annibale Carracci at the beginning of Bernini’s career. The solution was found in an idea that would celebrate, liturgically and visually, the legitimacy and authority of the Church as a divinely ordained institution. This claim was vested in the form and concept of the Cathedra Petri, the chair or throne of office, from ancient times the symbol of the legitimate supreme authority conveyed to Peter by Christ, along with the responsibility to ‘feed my sheep’.

The piazza colonnades and Cathedra Petri were simultaneous and interrelated projects under Alexander VII

Bernini designed the throne as a reliquary to contain the very chair Peter was supposed to have used. It consists of four distinct yet interconnected elements:

The altar proper

The ‘altarpiece’ in the form of the chair

A concave platform on which stand four Doctors of the Church – two Latin in front (Ambrose and Augustine) and two Greek behind (Athanasius and John Chrystostom)

At the rear, in gilded stucco, a glory of the heavenly hierarchy, at its centre the window with the dove of the Holy Spirit

The ideology is the singularity and unity of the church under the papacy.

The Constantine and Scala Regia (1662-70). This project created a crucial juncture between the corridor from the north colonnade, the portico of the basilica extended by a vestibule and a stairway connecting with the Vatican palace. Here, an equestrian monument honouring Constantine the Great was placed. It depicts the spiritual nature of Constantine’s historical role including his baptism and construction of the first Saint Peter’s.

Carved from a single piece of stone, it is a magnificent feat. As it is attached to the rear wall, the rearing horse needs no artificial support and appears to leap both to the side and forwards. A large sweep of drapery and light streaming from a large window intensify the sense of movement.

Tomb of Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1633-44). Matilda was a staunch supporter of the papacy in its power struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor, donating to the church her lands in south Italy.

Urban removed her body from Lombardy for reburial in Saint Peter’s in a tomb in the north side aisle.

Bernini represented her as a grandly regal Roman matron above her sarcophagus. She stands in a double niche, the outer shell of which consists of panels diminishing in perspective to a vanishing point at the centre of the figure.

Tomb of Urban VIII (1627-47). Modelled on papal portraits in Sala di Costantino of the Vatican, frescoed by Giulio Romano, Urban’s pose refers to Giulio’s image of Saint Peter himself. Bernini’s allegories stand beside the sarcophagus illustrating the roles played by those divine virtues, Charity and Justice, acting through the pope in the process of salvation. The two offer a counterpoint of psychological and moral states, active and passive, that illustrate the divine origin and earthward dispensation of God’s grace. Bernini combines one of the cardinal virtues, Justice, with one of the theological, Charity, denoting the role of the papacy in the execution of God’s wish that man be made just and redeemed from original sin.

Death in the form of the reaper seems to rise from the sarcophagus itself, writing the name and title of Urban VIII in the black book of death .

The tomb swarms with Barberini bees and they are also seen on the coat of arms attached to the face of the arch at the apex of the niche.

Tomb of Alexander VII (1671-8). Alexander ordered Bernini to prepare a design for his tomb months after his election to the papal throne. It was, in fact, only executed long after his death, in a niche in the outer wall of the south aisle of the choir. It is in pyramidal form with a raised kneeling effigy flanked by pairs of allegories (Chastity, Justice, Prudence and Truth). This echoes the structures honouring Paul III and Urban VIII.

A shroud envelopes the door at the rear of the niche, beneath which emerges death wielding his hourglass. A huge pair of wings carry the papal coat of arms at the apex of the niche. Overall, the concept is of the power of faith to overcome death.

Funerary monuments had become a genre for which Bernini remains famous and upon which his influence left an enduring mark, often copied by subsequent artists. Indeed, this, his most original tomb monument, represents the very pinnacle of European funerary art, whose creative inventiveness subsequent artists could not hope to surpass.

The Altar of the Holy Sacrament (1673-5). A bronze tabernacle in the form of a tempietto flanked by two kneeling angels, this work was begun under Urban VIII, taken up again under Alexander VII and completed under Clement X.

In 1638, a temporary version to a different drawing was erected in the New Sacristy. It remained in situ for decades but under Alexander grew in size and importance, raising the tabernacle to show the Host according to current Eucharistic devotions.

A final design saw the tabernacle elongated with a drum and cupola and angels replace figures of Peter and Paul at the extremities.


This has been a lengthy article and I hope one in which you have found something of interest. The fact that I have included certain aspects of the story of this period in more than one section, illustrates to me that the relationship between Bernini, Borromini and their patrons, in particular the three popes of their time, was complex and fluctuating.

As I have carried out the research for this article, my desire to travel to Rome and see these wonderful buildings has grown exponentially. I envy those of you familiar with the splendour of Baroque Rome and hope I may have awakened in a few others the same desire with which I am filled.
















































Published by alastairstravels

Hi. Having taken part retirement from work I am fulfilling a long standing ambition to travel and share my experiences

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: