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Francesco Borromini

Francesco Borromini

The Italian architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) was the most daring and original architect of the Roman baroque, and his style is the embodiment of baroque extravagance. His works were influential throughout Europe and South America.

In the first half of the 17th century, Roman baroque architecture was dominated by two extraordinary figures: Francesco Borromini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Borromini represented the more imaginative and idiosyncratic side of baroque architecture; Bernini remained much closer to the aims and ideals of ancient Rome, both in sculpture and architecture, and his architectural works are sober and classical.

Borromini's style was essentially personal and thus was later denigrated by neoclassic critics. For the 18th and 19th centuries Borromini was the most licentious and extravagant architect in history, and his works aroused the most passionate disapproval, particularly in Protestant Europe and America, while being copied (and occasionally exceeded) in Latin America as well as in southern Germany, Austria, Spain, and Portugal.

Francesco Castelli, called Borromini, was born on Sept. 25, 1599, in Bissone on Lake Lugano. He was distantly related to the great architect Carlo Maderno.

As a boy, Borromini was sent to Milan to learn the mason's craft, and it was as a mason that he went to Rome, where his presence is recorded from 1621. He probably began as an ordinary mason at St. Peter's, but soon Maderno, the chief architect of St. Peter's, seems to have found him employment at S. Andrea della Valle (1621-1623). In any event, it is certain that Borromini's years in Rome were spent as a humble craftsman, at the very time when Bernini was making his reputation as a virtuoso sculptor.

This was probably the cause of the lifelong rivalry between the two men, which was exacerbated by difficulties at St. Peter's and the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, where Borromini worked under Bernini from 1629 to 1632. The rivalry was such that it may have been the cause of the profound melancholia which eventually led to Borromini's tragic death.

In the 1630s Borromini began to receive independent commissions, and his fame grew rapidly. In 1632 he commenced work at the Palazzo Spada. His famous gallery, designed with an illusionistic effect of perspective, has an unexpected wit that must have helped to make Borromini's name known.

Major Works

Far more important was Borromini's work at S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, begun in 1634. This tiny church, along with its courtyard, is one of the most important monuments of the baroque style in Rome. The work was divided into two phases almost 30 years apart, with the cloister and church designed and largely built in the 1630s and the facade designed in 1662 and still incomplete at Borromini's death in 1667. Owing to the fortunate survival of a considerable number of Borromini's drawings, it is possible to trace the evolution of the ground plan of S. Carlo from a straightforward oval on the long axis of the church, of the type which had been introduced into Rome in the late 16th century by Giacomo Vignola and others, to the present, extraordinarily complex series of curves and countercurves. In its final form the plan creates an undulating movement, so that all the walls of the church, both at ground level and at cornice level, seem to be in motion. What is more, the plan is not quite the same at ground level as it is at the cornice. Above the cornice there is an extraordinarily complicated transition, from quadrant arcs, via spandrels containing not-quite-circular roundels, to the simple elliptical shape of the dome, which in turn is complicated by an unusual pattern of coffering, based on octagons and the cross-shaped emblem of the Spanish order for whom the church was built.

Borromini's next major work, the Oratory of S. Filippo Neri, begun in 1637 for the Congregation of the Oratory, is much less daring in plan than S. Carlo, though the facade breaks new ground by receding in a shallow concave curve. The introduction of movement into the facade reached its highest point in Borromini's later works, such as the facades of S. Agnese (1652) and S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.

The facade of S. Carlo has a very marked concave-convex-concave movement in the lower story, but in the upper story Borromini introduced a small semicircular pavilion, above which he placed a large oval supported by angels. The pavilion follows the convex curve of the entablature below it, but the oval is mounted on an inward-curving wall, so that the rhythm of the upper part changes to concave-concave-concave before our eyes. This extreme complexity found little favor in Rome, where many people criticized Borromini's "extravagances, " but this daring and lively treatment of a facade, which exploits the brilliant light and shadow of a hot climate, was much appreciated by architects in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, and, slightly later, in Catholic Germany and Austria. The exuberant baroque of all these countries owes its existence to the example of Borromini, but most Roman critics and patrons preferred the architecture of Bernini with its classical overtones.

In 1642 Borromini began the church of S. Ivo alla Sapienza, the university chapel (the Sapienza was the University of Rome). The church was built at one end of an existing courtyard, which Borromini used to provide a concave facade two stories high, repeating the double arcades of the court. The plan of S. Ivo is even more complex than that of S. Carlo. It consists basically of an equilateral triangle with a deep apse in the middle of each side and with the points of the triangle cut off and rounded into curves going in the opposite direction to the apses. Many attempts have been made to explain this shape as symbolic—one of the most popular is that it represents the bee in the arms of the Barberini family—but it seems more likely that it resulted from Borromini's passion for geometry. The walls of S. Ivo are articulated by pilasters which carry a strongly emphasized cornice, which (like that of S. Carlo) defines a plan not quite identical with the ground plan. Above the cornice the whole extraordinary shape is gathered together into something which internally becomes a dome and lantern but externally has a totally different appearance. It can best be described as a convex-curved drum with a shallow tiled roof and a lantern that ends in a spiral ramp.

Borromini's Style

Not only is it difficult to describe Borromini's forms in the ordinary language of architectural analysis, but they also have a mathematical sophistication quite different in kind from the grandiose simplicity of Bernini's conceptions. This contrast is heightened by the fact that Bernini employed comparatively simple forms but overlaid them with the richest possible decorative elements, whereas Borromini, partly from necessity because of the nature of his commissions, restricted himself to painted stucco with sparse gilding, invented decorative motifs which seem to be vegetable in origin, and never employed figural sculpture on anything like the scale natural to Bernini.

The highly personal art of Michelangelo seems to have served as a starting point for Borromini, dating from the time when he worked as a mason at St. Peter's. Many of Borromini's ideas can also be traced back to the architecture of ancient Rome—but not to the accepted models of antiquity. From these sources he created an intensely personal style, in which some of his contemporaries even discerned (correctly) elements of the Gothic.

Borromini's Temperament

The neurotic face which looks out at us from the portrait that is the frontispiece to Borromini's Opus architectonicum is an excellent indication of his character. Although he was reasonably successful in his career and was made a knight of Christ by the Pope in 1652, Borromini seems to have been permanently embittered by Bernini's greater fame and, perhaps, by a restless quest for perfection. An early biographer tells us that he made wax and clay models as well as many drawings and that he destroyed a quantity of drawings a few days before his death.

The accounts of Borromini's last illness indicate that he suffered from a nervous complaint and had to be watched night and day. In the August heat of 1667 he stabbed himself with his own sword while his servant's attention was distracted. He recovered sufficiently to make a will and receive the last rites; he died on August 3. Being unmarried, he left his property to a nephew, on condition that he marry a niece of Carlo Maderno. Borromini was buried in Maderno's tomb in S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, to which, at his own request, no inscription was added.

Just before his death Borromini began work on a collection of engravings of his buildings, but the project was never completed. Two large folio volumes appeared in 1720 and 1725 under the title Opus architectonicum equitis Francisci Boromini.

Further Reading

The best treatment of Borromini in English is Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy: 1600-1750 (1958; 2d ed. 1965). There are numerous splendid reproductions of Borromini's works, including the drawings, in Paolo Portoghesi, The Rome of Borromini: Architecture as Language (1967; trans. 1968). James Lees-Milne, Baroque in Italy (1959), contains a chapter surveying Borromini's work. See also Michael Kitson, The Age of Baroque (1966), and Germain Bazin, The Baroque (1968).

Additional Sources

Blunt, Anthony, Borromini, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Doumato, Lamia, Borromini's baroque, Monticello, Ill.: Vance Bibliographies, 1979. □

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Borromini, Francesco

Borromini, Francesco (1599–1667). One of the greatest exponents of Baroque architecture in Rome, he was born Francesco Castello in Bissone, near Como, studied sculpture in Milan (where he probably met the masons working on late-Gothic forms at the Duomo), and was apprenticed to his relative, Carlo Maderno, from c.1620, before assisting Bernini (of whom he was critical and jealous) at San Pietro, Rome, 1629–33. Borromini was fascinated by the teachings of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), who held that mathematics was the key to Nature, and that geometrical figures were Nature's pictographs. As a result, Borromini developed his architecture through highly complex interlinked geometries, creating powerful, restless, dynamic forms totally different from the concatenated method of Renaissance design. His other sources were Antique buildings such as Hadrian's villa at Tivoli.

Borromini set up on his own in 1633, and was involved in a number of designs for palazzi and villas, although he is best known for his churches. In 1634 he was commissioned to design the Monastery of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1634–43) in Rome for the Order of Spanish Discalced Trinitarians. In spite of its smallness, the complex of cloister and church is ingenious in the extreme, illustrating Borromini's concerns with geometrical intricacies. The church has an elliptical, central space that merges with other ellipses, the Orders being placed on contraflexed curves on plan, so that wall-surfaces bow inwards and outwards. The whole front (from 1665) of the building seems to be in motion, with its concave-convex-concave plan for the lower Ionic storey and a concave-concave-concave plan for the upper Composite façade. The miniature Orders for the aedicules recall Borromini's hero, Michelangelo, and his work on the Capitol. Shortly after beginning work on San Carlo, Borromini was appointed to design the Casa e Oratorio dei Filippini (1637–50), the façade of which curves slightly, as though it had been bent, but the plan is ingenious and has a wonderful logic. The Monastery of the Oblate Agostiniane, including the Church of Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori (1642–9), remained unfinished, but has several interesting features: vestibule, church, and the space before the concave façade determine each other's shape, for a concave in one creates a convex in the other, giving an impression of almost elastic materials.

The plan of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza (1642–62) is based on six circles drawn on a six-pointed star evolved from two superimposed equilateral triangles. The resultant space is extraordinary and dynamic, carried up within the dome which is capped by a lantern (the shape of which resembles the late-Roman temple of Venus at Baalbek), topped by a spiral tower (which may refer to the Tower of Babel) above which is the flame of Truth. The plan resembles the shape of a bee, the heraldic device of Pope Urban VIII (1623–44), who appointed Borromini architect to the ancient University (the Sapienza). There are references to the Wisdom of Solomon (and therefore to the Temple) in the Cherubims, palms, pomegranates, and stars within the dome. This eclectic symbolism has no precedent in architecture. The Biblioteca Alessandrina alla Sapienza (1660–6) was the model for many later monastic and university libraries.

The fame that grew from these Baroque masterpieces led to other ecclesiastical commissions (largely through his Pamfili patron, Pope Innocent X (1644–55)), including the renovation and modernization of the ancient Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. There, he clothed the structure of the nave and aisles in Baroque garb, with the overlapping triumphal-arch theme that Alberti had used at Sant'Andrea in Mantua in C15. The work involved rearranging and adapting the many funerary monuments within the new setting, and this Borromini did with skill, adding putti and Baroque decorations to give the scheme coherence. However, his intended vaulting over the nave was never built. He was commissioned to complete Rainaldi's unfinished Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone in the Piazza Navona (1653–7). The building was a Greek cross on plan, which Borromini kept in essence, but he raised the drum of the dome and articulated the concave front flanked by two inventive towers. The result is that the onlooker seems to be drawn within the great centralized space, which is the High Baroque version of the centralized plan of San Pietro. This building was influential, especially in Austria (see Fischer von Erlach).

From 1647 he worked on the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide, the main façade of which has a Giant Order of pilasters (with capitals reduced to five flutes) between which strange Doric aedicules burst from the plane of the wall. The cornice, part straight and part swaying, is carried on larger mutules, and the whole effect is surreal, oppressive, and sinister. Inside the complex is the Cappella dei Re Magi, roofed with rib-vaults connected to the Giant Order of pilasters, giving a Gothic flavour to what is essentially a Baroque ensemble.

Borromini's commissions dried up on the death of his patron, the Pope, in 1655, and, in spite of a moderately successful decade, he committed suicide in 1667. His style, which fused Gothic and late-Renaissance elements, was unconventional, but his experiments with swaying walls and interpenetrating ellipses were influential in Central Europe in C18. His successful mixing of flowing forms with vigorous sculpture also proved to be a powerful stimulus north of the Alps.


Bosel & and C. Frommel (2000);
Blunt (1979);
Connors (1980);
C. Frommel (ed.) (2000);
E. Hempel (1924);
Norberg-Schulz (1986, 1986a);
Portoghesi (1982, 1990);
Raspe (1994);
Sinisgalli et al . (2000);
Varriano (1986);
Wittkower (1982)

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Borromini, Francesco

Francesco Borromini (fränchā´skō bōr-rōmē´nē), 1599–1677, major Italian baroque architect. His first independent commission (begun 1634) was San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome, one of the masterpieces of the Roman baroque. The church is noted for its undulating rhythm of architectural elements within a basically geometric plan. In 1642 he began the designs for Sant' Ivo della Sapienza, Rome, a dynamic hexagonal structure. He was also entrusted with the reconstruction of St. John the Lateran, as well as the completion of Sant' Agnese in the Piazza Navona and Sant' Andrea della Fratte. Borromini's innovations in palace as well as church design had a tremendous influence in Italy and northern Europe.

See studies by A. Blunt (1979) and Connors (1980).

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"Borromini, Francesco." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 21 Jul. 2017 <>.

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"Borromini, Francesco." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from

Borromini, Francesco

Borromini, Francesco (1599–1667) Italian Baroque architect. Borromini was the most inventive figure of the three masters of Roman Baroque (the others were Bernini and Pietro da Cortona). His hallmark was a dynamic hexagonal design based on intersecting equilateral triangles and circles, such as the spectacular Sant'Ivo della Sapienza (begun 1642). His masterpieces include San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1638–41) and Sant'Agnese in Piazza Navona (1653–55).

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