Borromini, Francesco (Francesco Castelli; 1599–1667)

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BORROMINI, FRANCESCO (Francesco Castelli; 15991667)

BORROMINI, FRANCESCO (Francesco Castelli; 15991667), Italian architect, born in Bissone, a fishing village on Lake Lugano, today in Swiss Canton Ticino. With Gian Lorenzo Bernini (15981680) and Pietro da Cortona (15961669), Borromini epitomizes the Roman baroque style in its most agitated form. Radical design originality characterizes his artistic personality. He went to Milan in 1608, where he gained apprenticeship as a stonecutter on the continuing construction at the huge Gothic cathedral. There Borromini studied the unusual lobed plan and complex geometry of the late antique Basilica of San Lorenzo. These formative experiences served him as he later forged a new design language in Rome, where he arrived in 1619. At first working as a sculptor of architectural details on the nave interior of St. Peter's, Borromini soon assumed duties under Carlo Maderno (15561629), architect at the Basilica. During this time he developed his draftsmanship by copying details from the church's tribune designed by Michelangelo, whose anticlassical and sculptural vision of architecture thereafter became Borromini's ideal, and by studying the remains of ancient Roman architecture, particularly those with complicated curvilinear ground plans, swelling mural components, and billowing vault systems, as exemplified by Hadrian's villa near Tivoli. The sinuous architectural forms he fashioned from these sources seemed in the estimation of some later generations to violate the essence of tectonic art, but his place in history is secured by a profound organicism derived from nature and a sculptural conception of designboth subsumed in a disciplined, geometrically based graphic procedure.

Upon Maderno's death in 1629 Borromini was retained to work under Bernini on the giant bronze altar canopy (baldacchino ) being erected at Urban VIII's behest over the tomb of the apostle at St. Peter's. Borromini provided ornamental details and technical solutions to the daunting problem of scale, but chafed under the dominant figure of Bernini, whom he considered not competent in architecture. Borromini's anger at not receiving the credit due to him for his participation in the design resulted in a break with the powerful papal favorite and colored the remainder of Borromini's professional life. Owing to Bernini's hegemony and, perhaps, Borromini's misanthropic demeanor, the latter struggled for attention in Rome's competitive design environment. He nevertheless received important commissions from religious institutions and a few private patrons, most notably during the reign of Innocent X (16441655), when Bernini's star temporarily waned. All his works were either initiated by someone else, left unfinished, or altered after his death. In some cases he attracted patronage through his Spanish connections, by offering to work without compensation, or by personally guaranteeing structural integrity, but always by producing innovative designs. Despite the vicissitudes of his career, Borromini produced some of the most unusual buildings of the early modern period in Europe.

As a cultural figure of European significance, Borromini is important for his intense dedication to artistic originality and his sense of the supreme value of innovation in the professional practice of architecture. Like Galileo in scientific inquiry and Caravaggio in pictorial investigation, he was a radical naturalist and looked to nature as a validating source for discovery and truth. His synthesis of Gothic design principles, imperial Roman buildings, Michelangelesque architectural sculpture, and a determination to transcend rules and norms led him to the extreme boundaries of emotive content and rhetorical expressivity not seen in Western architecture before his time. He brought this persuasive architectural imagery to the service of a re-emergent Catholicism. In the delirium brought on by a fever, he threw himself on a sword and died in agony the next day, but only after having destroyed a large number of his drawings. He may be seen as the baroque prototype of the modern eccentric genius.

Almost all of Borromini's completed work is in Rome. The most important and characteristic examples are the church and monastic complex of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, the university chapel of S. Ivo, the Oratorio of the Filippini, the re-constructed nave and side aisles of the Lateran, the facade of the missionary college of the Propaganda Fide (with chapel), the external dome drum and bell tower of S. Andrea della Fratte, and the lower section of the church of S. Agnese. His buildings and published designsbut most of all his free-thinking design spiritinfluenced the Theatine priest-architect Guarino Guarini (16241683) and two generations of Austrian and German architects, notably Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, and Johann Balthasar Neumann. During the ascendancy of neoclassicism, critics condemned him as the fountainhead of undisciplined design. Some scholars have seen in his heterodox forms a consistent symbolic language, while recent interpretations have emphasized the importance of cultural context for assessing his imagery. Borromini's heritage has reemerged in the organic naturalism of a group of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century architects, only without his geometrical rigor.

See also Bernini, Gian Lorenzo ; Rome, Architecture in.


Primary Sources

Borromini, Francesco. L'opera. Edited by Sebastiano Giannini. Rome, 1720. Reprint, London, 1967. Engraved plates of Sapienza project, including S. Ivo and Biblioteca Alessandrina. Some based on lost drawings by the architect.

. Opus architectonicum. Edited by Sebastiano Giannini. Rome, 1725. Reprint, London, 1967. Engraved plates of Roman Oratory project. Based on architect's lost drawings. Insightful text provided by Borromini's Oratorian advocate, Virgilio Spada.

Secondary Sources

Blunt, Anthony. Borromini. Cambridge, Mass., 1979. Flawed, but still the standard monograph in English.

Bösel, Richard, and Christoph Luitpold Frommel, eds. Borromini e l'universo barocco. Milan, 1999. Collection of essays associated with quadricentennial exhibition held in Rome.

. Borromini e l'universo barocco, catalogo. Milan, 2000. Catalogue of quadricentennial exhibition. Copious and detailed entries.

Connors, Joseph. Borromini and the Roman Oratory: Style and Society. New York, 1980. Major reinterpretation of Borromini as architectural designer. Set the standard for many later studies.

. "Vigilio Spada's Defense of Borromini." The Burlington Magazine 131 (1989): 7690. Fascinating insight into valued qualities Spada saw in Borromini as designer.

Frommel, Christoph Luitpold, and Elisabeth Sladek, eds. Francesco Borromini: Atti del convegno internazionale. Milan, 2000. Proceedings of conference. Major interpretive essays, some in English.

Portoghesi, Paolo. Francesco Borromini. Milan, 1967. Reprint 1990. Still the major monographic study of the architect in any language. Accompanying interpretive photographs extremely influential.

Steinberg, Leo. Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane: A Study in Multiple Form and Architectural Symbolism. New York, 1977. First appeared as author's dissertation in 1959. Controversial but seminal early iconographic interpretation.

Studi sul Borromini: Atti del convegno promosso dall'Accademia nazionale di San Luca. 2 vols. Rome, 1967. Proceedings of conference held in Rome on the tricentennial of the architect's death.

John Beldon Scott

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Borromini, Francesco (Francesco Castelli; 1599–1667)

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