The Tempestuous and Fanciful Baroque

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The Tempestuous and Fanciful Baroque


An altogether more tempestuous spirit and highly imaginative genius animated the architectural visions of Francesco Borromini (1599–1667), the architect of a number of churches in and around Rome in the mid-seventeenth century. Unlike the amiable Bernini, Borromini was a loner who was quick to take offense and who eventually ended his life in suicide. While his competitor Bernini reveled in interiors filled with opulent displays of gold, colored marbles, and sculpture, Borromini's designs usually called for stark white, highlighted only by touches of gilt. Into these spaces he poured strange symmetries, curving walls and entablatures, and concave pediments—in short, shapes that had never been seen before in such close juxta-position. Trained as a sculptor like Michelangelo and Bernini, he obsessed over small details in his designs, treating buildings as if they were sculptural forms. His plans almost always reveal his sophisticated knowledge of geometry. One of the best examples of his unusual architecture is the small Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, a structure in which Borromini used many intersecting elliptical shapes. Inside, these shapes give the viewer the impression that the church is alive because of the constantly shifting dynamic flow of its curved lines. A more mature and larger work resulted from Borromini's designs for the Church of Sant'Ivo, a domed structure unlike any built up to this time in Europe. Borromini built the church at the end of a long courtyard for a school that later became the University of Rome; from the outside, the structure's dome and cupola appear as if they were a ziggurat, an ancient stepped pyramid dating from Mesopotamian times. These designs had become known in Europe during the sixteenth century, but only Borromini ventured to make such bold use of this shape. The footprint of the church is in the form of a six-pointed star, although, inside, Borromini's alterations to this shape quickly become apparent. Rather than ending in the angular shapes of a triangle, three alternating points of the star are rounded into semi-circular niches, a motif repeated even more forcefully in the dome above. Thus, as one stands inside the church in any direction the shapes constantly oscillate against each other, and the form that is behind one is exactly the opposite of that which is in front. This highly intellectual architecture had many admirers, particularly in a seventeenth-century world fascinated by the properties of mathematics and geometry. Yet Borromini's works also evidenced a playful and unexpected side, too. In the Church of Sant Agnese he designed in the Piazza Navona in Rome, the architect made the façade appear as if it was a traditional church with side aisles and a nave. He strengthened this illusion by the placement of towers at both ends of the façade. Once inside, however, the viewer finds that the shape of the church is an ellipse that runs parallel, rather than perpendicular, to the square outside. The façade at Sant'Agnese, too, manages to complete Michelangelo's vision for unobstructed views of a church's dome. Flanked by its corner towers, the dome of the church soars above and is framed by high towers, thus accomplishing what the papacy's revisions in the design of St. Peter's destroyed at the great basilica. Here, as in most of his structures, Borromini also played with the traditional language of architecture to create a space notable for its decorative imaginativeness as well as its undeniable beauty. While he was not the only Italian Baroque architect to have a profound effect in Northern Europe, his works were especially revered in Germany and Austria, and knowledge of his achievements eventually inspired a climate of experimentation and innovation in these regions.

Ricchino and Longhena.

The development of a dynamic Baroque architecture soon occurred in other places throughout Italy. At roughly the same time that Bernini and Borromini began their careers in Rome, several figures—working primarily in Venice and Milan—began employing design techniques similar to those taking shape in Rome. At Milan, Francesco Maria Ricchino (1583–1658) experimented with combinations of rectangles and octagons within the Church of San Giuseppe. Designed in the early seventeenth century, the structure broke away from reigning conventions to include a central-style interior composed of two octagons. The resulting structure bore great resemblance to the curving, undulating lines that Borromini developed at roughly the same time in Rome. Ricchino, once dubbed "the most imaginative" of seventeenth-century Baroque architects, inspired a native school of Baroque architecture in Milan that developed roughly contemporaneous with the more familiar and famous Roman style. Slightly later in Venice, the designer Baldassare Longhena (1598–1658) made similar experiments with the Baroque style in the Church of Santa Maria delle Salute, a structure prominently placed at the end of the city's Grand Canal. Begun in 1631, the church was intended to commemorate the cessation of a recent outbreak of the plague in the city. The building was constructed in the central style, that is, it radiated outward as an octagon from a single point at its center, a form of construction generally disfavored by ecclesiastical leaders at the time. Inside, the interior was fairly typical of churches built at the time, yet on its exterior Longhena massed 125 decorative sculptures, rounded volutes, or scroll-shaped decorations, that served as buttresses, and other ornamental elements so that the entire structure took on the effect of a gigantic sculptural confection. It remains one of the most fanciful churches on the Venetian scene to this day, providing the city with one of its most unforgettable and dramatic views, and one that is strategically placed in an important crossroads at the city's center. It is, in other words, an effective, grand note of drama and whimsy at Venice's core.


introduction: The imaginative spaces and shapes of Italian Baroque architecture did not please everyone. Writing in 1672, the Roman art historian Giovanni Pietro Bellori attacked the newfangled ideas of seventeenth-century architects, ideas that deformed the noble artistic synthesis accomplished by the ancients and recreated by High Renaissance masters. Bellori dedicated his work to Louis XIV's chief minister Colbert, who actively supported classicism in that country by encouraging the king to found the Royal Academy in 1671.

As for architecture, we say that the architect ought to conceive a noble Idea and to establish an understanding that may serve him as law and reason; since his inventions will consist of order, arrangement, measure, and eurythmy of whole and parts. But in respect to the decoration and ornaments of the orders, he may be certain to find the Idea established and based on the examples of the ancients, who as a result of long study established this art, the Greeks gave it its scope and best proportions, which are confirmed by the most learned centuries and by the consensus of a succession of learned men, and which became the laws of an admirable Idea and a final beauty. This beauty, being one only in each species, cannot be altered without being destroyed. Hence those who with novelty transform it, regrettably deform it; for ugliness stands close to beauty, as the vices touch the virtues. Such an evil we observe unfortunately at the fall of the Roman Empire, with which all the good Arts decayed, and architecture more than any other; the barbarous builders disdained the models and the Ideas of the Greeks and Romans and the most beautiful monuments of antiquity, and for many centuries frantically erected so many and such various fantastic phantasies of orders that they rendered it monstrous with the ugliest disorder. Bramante, Raphael, Baldassare [Peruzzi], Giulio Romano, and finally Michelangelo labored to restore it from its heroic ruins to its former Idea and look, by selecting the most elegant forms of the antique edifices.

But today instead of receiving thanks these very wise men like the ancients are ungratefully vilified, almost as if, without genius and without inventions, they had copied one from the other. On the other hand, everyone gets in his head, all by himself, a new Idea and travesty of architecture in his own mode, and displays it in public squares and upon the façades: they certainly are men void of any knowledge that belongs to the architect, whose name they assume in vain. So much so that they madly deform buildings and even towns and monuments with angles, breaks and distortions of lines; they tear apart bases, capitals, and columns by the introduction of bric-a-brac of stucco, scraps, and disproportions; and this while Vitruvius condemns similar novelties and puts before us the best examples.

source: Giovanni Pietro Bellori in Michelangelo and the Mannerists; The Baroque and the Eighteenth Century. Vol. II of A Documentary History of Art. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1958): 104–105.

Guarino Guarini.

In a somewhat different vein the architecture of Guarino Guarini (1624–1683) made use of elements drawn from Borromini, although he deployed these to a completely different effect. A member of the Catholic reform order of the Theatines, Guarini spent his youth in Rome, where he became aware of the experiments with new forms and styles being conducted by Maderno, Borromini, and Bernini. As he came to maturity, he became one of the great traveling architects of the seventeenth century, designing buildings in Sicily, Paris, and at Lisbon, as well as completing from a distance designs for churches at Munich and Prague. Later he moved to Turin, where he planned many buildings, most of which unfortunately have been destroyed since that time. A few examples of his work do survive, however. Although in some regards his use of curved shapes and unusual juxtapositions of geometric figures was similar to Borromini's and shows his influence, Guarini became even more obsessed with geometric patterns in his work. Much of this inspiration he derived from the knowledge he acquired of Islamic architecture while working in Sicily and Spain. In addition, late Gothic or Flamboyant architecture with its highly decorative vaulting provided another source of inspiration. In the designs for two domes he created in Turin, for example, he made use of intricate webs of triangles. For the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in Turin's cathedral, Guarini created a complex pattern of ever-shifting hexagons that move up the dome and frame its culminating oculus, a window which is in itself made up of a kaleidoscope of circles, semi-circles, and triangles. This pattern refracts and throws the light that enters the chapel in a way no less spectacular than in the greatest of Gothic cathedrals. Guarini's creations were, above all, intellectual exercises in the deployment of geometric figures to create spaces that strike their observers as suave, elegant, and highly intellectual. In their wealth of decorative ornamentation and flamboyant detailing, Guarini's works anticipate the elegance of the Rococo style of the eighteenth century.

Diffusion of the Baroque Style Beyond Italy.

Through the travels of figures like Gianlorenzo Bernini and Guarino Guarini, the accomplishments of Italian seventeenth-century design came to be known throughout continental Europe. The popularity of engraved architectural etchings and theoretical treatises written by Italians also spread knowledge of the innovations underway in the peninsula, as did the travels of European designers in Italy, too. Throughout the continent, many of the features of Italian design inspired similar experiments with space, ornament, and monumental scale. The Baroque, as it developed elsewhere in Europe, was not just slavishly copied or imitated from Italian examples. The breakthroughs of figures like Bernini and Borromini were instead assimilated to varying degrees within native styles. One of the chief accomplishments of Roman Baroque architects in the first half of the seventeenth century had been to create a dynamic architecture that suggested movement—movement bolder than the passive, static, and intellectualized spaces favored by the designers of the High Renaissance and Mannerist periods. Baroque buildings invited viewers to enjoy their complexities from multiple angles. The asymmetrical lines and the curving spaces of their interiors demanded that viewers walk about these structures to explore the many facets of their interiors. All of these elements, though, were carefully calculated to produce a climactic impression, an impression that often bespoke of power and authority. In the many churches that sprouted on the cityscapes of Rome and other Italian cities, this element of power had been carefully harnessed to support the resurgence of religion underway as a result of the Catholic Reformation. Elsewhere, the use of the new dynamic and monumental techniques of Baroque architecture found their way into an almost innumerable number of urban palaces, country villas and châteaux, as well as churches and civic buildings. For their abilities to command the environment and to suggest control, buildings constructed in the Baroque fashion quickly became the preferred style for seventeenth-century kings and princes desiring to present an image that coincided with their absolutist political rhetoric and theories.


Anthony Blunt, ed., Borromini (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1979).

Joseph Connors, Borromini and the Roman Oratory (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1980).

Frederick Hartt, Art. A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. 3rd ed. (New York: H. N. Abrams, Inc., 1989)

J. S. Held and D. Posner, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971).

Andrew Hopkins, Santa Maria della Salute: Art and Ceremony in Baroque Venice (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

H. A. Meek, Guarino Guarini and His Architecture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988).

Paolo Porteghesi, The Rome of Borromini. Trans. Barbara La Penta (New York: G. Braziller, 1968; Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971).