~ Legendary Rome ~
Bernini vs. Borromini

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) were the two architects who contributed to the city's Baroque heritage more than any other artist in Rome.
Two absolute masters, no doubt, but with very different personalities.

Gianlorenzo Bernini
Bernini was born in Naples, although his father was from Tuscany, but he spent more or less his whole life in Rome. He is considered the greatest sculptor of his century (despite being at the same time also an outstanding architect, a painter and a fountain-maker), the real founder of Baroque sculpture. His early talent and religious zeal made him soon turn into the most important and famous artist in Rome, especially under the reign of pope Urban VIII (1623-44), who gave the artist his first commissions while he was still a cardinal. To give an idea of the importance of Bernini's works for Rome's artistic heritage, it is enough to mention among his projects the lavish arrangement of St.Peter's square, with its gigantic double colonnade.
Francesco Borromini

Borromini, instead, is credited for having introduced a new figurative language in Baroque style: his façades and his famous bizarre belltowers took shape out of a series of geometric subunits, such as squares, rectangles, ovals, etc., often obtaining very innovative results for those days, in contrast with Bernini's models, strictly inspired by the religious concept by which the proportions of buildings should correspond to those of man (as human proportions are those of God, according to the Bible, thus considered at one time universal, harmonic and divine).
Borromini was born in the northern region of Canton Ticino, as many other important architects who worked in Rome over the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, such as Domenico Fontana (1543–1607), Carlo Maderno (1556–1629), Carlo Fontana (1634?-1714) and others, most of whom were relations, actually forming a clan. His original surname was Castelli; it is uncertain whether he took the more famous one out of devotion to Saint Carlo Borromeo, or after the surname of his mother's second husband, Brumino; when he came to Rome, called by Carlo Maderno (one of his mother's distant relatives), e began to appear in documents as Borromini. He was described as a solitary man, compulsive, melancholic and with a very irascible temper. His fame was always offuscated by Bernini's popularity. He was offered sponsorship by Innocent X (1644-55), but only because under this pope Bernini had fallen into disgrace (not for a true preference).
the church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza and the Filippini Oratory,
two among Borromini's masterpieces in Rome
His bad temper, together with the increasing frustration stirred by his rival's success, combined with a series of unlucky events - a commission taken away from him, unwanted extensions added to one of his buildings that altered its original look, etc. - in the end led him to commit suicide.
Nevertheless, we know that Bernini and Borromini had indeed cooperated for some of their works, the most important of which is the huge canopy over St.Peter's altar (although it is commonly remembered only as 'Bernini's baldachin').

Their different position triggered hard feelings between the two architects, and their conflict became legendary, up to the point of inspiring popular beliefs about their rivalry.

In the centre of piazza Navona stands one of Bernini's most famous works, the Fountain of the Rivers (1651). The base of this structure, which supports the Roman copy of an Egyptian obelisk, is decorated with four large allegorical figures, representing the major rivers from the four regions of the world known by those times: the Danube (for Europe), the Nile (for Africa), the Ganges (for Asia) and the Rio de la Plata (for the Americas).

On the western side of the square, in front of the fountain, stands the church of St.Agnes in Agone, whose making dates back to the same years; the works had started under the direction of Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi, but less than one year later Borromini replaced them.
By using a most interesting technique, the architect drew the church's façade giving it a concave surface (which is a shape that Borromini often used for his buildings), in such a way that when the large dome is observed from below, its view is not partly obstructed by the building's front, also appearing somewhat closer than its true distance, thanks to a perspective effect.

← piazza Navona: Bernini's fountain and the church by Borromini face each other

It is commonly said that Bernini had drawn two of the fountain's allegorical figures to mock his rival; in particular, one of the two facing the church, the Rio de la Plata, would raise its hand as if protecting itself from the building, likely to fall. Another figure, instead, representing the Nile, would conceal its head with a veil not to see Borromini's 'horrible work': actually, the veiled head is an allegorical reference to the fact that in those times the source of the river Nile was yet unknown, having been discovered no sooner than in the 19th century.
At the base of the church's right belltower, instead, a small statue of St.Agnes (knicknamed 'little Mrs.Agnes' by the local people) lifts one hand to her breast: this attitude was popularly interpreted as if reassuring that the building is steady.

Obviously all this is but a legend, as the church was finished a few years later than the fountain itself, when the statues had already been stood and Bernini, however critical he might have been, could have no longer been able to alter their shape.

the Rio de la Plata →

the Nile
But also Borromini's followers bitterly criticized Gianlorenzo's fountain, and claimed that it would collapse under the heavy weight of the obelisk, being its central part hollow. In fact, this scheme, yet frequent in Bernini's works, clashed with the architectural guidelines of that age (see also Minerva's Chick).
So the witty artist, at night-time, sent a team of assistants to tie four very thin threads to the obelisk, replying that in this way it would no longer fall down: one of the many jokes he played against his rivals, to make fun of them. Bernini knew well what he was doing: the obelisk is still there, perfectly steady after over 350 years.


But this is not the only story about the two architects; a further juicy anecdote concerns the making of the Propaganda Fide building, in piazza Mignanelli.

the house dwelt by Bernini in via della Mercede
In 1626 Bernini had been given the commission for enlarging the building, but when Urban VIII died the works were handed over to Borromini (with great pleasure of the resentful Francesco). In those same days, though, Bernini lived in a house located on one side of the workshop. So the two great architects mocked each other; Borromini did this by carving on the building he was working on a pair of donkey ears, addressed to Bernini, while the latter personally carved on a corbel of his own house ...a male genital, pointing right towards Borromini and his team. For some time these two 'appendices' remained visible from the same street, via della Mercede, until they were chiselled off, in the name of public decency.

Not only in life, but also in death the two great artists received a different treatment, yet neither of the two boasts a lavish tomb.

Bernini was buried with full honour in Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four most important basilicas of Christianity (in the early days of his carreer, his house and workshop were located next to the church), on one side of the main altar, along with the rest of his family.
Borromini, instead, who had reserved for himself a chapel in the tiny church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, which the same architect had built, was refused the right of burial, having committed suicide; his remains rest under a small and rather sober-looking slab in the church of San Giovanni de' Fiorentini, with no other words but his name, next to the tomb of his distant relation, Carlo Maderno.

(from the left) the tombs of Gianlorenzo Bernini and of Francesco Borromini (beyond which is the gravestone of Carlo Maderno)