~ Legendary Rome ~
Bernini vs. Borromini

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) were the two leading 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, yet being at the same time an outstanding architect, a painter and a great fountain-maker, but also a playwright, a truly all-round artist of the Baroque period. His early talent and religious zeal made him soon turn into one of the most important and famous personalities in Rome, especially under the reign of pope Urban VIII (1623-44), who entrusted the young Gianlorenzo with the first commissions while he was still a cardinal. To give an idea of the impact of Bernini's works on Rome's artistic heritage, it is enough to mention, among his many projects, the scenographic arrangement of St.Peter's square, surrounded by its massive quadruple 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, circles and ovals, repeated in an alternate sequence, often obtaining very innovative results for those days, in contrast with Bernini's models, strictly inspired by the religious concept that the proportions of buildings should correspond to those of man (as human proportions, in God's image according to the Bible, were then 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. Borromini himself was a distant relative of Maderno. His real surname was Castelli; it is uncertain whether he took the one by which he is better known out of devotion to Saint Carlo Borromeo, or after the surname of his mother's second husband, Brumino. When he came to Rome, summoned by Maderno, he 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, rather than 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, some extra parts arbitrarily added to one of his buildings that altered its original look, and so on - 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 always referred to 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.

Bernini's fountain and Borromini's church
face each other in the centre of the square
In the centre of piazza Navona stands one of Bernini's most famous works, the Fountain of the Rivers (1652). 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, built almost at the same time of the fountain; its making started in 1652 under the direction of Girolamo Rainaldi, and only one year later Borromini replaced him, carrying on with the works until 1657, when he quit the workshop, handing it over to Girolamo's son, Carlo Rainaldi. Nevertheless, by tradition, it is the architect from Ticino who is always credited for this church.
St.Agnes has an imposing look, despite being rather short: its depth is, in fact, no more than about 40 metres (or yards), stretching mostly in width. The façade is concave in shape, so to make the dome stand out, and to prevent the staircase that leads to the entrance from projecting into the square.

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 only 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 (the one at the back is the gravestone of Carlo Maderno)