Francesco Borromini

Swiss-Italian Architect

Born: September 25, 1599
Bissone, Condominiums of the Twelve Cantons
Died: August 2, 1667
Rome, Papal States
I imagined a human form with open arms as if embracing everyone entering.
Francesco Borromini

Summary of Francesco Borromini

Borromini was one of the most innovative architects of the seventeenth century, and one-third of the trio of artists that defined the Roman Baroque style. But unlike the sculptor-architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and the painter-architect Pietro da Cortona, Borromini was consumed only with an architectural practice in which he was, in the words of the 17th century historian and biographer Filippo Baldinucci, "utterly immersed and engrossed in continuous thought". In his day, Borromini was maligned by many critics for being overelaborate and decorative (thereby violating the rules of classical proportion). Yet his single-mindedness, and his readiness to explore novel approaches to spatial compositions, have seen him labeled latterly as heir to Michelangelo's architectural legacy. Borromini was an anguished and solitary soul who eventually took his own life. Today, the originality of his vision, coupled with the story of his self-destructive personal struggles, has secured him the status of the "tormented and misunderstood genius".


The Life of Francesco Borromini

The famous art historian E. H. Gombrich said of Borromini: "He wanted a church to look festive and to be a building full of splendour to delight us with a vision of a fairy world of light and pageantry, why should not the architect designing a church have a right to give us an idea of the even greater pomp and glory to remind us of heaven?"

Progression of Art


Palazzo Barberini

The Palazzo Barberini, with its direct view of St. Peter's Basilica, was one of Borromini's first architectural projects. It was produced under the guidance of his uncle Carlo Maderno (before his death in 1629), and then under the direction of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Architecture professor Noah Resnick notes that "When placed in the context of his overall oeuvre, [the Barberini project emerges] as a manifestation of his developing theories of space and perspective. Central to these theories are a specific formal motif [...] and the elliptical staircase".

Borromini designed the smaller of two staircases that flank the main, two-storey hall of the Palazzo. This secondary staircase was intended for more private use, with an access point from the external portico, and leading to the private rooms of Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Borromini opted for an oval, or "helicoidal" design, meaning that it follows the principle of turning around its rotational axis. Throughout each turn of the staircase, one encounters twelve Doric "double-twisted" columns and capitals, decorated with small bees (the symbol of the Barberini family). Natural light filters into the staircase through the oculus above, as well as the windows in the facade.

Borromini was likely inspired to use an oval design by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who wrote a century earlier that oval staircases are not only aesthetically appealing, but also ideal for narrow spaces. They also have the advantage of permitting a better view of other individuals traversing the staircase (of special benefit to the elite individuals who would have used this private staircase). As Resnick notes, Borromini expanded on Palladio's model by "eliminating intermediary landings", and by "carefully altering tread sizes according to their position in the oval plan" in order to enhance the "vertical space defined by an intriguing set of visual and temporal rhythms". In this way, Resnick says, Borromini shows that he was a master of interweaving "real space, geometric space, and psychological space".

Staircase - Rome, Italy


San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Historian Michael Hill calls San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane "one of the starting points" of the Italian Baroque. The small church and monastery (also known as San Carlino), which sits at the corner of two intersecting roads upon the Quirinal Hill in Rome, was Borromini's first major independent commission. He was tasked with designing the church, cloister, and monastic buildings that was particularly challenging due to the cramped dimensions of the land. The architectural critic Jonathan Glancey describes how Borromini overcame the tight spatial limitations by creating "a geometrically complex and serpentine building, writhing around an exquisite oval dome inside".

Borromini defied convention by vertically stacking three levels that, theoretically, would be aesthetically incompatible. The facade of the lower level undulates, alternating between convex and concave curves. At this level, tall corinthian columns, standing on plinths, support the main entablatures. Weaving behind these taller columns are smaller columns with their own entablatures, framing niches, windows, various sculptures, and the main door. The second level of the church recalls a standard Greek cross plan, and at the top of the building sits an oval dome, which was a novel design feature at the time. Architectural historian Christian F. Otto writes that the dome appears to float "like a hallucinatory vision" through the carefully concealed light sources in the zone directly beneath the dome. The interior of the dome, meanwhile, features ornate stonecutting, with complexly interlocking crosses, squares, hexagons, and octagons. This design was directly inspired by the fourth-century church of Santa Costanza, on the outskirts of Rome. Borromini also demonstrated his fine stonecutting training throughout the church, sculpting cherubs, flowers, and a variety of other decorative figures.

The church's floorplan, meanwhile, is comprised of two equilateral triangles (representing the trinity) with a common base, around which Borromini then placed circles (symbolizing eternity). The interior lower walls appear to undulate in the same manner as the lower exterior facade. Within the church, the main altar sits on the same longitudinal axis as the door. There are two additional altars on the cross axis. In between these stand sixteen columns that support a broad, continuous entablature. A series of diagonally-placed columns and the area above the pendentives create a transitional space that integrates the curvilinear cross-like form of the lower order with the oval dome, and above, a lantern with the symbol of the Trinity.

Rome, Italy


Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza

Another of Borromini's masterpieces, which fully set the stage for the sort of Baroque architecture that was to follow, was the church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome. It was part of the Sapienza University, the first pontifical university, founded in 1303. Borromini opted for a central plan that resembles a six-pointed star, which at the time would have been recognized as the "Star of Solomon", a symbol of wisdom and learning. Arts writer Selin Akin lauds Borromini's "innovative dome design, his ability to integrate natural light into the space, and his playful yet harmonious use of variety of geometric shapes, both curvilinear and straight".

The concave facade of the church integrates seamlessly with the surrounding palace and courtyard and, overall, the building conveys a much greater sense of calmness and stillness than Borromini's earlier projects. However, atop the church sits a lantern with a novel and audacious spiraling corkscrew design. Architecture professor Julia M. Smyth-Pinney cites the lantern feature as "the most important image of the Sapienza in the pope's city". In the interior rotunda, meanwhile, Borromini juxtaposed triangular and semi-circular forms, creating a sense of harmony between sharp edges and curves. He decorated the interior whitewashed walls with expertly sculpted elements such as angels, clusters of eggs, crowns, bouquets of flowers, and, on the interior of the dome, a series of stars that grow smaller as they approach the lantern.

Historian Maria Felicia Nicoletti writes, "It was Bernini himself who, at the request of [Cardinal] Francesco Barberini, recommended [Borromini] for the position of architect at the Sapienza, the University of Rome [...] This appointment granted him access to a refined cultural circle including collector and antiques dealer Cassiano Dal Pozzo and mathematician Benedetto Castelli, an apprentice of Galileo's. As well as influencing his understanding of architecture as a 'study in applied mathematics', the input he received from them found expression in the eccentric church of Sant'Ivo della Sapienza, which presented itself as a unicum, a unique specimen in the history of architecture".

Rome, Italy


Palazzo Spada

Cardinal Spada commissioned Borromini to design a number of modifications to his newly purchased palace. The most notable of these was the arcaded courtyard, in which Borromini (aided by Augustinian priest and mathematician named Giovanni Maria da Bitonto) created an unprecedented optical illusion using forced perspective. To trick the eye, Borromini used diminishing rows of columns (which become shorter toward the end of the passageway) and a rising floor to make the eight-meter-long gallery appear thirty-seven meters long. Indeed, the gallery entrance measures six by three meters, while the opposite end measures a mere two by one meters.

Borromini enhanced his optical illusion by installing a sculpture of Mars, the Roman God of war, just beyond the end of the passageway. In reality, the sculpture is only sixty centimeters tall, however, when viewed through the corridor, the trompe-l'oeil effect makes the sculpture appear life-sized. Architecture professor Noah Resnick asserts that in the arcade of the Palazzo Spada, as in the oval staircase of the Palazzo Barberini, "spatial meaning is most powerfully revealed by physical movement through the space". Borromini's rival, Gianlorenzo Bernini, also adopted a similar forced perspective technique six years later when he designed the Vatican's formal entrance known as the Scala Regia. Borromini himself later employed architectural trompe-l'oeil effects in other projects, such as at St. Agnes in Agone (1652) on the Piazza Navona, where the concave facade creates the illusion that the dome of the building is much closer to the viewer than it is in reality.

Rome, Italy


Re Magi Chapel

In 1648, Borromini took over the design of the Re Magi Chapel, begun by Bernini a few years earlier. Bernini had started construction of a small oval chapel but lost the commission when Pope Urban VIII passed away in 1644. When Borromini was selected to complete the chapel, he demolished what Bernini had started (very well aware that this Bernini would be reminded of this insult on a daily basis, as his home overlooked the site), and opted instead for a rectilinear design with curved corners on the interior of the building.

The chapel is flanked by four side chapels and contains galleries above. The interior walls and vault are separated by a horizontal cornice line and two rows of windows at the base of the vault. The lower row of windows are rectangular, and above these are alternating small oeil-de-boeuf (round) and lunette (arched) windows. The wall pilasters are carried through into the vault in the form of crisscrossing ribs, thereby creating a sense of vertical harmony throughout the building. Art historian Torgil Magnuson calls the Re Magi Chapel Borromini's "most spatially unified interior". The ribs in the vault then rise to form an octagon, which contains a golden "Dove of the Holy Spirit" at the center.

The chapel's pale yellow brick facade contains seven bays and eight massive pilasters with innovative triglyph capitals. Also unique to this facade is the fact that the prominent cornice, decorated with interlocking corbels and rosettes, is not accompanied by an architrave or frieze (as in typical entablatures). The central bay takes the form of a concave curve, with its flanking pilasters angled inward, likely chosen by Borromini as he recognized that the long facade would always be seen from an oblique angle due to the narrowness of the outside street.

Rome, Italy


Sant'Andrea delle Fratte

When Borromini was commissioned in 1653 by the Marchese Paolo del Bufalo to take up the paused Sant'Andrea delle Fratte project, he was responsible for the church's apse, and what have come to be renowned as the most spectacular elements of the building, the dome and campanile (bell tower). Despite the Marchese's desire for an elliptical dome, the maverick Borromini opted for a design that uses a tall cylindrical drum with four arms on the plan of a superimposed Greek cross. The dome has a very high saucer-like drum and is formed from a cylinder with four arms based on the plan of a Greek cross. Each arm has its outer face curved to match that of the cylinder, and its two sides curved inward.

Borromini's square-plan campanile stands six stories high, with each story of varying height, and growing more ornate the higher they go. The lower two stories are made of the same, pink-colored, brick as the rest of the building's facade, with the first being a stark, unadorned, flat wall. At the corners of the second story, Borromini added protruding arms and Corinthian columns. The second level also features rectangular panels on the wall faces, flanked by Doric columns supporting a fragment of entablature and a pediment that is broken at the top and curled back at the sides.

The upper four stories of the campanile contrast with the rest of the building by being finished in white. The third story is a rotunda comprised of a plinth with four pairs of corinthian columns supporting a ring-shaped entablature, and above this, a balustrade. On the fourth story, four angel caryatids with their wings folded inward around themselves support a cog-wheel-shaped entablature with projecting cornice (a cornice, or "ledge", is a horizontal decorative molding that crowns the top edge of a wall or plinth). The plinth of the fifth story matches the shape of the entablature below and supports eight flaming torch finials. The uppermost level of the campanile is comprised of four curved forms that rise to meet one another, containing at their center an inverted and somewhat rounded pyramid form, and supporting at the very apex a spiked metal crown.

Rome, Italy

Biography of Francesco Borromini


Francesco Castelli, known to us today as Borromini, was born in Bissone, in the Swiss canton of Ticino, to Giovanni Domenico Castelli, a stonemason, and Anastasia Garogo. Historian Maria Felicia Nicoletti writes, his father "also known as 'Il Bissone' [was] in the service of the noble Visconti Borromeo family. His mother, Anastasia, came from the Garvo (or Garovi) family, who had consolidated their socio-economic status with the help of two brothers, Leone (Anastasia's father and Borromini's grandfather) and Francesco, both admired architects in the far-flung regions of Moravia and Bohemia". Following in his father's footsteps, Francesco began his own apprenticeship as a stonemason aged just nine years old.

Education and Early Training

Francesco's father dispatched his son to Milan in 1608 to gain practical experience in masonry, and stonecutting, which he did by assisting in the building of Milan's cathedral (the Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Nativity of Saint Mary, to give it its proper name). Nicoletti writes, "His arrival [in Milan] coincided with the canonisation of Saint Charles Borromeo (1610), the most influential citizen of the second half of the 16th century, whose pastoral spirit, driven by a keen sense of obligation, had made a significant mark not only on the religious but also on the artistic and architectural worlds [...] The atmosphere in Milan therefore offered a wealth of religious debate and intellectual stimulation, which clearly influenced the inquisitive and receptive personality of the young boy from Ticino".

In 1619, Borromini moved on to Rome where he was, in the words of Borromini's nephew, Bernardo, ready to "to see the great things of that city he had heard so much about". It is believed that Borromini financed his move by unscrupulously collecting on a debt that was in fact owed to his father. On his way to Rome, he took in other cities, including Ravenna and Sienna, from where he took further inspiration from architectural masterpieces. Once in Rome, he took lodgings with his cousin, Leone Garvo, who secured him a job as a stonemason on the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. Borromini first worked as a decorative sculptor for his uncle, Carlo Maderno, himself considered one of the forefathers of Baroque architecture.

Nicoletti writes, "[Maderno's] depository of incomparable technical expertise, which had enabled obelisks and columns to be erected in piazzas across Rome, his knowledge of hydraulics required to build aqueducts, fountains, water features in the city and suburban villas and, finally, his organisational abilities, which had allowed him to manage multiple projects at once, were now all at Borromini's disposal, who would not fail to make them his own and apply them in his future professional work". While working for him on the Palazzo Barberini, Maderno sadly passed away (in January 1629) from kidney disease, leaving Borromini and architect Pietro da Cortona to continue the Palazzo under the direction of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Borromini and da Cortona had a combustible relationship and in a fit of pique Borromini walked out on the project in 1631.

Between 1631 and 1633, Borromini partnered with Bernini to execute Maderno's design for the baldachin of St. Peter's Basilica, a monumental bronze canopy above the tomb of St. Peter. Borromini was particularly insulted at the "economic injustice" of being paid 25 scudi against Bernini's fee of ten times that sum. Borromini told his friend, Virgilio Spada, "What galls me is not that he [Bernini] had the money, but that he enjoys the honour of my efforts". While working on the St. Peter's project, Borromini was however recommended by Bernini and Cardinal Francesco Barberini (the pope's nephew) for the office of university architect.

At this time, Borromini began to seek patronage as an independent architect (the tragic death of Leone as result of an accident at St. Peter's Basilica saw him inherit his cousin's marble and other architectural effects). The architecture historian Johnathan Glancey writes that Borromini set up on his own as an architect in 1633 and it was in fact at this point that "he changed his name to Borromini - a play, perhaps, on both St Charles Borromeo, whose name graced his first solo commission, the breathtaking Roman church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, and on his rival Bernini, the 'Uomo Universale'" (Bernini earned the title of "universal man" on grounds of his versatility; an man who was accomplished equally as an architect, sculptor, and even set designer). Borromini's first significant independent commission was for the Roman church and monastery of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, built for the Spanish Trinitarians, an order dedicated to the freeing of Christian slaves. In bringing his uniquely independent vision to the project, Borromini had announced the theatrical Baroque style that would become his trademark.

While working at St. Peter's, Borromini had spent his downtime studying Michelangelo's architecture, and from which he produced numerous sketches. As art historian Noah Resnick writes, "Borromini in many ways saw himself as [Michelangelo's] spiritual heir, and it can be argued that he alone among Michelangelo's successors understood and meaningfully developed the fundamental innovations and discoveries his architecture exhibited". Resnick adds that Borromini "truly loved Michelangelo's buildings, and thus subscribed to the principles on which they relied: inventiveness of plan; plastic treatment of the wall; carefully thought-out details; and fundamental knowledge and subsequent reinterpretation of Vitruvian rules. All of these principles were combined with an expertise in mechanics as well as skill in construction and craft. [...] Michelangelo's influence, however, was more than a matter of details and convergence of taste and style. It was also found in Borromini's spatial order and its relationship to movement. In his [perspective] theories and methods, Borromini expanded on Michelangelo's fundamental concept of a building's relation to the human body in motion".

Mature Period

Over the following decade, Borromini received patronage from the prominent Spada family as well as Pope Innocent X. However, given his obstinate personality, his relationships with his patrons tended to be rather fractious. He was notoriously headstrong and argumentative, and expressed his perceived eccentricity through his curious choice of clothing. As Glancey explains, "Driven, studious, solitary, dressed in austere Spanish fashion, unmarried and probably chaste, Borromini set up home with an assistant and housekeeper in sparsely furnished rooms near San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. There was a bust of his hero, Michelangelo, a plaster cast of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca, and a library of around 1,000 books. It was here that he dreamed up his complex designs in the knowledge that 'in inventing new things one cannot receive the fruit of one's labour except later'". It was also in the solitary confines of his rooms that he "brooded on his rivalry with Bernini, a gregarious womaniser who, when he did marry, lived in a palace fit for a pope [...] Where Bernini was suave, Borromini was grave; where Borromini worried, Bernini celebrated."

Borromini was also known to be susceptible to fierce fits of rage. Indeed, while renovating the interior of the Basilica of St John Lateran, he found an altar boy named Marco Antonio Bussoni vandalizing some of his ornate marble sculptures. Borromini was so enraged he instructed his workers to punish the boy, who was later discovered bound and beaten to death. Despite being investigated by the police, Borromini escaped punishment via a papal pardon. Commenting on his ill temperament, the historian Ivan Battista notes that "[Borromini's] 'fiery' character, as the Tuscans had it, [was] reminiscent of the 'wild' personality of another great Baroque artist who had also left the misty north for sunny Rome to seek his fortune: Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio".

Late Period

Borromini's mood of resentment stemmed from the belief that his achievements did not receive the recognition they deserved. His conflict with Bernini came to a head when the two disagreed over whether or not to eliminate the towers that Maderno had originally designed for the facade or St. Peter's Basilica. Earlier, in 1636, Bernini had successfully submitted a proposal for completing them as planned. But after the completion of the first tower in 1641, it was found to be structurally deficient. In 1645, a commission elected to have the tower removed, and Borromini was publicly vocal in his criticism of Bernini's incompetence. Soon after, in 1647, Borromini won the commission to design the renovation of Piazza Navona. Bernini scorned his rival's plans and even presented his own, much more elaborate project. Able to use his own papal connections, Bernini won the commission to design the Piazza's resplendent Fontana die Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers featured four river gods representing the major rivers of the four continents). To the general onlooker, it was assumed that Bernini covered the face of the Nile river god (who holds his robe in front of his face) to indicate the fact that the source of the Nile was still relatively unknown. But legend has it that Bernini covered the face of the Nile statue so he was not forced to gaze upon "the disgrace" of the church of Sant'Agnese, designed by Borromini, and located directly in front of the fountain. Not to be outdone, Borromini placed a statue of Sant'Agnese at the foot of the church's bell tower with its face turned away to one side as an expression of its contempt for the ugliness of Bernini's the fountain.

The antipathy between the two men carried on into 1665 when Bernini accused Borromini of rejecting the anthropometric basis of architecture. Indeed, Bernini called Borromini's architectural plans "extravagant" and labelled him an "ignorant Goth who had corrupted architecture". As architectural historian Christian F. Otto explains, "Because the body of Adam was modelled not only by God but also in his image and likeness, it was argued, the proportions of buildings should be derived from those of the body of man and woman. Borromini, however, based his buildings on geometric configurations in an essentially medieval [ergo Gothic] manner that he probably learned in Lombardy, where medieval building procedures had been handed down from generation to generation".

The early 1660s were an emotionally difficult period for Borromini, with his sole apprentice, Francesco Righi, and the patron with whom he had formed a close friendship, Padre Virgilio Spada, both passed away within a short space of time. Around the same time, Borromini was relieved of his duties on the Piazza Navona, work was halted on his Sant'Andrea delle Fratte project, and his facade of St. Philip Neri was disfigured by lateral extensions. Evidently, all of these disappointments assailed his already fragile psyche, and he became increasingly reclusive, refusing to leave his rooms for weeks at a time. He burned all of his drawings and began to suffer from hypochondria and hallucinations.

Borromini committed suicide in Rome in the summer of 1667, shortly after the completion of the Falconieri Chapel in the Basilica of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. As architectural historian Kerry Downes notes, in a truly dramatic and theatrical style (mirroring the Baroque sensibility in general), he met his end by running himself through with a sword. The injury was not immediately fatal, and the wounded, bleeding artist lived twenty-four hours more, during which he managed to repent, receive the last sacraments of the church, and write his final will before passing away.

Considering the numerous reports of his distressed mental state throughout his life, scholars generally agree that the suicide was likely the result of a lifelong battle with nervous disorders and depressions (and possibly even schizophrenia). Borromini had requested to be buried in the same tomb as Carlo Maderno in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, leading to the question of whether he spent his final years believing that he was in fact designing his own final resting place. He also requested that his name not be placed at his burial site, and this wish was granted, until recently when his name was added to a marble plaque below Maderno's tomb. His name was also inscribed on a commemorative plaque commissioned by the Swiss embassy in Rome to be placed on a pillar of the church. Borromini's legacy was also honored by being featured on the 100 Swiss Franc banknote, in circulation between 1976 to 2000. Borromini's book, Full Relation, a transcript of his working methods as told to Virgilio Spada, was finally published in 1725.

The Legacy of Francesco Borromini

Unlike his fierce rival, Bernini, who preferred to secure his designs on the proportions of "rational geometry", Borromini placed "emotional theatricality" center and forefront of his architecture. His preference for complex geometric and curvilinear forms, coupled with his dramatic interplay of dark and light, and ornate decoration earned his churches the collective title, "theaters of Catholicism". Art historian John Hatch describes Borromini's vision as "divine geometry", a style influenced by bold, revolutionary thinkers of the century, like Galileo, who believed that nature and geometry are inseparable, and Kepler, who viewed curves as representative of God (whereas the straight line represents man). His churches, that art historian Livio Pestilli suggests are possessed of a "cosmic or 'heavenly' symbolism", influenced designs in northern Italy and across central Europe for a century or more after his death.

Historian Carla Mazzarelli writes, "Considered a mere anomaly or peculiarity in the 1700s and thus a symptom of the decadence of Renaissance culture, it was the reinterpretation of the Swiss historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), which came to see the Baroque as 'a powerful manifestation of art' and 'an irresistible force of nature', recognising its revolutionary potential and enhancing its linguistic details, that finally restored its reputation; Borromini's architecture then regained its place in history and went on to be frequently quoted in modern critical literature as a precursor to examples of the language of contemporary architecture during the first half of the 20th century". As the architectural critic Johnathan Glancey put it, "Rivals, polemicists, anti-Catholics, architects, and historians did their best for centuries to thrust a sword through Borromini's reputation. Today, he is recognized as one of the greats - an architect who gave us classicism with passion, experimentation, movement, prayer and sensuality".

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