September 25, 1599 saw the birth of Francesco Castelli in Swiss town of Bissone, Ticino. The son of a stonemason, Francesco grew up listening to a constant lullaby of stone cutting and chiselling pouring out from his father’s workshop. Thus, little did it surprise anyone when Francesco chose stone masonry as his career later on in his life.
When Francesco was about 10 years old, he went to Milan for studying and perfecting his craft. He migrated to Rome in around 1619 and started working for his distant relative Carlo Maderno whom many consider as one of the fathers of Baroque architecture. Together, Francesco and Maderno, worked at St Peter’s and then at Palazzo Barberini. Under Maderno’s tutelage Francesco developed excellent technical and drafting skills that became one of his greatest assets.
Owing to his regard to St Charles Borromeo or his mother’s new family name Brumino after her second marriage, Castelli changed his name to Francesco Borromini. Meanwhile, Maderno passed away in 1629 with the work at the Palazzo Berberini still to be completed. It fell on Borromini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Borromini’s greatest rival and also a collaborator on many projects, to complete the task at Palazzo Berberini.
Borromini and Bernini, two stalwarts of 17th century Italian art and architecture, are both masters of Baroque, yet very different in their approach to work and resultant artistic expressions. Bernini, suave and charming, sought drama and theatrics in his works. As if his own flamboyance oozing out through his creations. Bernini knew how to play with the audience’s emotional and spiritual responses. Borromini, on the other hand, was cold, melancholic, somewhat lacking in the social graces of Bernini. He depended heavily on his studies of geometry and classical architecture. Like the person, Borromini’s work was idiosyncratic with a modest approach towards purposeful dramatisation, distancing the audience who failed to fully comprehend it even though they were unanimous in accepting its superiority. The great act of providence intertwined both the artists’ path for the rest of their careers. Perhaps, no example would better elucidate this than the story of the fountain at piazza Navona. It is one of Bernini’s most famous works that took four years to complete. The base of this structure, which supports Roman version of an Egyptian obelisk (with a dove holding an olive branch in its beak, the Pamphili family symbol, at the highest point), is decorated with four large allegorical figures, representing the major rivers from the four regions of the world: Danube represented Europe, Nile Africa, Ganges Asia and the Rio de la Plata the Americas. Ironically, this was Borromini’s original suggestion, the commission of which after many fateful shifts and papal intervention, went to Bernini.
Borromini received his first major independent commission in 1634 when he was asked to design the church, cloister and monastic buildings of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Situated on Quirinal Hill in Rome, it was a corner plot with limited space where Borromini built his masterpiece. A magnum opus of Baroque architecture, it is in the intricacies of geometry that Borromini created the sense of space. In the maze of polygons, ovals and crosses the dome of the cathedral rose to a lantern with the symbol of Trinity.
The artist received the commission for the Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri as a result of a competition. For thirteen years Borromini relentlessly worked on this project. There were heated arguments with the Oratorians over the design and selection of materials. In the end, in 1652, Oratorians appointed another architect replacing Borromini. However, Borromini managed to document his own description of the construction of the oratory; its brick carved façade and complex wall arrangements with freestanding pillars. An illustrated version of this account was published at a later date in 1725.
From 1640–1650, he worked on the design of the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and its courtyard. The dome and cochlear steeple still reflects the master architect’s singularity. The nave’s unusual centralised plan is circled by alternating concave and convex cornices, leading to a dome decorated magnificently with linear arrays of stars and putti. Geometrically it is a six–pointed star with three of the points being clover–like, while the other three being concavely clipped. Borromini’s construction of the College of the Propagation of the Faith or Propaganda Fide in Rome, including the Re Magi Chapel started in 1660. The façade to the Via di Propaganda Fide comprised of seven bays accentuated by giant pilasters with the central bay being a concave curve.
Always a forlorn man, tired of underachievement and eternal conflict with Bernini, Borromini succumbed to chronic depression. In July, 1667 after learning that his opponent was commissioned for the construction of the tomb of Pope Innocent X, Borromini burned down all his writings and designs and locked himself into his house. In a fit of despair he threw himself on a ceremonial sword and committed suicide after painfully lingering on for a full day on August 3, 1667. He left his own account of his attempt to take his own life. ‘About five or six in the morning I woke up and asked Francesco (Borromini’s young servant) to light the lamp. He refused, saying he had not slept enough, I got furious and impatient and thought how to harm myself bodily. Remained in this state until about eight, I remembered I had a sword in the back of the bed. I fell upon it with such force that I ended up lying across the floor. Because of my injury I started screaming. Francesco quickly entered the room and aghast as he was, opened the window, and called the others. He helped me lie down on my bed and take away the sword. This is how I was injured.’
Borromini requested to be buried in an unmarked grave next to his teacher, Carlo Maderno in the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Perhaps, in his gloomy world of dejection he himself never felt worthy of receiving people’s attention.
A self–taught scholar, Borromini collected great many books and manuscripts in his large library. It is late in the 19th century that the innovativeness of his work was fully comprehended and thus admired. He was featured on the 6th series of 100 Swiss Franc banknote, which was in circulation from 1976 till 2000. Perhaps, his greatest appreciation came from none other than his arch rival, Bernini, who is believed to have said, ‘… many years ago Borromini alone understood this profession, but that he was never satisfied.’
*The essay was originally published on Ipseand (August 19, 2013)