Francesco Borromini was one of the many masterminds that contributed to shaping Rome as we know it today. Along with Michelangelo and Bernini, his most famous rival, Borromini’s story is strictly linked to that of the Italian capital.
If you are visiting the Eternal City, you should not miss on the chance of admiring the works of Borromini in Rome. And if you don’t know where to start, don’t worry. Here I will share a few interesting facts about this famous architect, and let you know where to find the best works of Borromini in Rome.
Who Was Borromini?
Francesco Borromini was born Francesco Castelli on 25th September, 1599, in what is now the Swiss canton of Ticino. His father was a stonemason, and the young Borromini followed in his footsteps, traveling to Milan to study the craft.
In 1619 he moved to Rome and worked under Carlo Maderno, an Italian architect who also hailed from Ticino, and who was Borromini’s uncle.
Together, the two worked on some impressive projects: notably on St Peter’s Basilica and also at Palazzo Barberini. During this time Borromini developed his skills with Maderno’s guidance, until his teacher died in 1629. After Maderno’s death, Borromini was taken under the wing of Bernini, continuing work together on the yet-to-be-finished Palazzo Barberini.
Once Borromini became successful in Rome, the creative changed his name from “Castelli” to “Borromini” – a name taken from his mother’s side of the family.
Throughout his working years, Borromini was highly influenced by the work of Michelangelo as well as the Classical works of antiquity. His style is viewed today as idiosyncratic, putting then modern twists on Classical architectural forms; not only that, but his creations were also replete with symbolism.
Unlike his contemporaries – Bernini, for example – Borromini had a solid foundation in understanding structural form, whereas other architects of the time had a basis in fine arts, with experience as painters and sculptors.
You should also read my post Where To See The Works Of Bernini In Rome.
Also unlike Bernini, Borromini had something of a temperamental streak; he has been described as “melancholic” and “quick in temper”. Despite being under his tutelage for some time, rumor has it that there was an intense rivalry between Borromini and Bernini.
The melancholy or, more likely, depression that Borromini suffered from eventually led to his death, when, in 1667, he took his own life in Rome. It was summer, and Borromini had just completed work on the Falconieri chapel in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Borromini requested to be buried with his “kinsman” Carlo Maderno at the very same church he’d just finished work on.
By the end of his life, Borromini had amassed a large library of books on various subjects. It’s been theorized that he was a self-taught scholar. Sadly his work didn’t become well known, or influential, due to his style being so idiosyncratic and therefore quite different to Baroque architects of the day (e.g. Bernini), and for centuries critics didn’t view his work favorably in the Baroque canon of architecture.
In fact, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Borromini’s work began to be reassessed, and gradually became celebrated for its inventiveness. His importance is now clear; he has been the subject of fiction, including a movie, and has appeared on a Swiss bank note.
Let’s now see where you can admire the works of Borromini in Rome.
The Best Places To See The Works Of Borromini In Rome
Palazzo Barberini Staircase
Possibly the most famous work of Borromini in Rome can be found at Palazzo Barberini. While the whole structure is impressive, it’s the oval staircase in particular that stands out as the work of a true master in their field.
The palace was the home of the powerful Barberini family, one of whom was Pope Urban VIII, who actually commissioned the property in 1625 (though there was already a palazzetto, or small palace, on the site dating to 1549).
Three architects worked on the Palazzo Barberini. First, Maderno was commissioned, and later Borromini joined him. When Maderno died, the commission was handed to Bernini; Borromini stayed on and worked alongside him.
Borromini’s main contribution to the building’s architecture was the helicoidal staircase, which sits at the entrance to the property. This is a spiral staircase, which soiled around the building’s interior in an oval, rather than circular, fashion. It snakes upwards, columns punctuating the visitor’s journey. Visitors were previously not allowed on this landmark staircase, but finally access was granted to the public in 2018.
Head over to my post 15 Most Beautiful Palaces In Rome.
Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
Apart from Palazzo Barberini, the Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is probably the best known work of Borromini in Rome. In fact, this was the architect’s first independent commission, and was given in 1634 by Spanish Trinitarians.
He was tasked with designing the church, cloister and monastic buildings of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Located high up on the Quirinal Hill, and being set on the corner of two roads, it was a difficult site to work with. Nevertheless, Borromini got to work.
The result is a church of interlocking geometric designs, particularly in the form of its almost serpentine curves on the facade. This was believed to have been conceived early in the design process (the mid-1630s) but was not constructed until near the end of his life, and the upper portion was not finished until after Borromini had died.
All in all, it’s a small but beautiful structure, considered an exemplary masterpiece of Baroque architecture.
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
Another of Borromini’s famous works – and one held in high esteem by scholars – can be found at the University of La Sapienza in Rome, close to Piazza Navona. There had been a chapel located on the site since at least the 14th century, and Borromini was commissioned to build the new chapel; he did so between 1642 and 1660.
Borromini based his design, again, on geometric patterns, in particular it was the Star of David that he drew on for inspiration for the Church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (St. Yves church in English). Borromini was interested in conveying the theme of wisdom, being located at the university (nicknamed “Sapienza” or literally “Wisdom”), which he did through the use of the six-point star (then known as the Star of Solomon); this shape was often used as a symbol of wisdom.
The interlocking geometric shapes at work in Borromini’s church are complex. He created a concave facade by melding the exterior of the church into the surrounding courtyard. The whole building is topped off with a corkscrew-shaped lantern, which looks incredible to this day and so was particularly bold and unique at the time.
Inside, the geometric complexity continues, with arches, hexagonal rooms, and a ceiling with intricate symmetry based around the shape of a triangle. Overall, the creation was a culmination of ornate Baroque decoration mixed with Rationalistic geometry that is still highly regarded to this day. Today, as well as functioning as a church, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza is used as the State Archives of Rome.
Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone
Borromini was also given the job of making adjustments to the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, situated in Piazza Navona. Various complications had arisen previously with other architects involved.
There were harsh criticisms of the design by Carlo Rainaldi, and so Borromini was enlisted with the project in 1663. Part of Borromini’s design included adding an extra storey to the structure, curving steps, and adding a concave shape to the facade.
The original architect, Carlo Rainaldi, was later reinstated to the project, with further additions made from 1668 onwards.
You should also read my post The Must-See Churches In Rome.
Palazzo di Propaganda Fide
This palace was first designed by Bernini in 1620. He had been commissioned by Pope Urban VIII. Borromini took over the project after Pope Innocent X took over the papal seat, and his preference was with Borromini over Bernini.
Characteristic of Borromini, the architect created a concave facade bolstered by large pillars and curving windows. Finished in 1667, the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide is often considered one of the most interesting examples of Baroque architecture and one of the most prominent works of Borromini in Rome. Inside there’s the Cappella dei Re Magi, a small chapel also created by Borromini.
Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano
Borromini was commissioned to restore the historic Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in 1646. At the time, Borromini was already busy working on St Peter’s Basilica, but Pope Innocent X wanted the Lateran church to be redesigned ahead of the Jubilee in 1650.
On receiving the commission, Borromini actually wanted to completely redesign the church, but the Pope underlined many design details that he did not want touched; these included the 15th-century floor and the 16th-century gilded ceiling.
Of course, being the most important church in Rome (and technically the property of the Vatican City itself), it is understandable that such a redesign would have been a big risk anyway. It is also the oldest public church in Rome, having been founded in 324 AD.
And so, Borromini started out working on the aisles and the central nave, adding new pillars and twelve niches where statues of the Apostles would stand. These Renaissance-style additions have not been altered since Borromini worked on them.
Don’t forget to read my post A Useful Guide To St. John In The Lateran Basilica, Rome.
Located in Piazza di Capoferro in Rome’s Regola district, the Palazzo Spada plays host to a sizable art collection in its titular Galleria Spada. The palace was originally built for Cardinal Girolamo Recanati Capodiferro in the mid-16th century.
The property passed to Cardinal Bernardino Spada in 1631. Spada, in particular, wanted a luxurious garden, but the building itself took up most of the land. Borromini was enlisted in 1635 to create a spacious garden fit for the Cardinal.
The garden itself is not the most impressive part of Borromini’s work on Palazzo Spada. It is instead his “forced perspective gallery” which is the epitome of the work of Borromini in Rome, and of his geometric designs and eclectic style.
Located in a covered courtyard, the gallery (walkway) makes use of columns of ever-decreasing size to give the impression to the viewer that it is much longer than it is – it appears to be 37 meters (121 feet) long, but in reality it is only 8 meters (26 feet) long.
For this work, Borromini enlisted the help of a mathematician called Giovanni Maria da Bitonto, who made the necessary calculations and adjustments to the design.
At the far end of this illusory arcade is a statue of Mars, the Roman god of war. The statue is just 31 inches tall, but the forced perspective gallery makes the statue appear much larger and imposing when you stand at the opposite end.
Make sure to also read my post A Quick Guide To Palazzo Spada, Rome.
Basilica di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte
Construction on this church in Piazza Navona began in 1604, according to the design of Gaspare Guerra. The church was actually built over a pre-existing structure that was erected in 1192. The project was put on pause for eight years, until Borromini was given the reins in 1653.
The architect set about constructing the apse, the square campanile (bell tower) and part of the dome. Following Borromini’s death, the construction of the Basilica di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte was then passed on to Mattia di Rossi.
Oratorio dei Filippini
Borromini won a competition to design Oratorio dei Filippini, winning against many other architects including Paolo Manscueli. Over the thirteen years of its construction, from 1637 to 1650, Borromini became entwined with many features of the design including not only the facade but the refectory, two courtyards, recreational rooms, the library and the clock tower.
It was a trying project, and Borromini left the job in 1650 after conflicts arose with the Filippini congregation (the religious order by whom the structure was commissioned). Despite the differences, Borromini’s touch on the building has been recognized and it is today known as the Sala Borromini, and plays host to many events.
Tempietto di San Giovanni in Oleo
Originally attributed to Donato Bramante in the 16th century, the Tempietto (or Chiesa) di San Giovanni in Oleo is a tiny building – much smaller than many other projects of Borromini in Rome. Borromini was commissioned to restore the tiny Renaissance church in 1657 by Cardinal Francesco Paolucci, who wanted the religious building as his family chapel.
Borromini’s additions to the structure include rebuilding the roof and adding a pavilion dome with ribs, and a drum with stucco frieze. He also created the cable, which is adorned with palm leaves and lilies, as well as roses (the emblem of Cardinal Paolucci) and a cross.
There is some controversy over the timeline of the creation of the chapel, however. Indeed, some believe that Borromini was responsible for the roof, but then hid this addition by putting the stucco decorations on it. Others on the other hand believe that the modifications to the building were made in the 18th century, not directly by Borromini but definitely based on his original drawings.
Either way, during Borromini’s restorations, the interior of the church was also refreshed by the addition of stuccos and frescoes by the Baroque artist Lazzaro Baldi. Sadly the church isn’t often open. You can easily see the exterior, but if you want to visit the interior you need to contact the church directly and ask to arrange a guided visit.
The numbers to call are either +39 06 774000032 or +39 340 3544798.
Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini
Work on the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini, which dates back to the mid-1500s, was to be the final project undertaken by Borromini in Rome. He was commissioned for this task by the Florentine nobleman, Orazio Falconieiri.
It wasn’t the first time that Borromini had worked for the Falconieri family. He was also commissioned in 1645 to remodel some of the buildings of the family home, the Palazzo Falconieri.
However, Borromini was to follow in the footsteps of the architect originally commissioned for the project (and also a painter), Pietro da Cortona. Borromini made some additions to the design to allow space for the burial of Orazio’s brother, the Cardinal Lelio Falconieri.
Borromini finished the exquisite high altar, but the finishing parts of the project were completed after Borromini sadly committed suicide. However, Borromini is also laid to rest here alongside his uncle, Carlo Maderno. Originally he expressed wishes for his tomb to be nameless, but more recently – surprisingly recently, in fact, in 1955 – a plaque was added with his name and an inscription in Latin.