Explore the artistic rivalry that changed the face of Rome. Tiffany Parks leads the way.
“He was born one year before me, and I’ve never been able to catch up.”
So the great baroque architect Francesco Borromini is believed to have said of his contemporary and rival Gianlorenzo Bernini. They were born in 1598 and 1599 respectively, although their personalities couldn’t have been more different. The two architects harbored resentment and ill will toward one another for their entire careers, but together, they created the Roman Baroque.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, son of a successful Mannerist sculptor, came to Rome as a young boy, already recognized as a prodigy at the tender age of eight. His success was merit to his undeniable genius, but also his likeable personality. He charmed and complimented his way into the good graces of the most important figures in Rome, most notably Pope Urban VIII Barberini who bestowed commission after commission on him during a papacy that lasted over two decades. Borromini, on the other hand, was a depressive, sullen and taciturn to the point of belligerence, and famously impossible to work with. As a result, he was often passed over for choice commissions despite his extraordinary, and arguably superior, talent. Perhaps his greatest curse was that he was given projects, again and again, either together with or adjacent to those of Bernini, forcing him to work in his rival’s shadow or worse, under his direct supervision.
Two Churches, One Street
Just a few meters apart on the one-time politically important street, Via del Quirinale, each artist
built the church that would go on to cement his status as one of the greatest architects in history. For Borromini, that church was San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, one of the true jewels of baroque architecture. Small and entirely white, the church features an intricately decorated, and at the same time understated, dome that crowns an intimate and awe-inspiring space. Just a few steps away, Bernini’s glittering Sant’Andrea del Quirinale is a luminous oval-plan church covered in ornate stucco and gold-leaf accents. Although Bernini’s church was built more than a decade after his competitor’s, their sheer vicinity means that the two churches are often compared to one another—one is never visited and not the other by art-loving tourists in the know.
A major blow to Borromini’s ego came when he was working on Urban VIII’s new family palace, Palazzo Barberini. Borromini was assisting his relative, the more mature architect Carlo Maderno, on the project. When the latter died, instead of being promoted as head architect, Borromini was passed over for his adversary Bernini, and became his underling on the project instead. Their competition can be viewed in real time by visiting their respective staircases. Each artist designed one on either side of the building; Bernini’s is square, pristine, and symmetrical while Borromini’s is a graceful ovoid spiral. Whichever you see first you will think is the most beautiful… until you see the other one.
On Shaky Ground
One of the most public sites of the artists’ duel was none other than St. Peter’s Basilica. Under Urban VIII, Bernini was named head architect of the ongoing construction of the massive new church, and Borromini was relegated to the position of assistant. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t mind the fact that I make one tenth his salary; but I would like to at least have the credit for my work.” And, in fact, the towering bronze canopy over the high altar is referred to as “Bernini’s Baldacchino” to this day, although in reality, it was a collaboration between the two artists. Borromini did get the last laugh, however, at least in part. When Bernini was designing the basilica’s façade, he drew up plans for a pair of twin bell towers. Borromini, an experienced engineer as well as an architect, argued publicly that the silty ground would not support the structures. His protests were dismissed as jealousy, and Bernini’s plans were carried out. When the first bell tower immediately collapsed, Bernini was disgraced, and Borromini exonerated.
Rivalry in the Piazza
In 1644, Borromini’s luck finally turned when Urban VIII was succeeded by Pope Innocent X. Old family enemies and bitter rivals themselves, the two priests had hated each other since their days in the College of Cardinals. Now that Innocent was pope, he refused to work with anyone his predecessor had supported. Suddenly Borromini was the most important architect in Rome and Bernini was out of favor. Innocent commissioned Borromini to build a new church adjacent to his family palace in Piazza Navona. The result is Sant’Agnese in Agone, an exquisite example of Borromini’s unique ability to endow a static building with movement and buoyancy. When the pope decided he wanted a monumental fountain in the middle of the square, he held a contest to decide which architect to hire—and Bernini was deliberately excluded from the competition. Borromini considered the job his and began planning the hydraulics and laying the piping. But as usual, luck was against him. The pope’s nephew convinced Bernini to create a model of his vision for the fountain; once Innocent had seen it, he declared he must have it, no matter who had created it. The result is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, one of Bernini’s greatest triumphs.
Next Door Neighbors
Palazzo di Propaganda Fide, an imposing building near the Spanish Steps, is a vivid testament to the brutal antagonism between the two artists. The project was initially entrusted to Bernini, under the patronage of his champion Urban VIII. Bernini designed the nondescript facade that looks out onto Piazza Mignanelli, as well as a chapel inside. But after Innocent X took over the papacy, he replaced Bernini with Borromini. At last the underdog had the opportunity to show up his rival, and he systematically dismantled the entire chapel, completely revisioning it in his own unmistakable style. But an even bigger insult was to come. Bernini had recently moved with his large family to a home across the street from the palace, and his front windows looked out directly onto Borromini’s stunning new façade on Via della Mercede. To taunt his adversary, Borromini reportedly sculpted a pair of ass’s ears onto the facade of the building, and Bernini retaliated by carving a large phallus on a cornice of his building, pointing straight at Borromini’s worksite. They were both eventually taken down in the name of decency.