Borromini’s revolutionary architecture at San Carlino, a jewel on the Quirinal Hill

Its small size and the nickname “San Carlino” shouldn’t mislead you: next to the busy crossroads of the Quattro Fontane and around 5 minutes walk from the Presidential residence on the Quirinal Hill, an extravagant façade enshrines one of the most precious hidden jewels of Baroque Rome. The clear splendor of this church charms the eyes and invites us to never cease wandering around the dynamic lines of the surrounding architecture, conceived as a fluid environment embracing the human being, in an everlasting marvel. Borromini’s ingenious conception of spaces and shapes lasted thereafter as one of the most innovative and refined architectural models, all over Northern Europe and for the following two centuries at least.

Francesco Borromini and the Barberini’s pontificate

Portrait of Francesco Borromini at the sacristy of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex

Portrait of Francesco Borromini at the sacristy of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, via sancarlino.eu

In 1634 the general attorney of the Trinitarian Order commissioned to Francesco Borromini (Bissone, 1599 – Rome, 1667) the building of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane monastery, around 200 meters away from Palazzo Barberini. [1]

The palace was home to the cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of pope Urbano VIII, born Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini (Florence, 1568 – Rome, 1644). The years of the Barberini’s pontificate were very fruitful for arts and literature. Around 1640, the Tuscan pope commissioned an ambitious project to Gian Lorenzo Bernini for a new arrangement of the current piazza di Trevi area and the building of the Trevi Fountain, yet accomplished in the following century. He also ordered the transformations and the new decoration of the basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano. [2]

You find it here

Opening time: Monday - Friday, 10.00 am - 1.00 pm / 3.00 - 6.00 pm; Saturday - Sunday, 10.00 am - 1.00 pm. In July and August the church is open only in the morning.

Tickets: free

Organization: Trinitarian Order

The complex of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Sebastiano Giannini, floor plan of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1730

Sebastiano Giannini, floor plan of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1730.

Like many of Borromini’s artworks, the building of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex lasted several years. Spanning the most part of his independent career, this commission constituted the first chance to work all by himself and, in the meantime, the last work before his tragic death. The residential area, the cloister, the oblong octagonal courtyard and the church interior date in fact to the 1630s, while the façade was built starting from 1665 and it was fulfilled by Borromini’s nephew Bernardo Castelli. [3]

The narrow available space, which was irregularly delimited, [1] and the financial limits pushed Borromini to the highest virtuosity in accomplishing the project. The creative process of invention reveals itself as deeply complex and rich of opposing solutions. For example, the plan of the complex illustrates how the extraordinary new scheme concerned the research of a strict rational law, consisting of a geometric framework based on two counterpoised triangles. [3]

The cloister

Francesco Borromini, cloister of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex

Francesco Borromini, cloister of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1635 -1636.

The cloister of San Carlino distinguishes itself for the essential sobriety, reminiscent of San Carlo Borromeo’s architecture. Borromini here elaborates in fact a peculiar variation of the “serliana”, recurring in Lombardy architecture, and chooses the solution of the tambour, which includes the lower section of the dome. [3] Furthermore, an original balustrade, characterized by alternate elements, has been considered to descend from a Milan’s architectural model, as in the façade of Palazzo Erba Odescalchi [4] and the giant order, which rhythmically articulates the interior of the cloister and it’s inspired by Michelangelo Buonarroti, also finds an example in the chiesa di San Giuseppe in Milan. [3] [5]

The nave of chiesa di San Giuseppe, Milan

The Nave of chiesa di San Giuseppe, Milan. (c) Giovanni Dall'Orto, via Wikimedia Commons.

The cloister as well as the courtyard show elements that disclose the fundamental “orchestration” of the church, such as the impressive ring constituted by the columns, rhythmically arranged to form an elongated octagon, the uniform cornice connecting the columns together and the substitution of the angles with convex curves which particularly characterize the quadrangular plan of the cloister. This is a constant by the architect, who introduces the blunted corners in order to prevent the continuous movement from blocking itself, [1] and thus making the spaces perceivable in their entirety, notwithstanding the complex articulation of the shapes and the refined decorations. [3]

Francesco Borromini, detail of the balustrade at the cloister of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex

Francesco Borromini, detail of the balustrade at the cloister of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1635 -1636.

Façade of Palazzo Erba Odescalchi, Milan

Façade of Palazzo Erba Odescalchi, detail of the balustrade characterized by alternate elements, Milan. The project of the palace is attributed to Pellegrino Tibaldi. (c) Giovanni Dall'Orto, via Wikimedia Commons.

The church

Sebastiano Giannini, section of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1730

Sebastiano Giannini, section of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1730.

Around 1638 the foundation stone of the little church was laid [1] and the original project of the church underwent noteworthy changes while the architect was occupied at the Oratorio dei Filippini. [6]

The geometric conception of the conclusive project corresponds to an elliptical diamond-shaped scheme, consisting of two equilateral triangles with a common base along the transverse axe of the building.

Francesco Borromini, interior of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called "San Carlino"

Francesco Borromini, interior of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called "San Carlino", starting from 1638. The core building was accomplished in May 1641 and consecrated in 1646.

The undulating perimeter of the plan exactly follows this rhomboidal outline. [1] The church plan, which could also be equivalent to the original result of a joint between an ellipse and a cross, is presented as the cultured summa and, in the meantime, as the ultimate experimentation beyond the outlines proposed in the late 16th century architecture around the central plans. [3]

Borromini’s project for the church interior lends a great importance to the sculptural presence of the columns which intensify the undulating movement of the walls. They are organized in groups of 4, with larger intervals on both the longitudinal and transversal axis, where the paintings with golden frames create a more evident and colored caesuras. Undulating along the diagonal apses, each triad of three intercolumniations is unified to the adjacent ones by the same architectural rhythm of the wall with niches and moldings whereas the high arches and the pediments over the paintings introduce a different rhythm, connecting every triad to the main axis. The triads and the columns could be considered the “warp and wool” of the wall material, that contributes to the fascinating and unceasing richness of this Baroque masterpiece. According to Wittkower, if San Carlino were a musical composition, it would be a fugue. [1]

The dome

Francesco Borromini, dome interior of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called

Francesco Borromini, dome interior of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called "San Carlino", starting from 1638. The core building was accomplished in May 1641 and consecrated in 1646.

Above the church wall, Borromini inserted an area of transition, equipped with a robust ring and four squinches, which allowed him to design an oval dome, characterized by a continuous curvilinear shape. [1] In this way, Borromini succeeded in combining different kinds of architectural structures in a unique and suggestive ensemble.

The immaculate white dome interior is decorated with a labyrinth of coffers, deeply sculpted according to cross, hexagonal and octagonal shapes. The brilliant alternation of these simple geometric shapes also emphasizes the organic elasticity of the dome, because the coffers become gradually smaller towards the central lantern, thus appearing in a lively motion. Moreover, the uniform light enters both from the above, through the lantern, and from the lower base, through polygons-shaped windows partially hidden behind the decorated ring, finely sculpted with leaves. A striking splendor charms the eyes thanks to an illusionistic effect, because the dome impressively seems to lightly float above a candid light crown. [1]

The dynamic façade

Francesco Borromini, Bernardo Castelli Borromini, façade of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called

Francesco Borromini, façade of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called "San Carlino", 1665 – 1667, Bernardo Castelli Borromini starting from ca. 1669. The sculptural decoration was accomplished only in 1682.

The vertical scheme of the church façade consists of three sectors: below, the two external and concave sectors and the central convex sector are connected through a robust and continuously undulating trabeation; above, the three sectors are concave with a trabeation articulated in three distinct segments, whereas the horizontal line of the upper cornice is interrupted by the mistilinear “onion-shaped” crowning element and the oval medallion supported by angels, over the recess decorated with the figure of Saint Carlo. [1]

Borromini’s design is a masterpiece of Baroque art. In a narrow space, he succeeded in creating an incredibly elaborated façade, rich of columns, sculpture and plastic decorations in motion. He also adds a visionary element, typical of his late style: the lively heads of cherubs like other realistic sculptures supporting the architectural structures. This is another imaginative invention, a fusion of architecture and sculpture never reached by his rival Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who couldn’t deprive the sculpture of its narrative values and substitute it to architecture. [1]

Refined and various sources of inspiration

Façade of the basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano

Façade of the basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano. The articulation system of the San Carlino façade combines both a giant and a common order, deriving from the Capitoline palaces by Michelangelo and St. Peter’s façade. However, Borromini reversed Michelangelo’s system in a new and extremely original way, because he repeated it in both the two sections of the façade, which appear of almost equal importance to the eyes and, moreover, he showed an inverse repetition of the lower section in the upper one. [1]

The variety of Borromini’s sources of inspiration is a sign of his extremely personal and original research [3] and is rooted in his apprenticeship as a stonecutter in Lombardy area, before his activity in Rome, documented starting from 1619. [7] When he was a young stonecutter at the working site of the Duomo di Milano, he had the chance to observe the modern contributions by Galeazzo Alessi and Pellegrino Tibaldi, arisen over the medieval shapes. Beginning his career as an artisan, he thus developed an uncommon ability to handle details and materials and he went as far as collecting more than a thousand books in a library of exceptional dimensions for that time. [3]

A so fruitful cultural background allowed him to tastefully choose the models for San Carlino complex, starting from the Ancient monuments still visible in Rome or at Tivoli, as the Villa Adriana, and the sketchbooks like the Codex Coner [3] and Montano’s gathering of antiquities. [8] Borromini’s interest in Middle Ages architecture can be considered innovative, while he also experimented over Michelangelo’s researches and remembered Palladio as well as the late Renaissance architecture of central Italy. Moreover, he imaginatively elaborated elements from Oriental architecture as reported by religious travelers or scholars’ tales and engravings. [3] He finally drawn symbolic contents from emblematic texts like Ripa’s or Cartari’s, which were widespread at his time. [3] [9]

Why Borromini’s architecture can be deemed as “revolutionary”?

Francesco Borromini, exterior of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1634 – 1665

Francesco Borromini, exterior of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1634 – 1665.

In comparison with the innovative achievements reached by the greatest artists of that period, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona, who carried out their researches and brilliantly solved some of the past architectural cruces yet without leaving the path forecast by the Renaissance tradition, Francesco Borromini stood out. [3]

His unprecedented vision of architecture was actually cultivated thanks to the ancient and 16th century lessons, but he introduced a different, new way to design spaces and shapes, which already disoriented all his contemporaries. [3] The absence of static angles invited the gaze to continuously follow the dynamic lines of the surrounding architecture, conceived as a fluid environment around the human being.

Moreover, Borromini subverted the traditional way to conceive the buildings as compositions of modular elements organized in a hierarchy, because he founded his projects over an overall and coherent idea, outlining them as a rigorous union of geometric shapes or sub-units. [3] [1] In this way, Borromini denied the classic principle of the anthropomorphic architecture, which consisted in designing with modules, multiplying and dividing an arithmetic unity. He reinvented instead the planning system of medieval building techniques, probably bequeathed to him thanks to his training in the Lombardy area. [1]

Contrasting reactions to this new architecture

The fortune of Borromini’s architecture involved opposing reactions in the contemporary criticism. [3] The extraordinary style of San Carlino was immediately recognized. When the church was completed, the general attorney of the Trinitarian Order wrote these words: [1]

The building is so rare in everybody’s opinion, that it seems you can’t find such an inventive, extravagant, rare and extraordinary one all over the world. This is testified by all the nations, that as soon as they arrive in Rome, continually demand projects from him: many times we are solicited for this result by German, Fleming, French, Italian, Spanish and even Indian people… [1]

Detail with a stone emblem of the Trinitarian Order, exterior of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex

Detail with a stone emblem of the Trinitarian Order, exterior of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane complex, ca. 1634 – 1665.

The painter and art historiographer Giovanni Baglione appreciated the “graceful and extravagant” (“leggiadra e capricciosa”) shape of San Carlino [10] and Fra’ Juan de San Bonaventura esteemed ingenious Borromini and his valuable technical ability. [11] On the other hand, in several occasion, Gian Lorenzo Bernini expressed some reservations on Borromini’s conformity to the tradition, so contributing to an escalation of the unfavorable climate surrounding his rival. [3]

In the late 17th century, the disapprovals expressed by biographers like Filippo Baldinucci continued along Bernini’s trail: while they agreed on Borromini’s technical virtuosity, they showed their perplexities about the value of a kind of artwork which could “break the rules”, submitting the heritage of the tradition to a critic procession of revision. In particular, classicists like Giovan Pietro Bellori had negative reactions. [3] In his treatise, the erudite critic and secretary of the prestigious Accademia di San Luca describes Borromini as a “Gothic architect, very ignorant and corrupter of architecture” (“architetto gotico ignorantissimo e corruttore dell’architettura”) and define San Carlino as an “ugly and deformed architecture”. [12]

A landmark in Art History

Nevertheless, the abundance and the energy of these clamors demonstrate how the existence of Francesco Borromini was already destined to become crucial for the whole history of art. After him, architectural spaces were no more thought in the same way. His ingenious conception of architecture lasted thereafter as one of the most innovative and refined models and we can joyfully recognize Borromini’s survival in many buildings spread all over Northern Europe for the following two centuries at least. A lively concave-convex movement, the timeless whiteness of fine decorations, an irreverent twisting of shapes, the amplification of space through overturning angles or dynamic lines: they’re all everlasting marks of his beautiful gift to our eyes.

Francesco Borromini, left side of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called "San Carlino"

Francesco Borromini, left side of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called "San Carlino", starting from 1638. The core building was accomplished in May 1641 and consecrated in 1646.

Francesco Borromini, right side of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called "San Carlino"

Francesco Borromini, right side of the chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also called "San Carlino", starting from 1638. The core building was accomplished in May 1641 and consecrated in 1646.

References

[1]       Rudolf Wittkower, Arte e architettura in Italia. 1600-1750. Torino: Einaudi, 1993 (1958).

[2]       R. Budriesi, La basilica dei SS. Cosma e Damiano a Roma. Bologna: R. Patron, 1968.

[3]       D. Del Pesco, "Roma e lo Stato della Chiesa," in L'architettura del Seicento. Torino: UTET, 1998, pp. 3-107.

[4]       Paolo Portoghesi, Borromini: architettura come linguaggio. Milano, 1967.

[5]       L. Steinberg, "Mailander Vorstufen von Borrominis S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rom," Munchner jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, vol. 3, no. 28, pp. 153-190, 1977.

[6]       J. Connors, Borromini and the Roman Oratory. Style and Society. New York, Cambridge: Mass, 1980.

[7]       A. M. Brizio, Nel terzo centenario della morte di Francesco Borromini. Roma: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1968.

[8]       G. B. Montano, Raccolta de' tempii et sepolcri disegnati dall'antico. Roma, 1638.

[9]       L. Steinberg, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane: A study in Multiple form and Architectural Symbolism. New York, 1977.

[10]     Giovanni Baglione, Le vite de' pittori, scultori et architetti dal pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572 in fino a' tempi di Papa Urbano Ottavo nel 1642. Roma: Andrea Fei, 1642.

[11]     Fra' Juan di San Bonaventura, Relatione del Convento di S. Carlo alle 4° fontane di Rome. Roma, 1650-1655.

[12]     Giovan Pietro Bellori, Vite de' pittori, scultori, et architetti moderni. Roma: Per il success. al Mascardi, 1672.

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