Francesco Borromini


Francesco Borromini, born Francesco Castelli (Bissone, September 25, 1599 – Rome, August 3, 1667), was an Italian architect considered a major figure of Baroque architecture. He was the contemporary of Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose rival he became, and of Peter of Cortona.


Francesco Castelli was born on September 25 or 27, 1599 in Bissone, a village on Lake Lugano (in the present-day canton of Ticino), the eldest of four children. Of the father, Giovanni Domenico Castelli, we have little information; he was a modest architect or master mason, in the service of the Viscontis in Milan. The mother, Anastasia Garvo (Garovo), came from a wealthy family of builders and architects and was related to Domenico Fontana, who was Carlo Maderno”s uncle.

These names of Castelli and Garvo (Garovo), are frequently found among this workforce of builders whose ancestry goes back to the maestri comacini that transmigrated in all Europe.

The name Borromini, with which Francesco signed his works from 1628 onwards, is a nickname that already belonged to the family; Fabrizia di Francesco Castelli, Francesco”s grandmother, had married Giovanni Pietro Castelli in the first marriage and Giovanni Pietro Brumino in the second marriage. As for the father of Francesco, he was often called Castelli “detto Bormino”. It is probable that the use of this nickname avoided the Castelli to be confused with other artists of the same name.

Youth and training

At the age of 9, Francesco was sent by his father to study and learn sculpture at the school of the Cathedral Factory in Milan. The archives of the Cathedral”s Factory bear witness to the various practical works that were entrusted to him during this period of training. It is also attested that a master, paid by the Fabrique, was in charge of teaching the liberal arts to these students, and that Francesco took drawing lessons from Gian Andrea Biffi (it). It is also quite probable, although we have no document to prove it, that he attended the classes of the mathematician Muzio Oddi.

The first document qualifying Francesco as a sculptor is dated December 20, 1618. He probably worked in this capacity for the Factory until February 8, 1619, when he was dismissed. The reason for this dismissal is probably related to the fact that at that time he was increasingly absent from Milan to work on the construction site of St. Peter”s in Rome. However, he continued to appear intermittently in the Fabrique registers until October 19, 1619.


In 1619, Francesco left Milan for Rome. Leone di Tommaso Garvo (Garovo), a maternal uncle, offered him hospitality. He lived in the vicolo dell”Agnello, near the church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini. Leone was a master stonemason and owned a marble carving company in Rome, in which he involved Francesco. An important source of work came from Carlo Maderno, who was in charge of the factory of St. Peter”s at the time and whose niece Leone had married. However, shortly afterwards, Leone suffered a fatal fall from the scaffolding erected on St. Peter”s Basilica.

Carlo Maderno was appointed attorney for Marina, the daughter of the deceased and his heir (he was also the representative of Cecilia the widow). In this capacity, he sold Francesco the marbles and other goods of Leone”s company, both those in the workshop and those on the site of St. Peter”s. The cohesion and strength of the family clan, and more generally of the maestri comacini, can be seen on this occasion, as they created real commercial monopolies and circumvented the protectionist laws of the local workers.

Francesco”s rise to prominence began under the protection of Carlo Maderno, one of the principal architects of Rome under the episcopacy of Paul V Borghese, and continued until Maderno”s death. From this first Roman period, numerous documents and drawings attest to Francesco”s activity, the fruit of this collaboration: – in St. Peter”s (heads of cherubs above the relief depicting the meeting of St. Leo the Great and Attila and above the door of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel; work around the Holy Door; the base of Michelangelo”s Pietà; the railings of the choir and Blessed Sacrament chapels; etc.) ) – in the church of Sant”Andrea della Valle (the angels that replace the capitals of the double columns of the dome) – in the realization of Palazzo Barberini his activity is intertwined with those of Maderno and Bernini on whom he depended; however, it can be identified as his creation (the spiral staircase, the doors of the great hall and some windows). The last realization of this period, in conjunction with Maderno, was the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (1629).

On Maderno”s death (30 January 1629), Bernini was appointed architect of St. Peter”s in his place. For Borromini, the loss of his support and Bernini”s new powers, determined a new and much more difficult period because of the rapid conflict with Bernini (see paragraph 2.1 below).

In 1632, at Bernini”s suggestion, perhaps to get rid of this cumbersome collaborator, Borromini was appointed architect of La Sapienza by an apostolic brief. However, work on Sant”Ivo did not begin until 1643, and the Alessandrina Library was not built until later.

Before that, in 1634, the Order of Discalced Trinitarians in Spain invited Borromini to direct the construction of their convent and church of Saint Charles of the Four Fountains. This was his first independent assignment and he worked on it from 1634 to 1641.

In 1637, Borromini took part in the competition for the oratory of the Filipinos, which was built next to the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, and his application was accepted. The architect worked there until 1650 or 52.

The realization of the gallery of the Spada Palace was attributed to Borromini between 1632 and 37. It is a false perspective that creates the illusion that the gallery is about 35 m long, when in reality it is only 8.82 m. The decorations on the sides and back, as well as the lighting effects, have not survived the restorations.

In the years 1638-39, he supervised the decoration of the Trinity Chapel of the Augustinian nuns of Santa Lucia in Selci.

Around 1639 he designed the altar (Filomarino) for the Chapel of the Annunciation in the Santi Apostoli church in Naples.

Then, in 1645, he was commissioned to decorate the apse and a ciborium of the church of Santa Maria a Cappella Nuova (it), also in Naples (now destroyed).

Between 1643 and 1662, he built the church of Sant”Ivo, which he inserted admirably between the existing buildings of the University of La Sapienza. This is undoubtedly his most important work.

At the beginning of 1643, he was commissioned to build the church of Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori, but the work was stopped in 1646 and resumed in the years 1658-1665, but without Borromini. The portal opens onto a central vestibule with a strong reminiscence of antiquity, reminiscent of the Villa Adriana in Tivoli.

During the years 1643-44, the architect participated in the projects of the palace of Cardinal Ulderico Carpegna for which some drawings have survived, but the ambitious project was not realized, only the spiral ramp and the portal that precedes it were built according to the plans of Borromini.

The works inside the Falconieri Palace took place shortly afterwards. They consisted of the realization of the facade with a loggia overlooking the Tiber, the decoration of the facade on Via Giulia, as well as that of some rooms.

After the death of Urban VIII Barberini, who relied solely on Bernini for his architectural work, Innocent X Pamphili took over the papal see, who wanted to rid Rome of the Barberini”s power, which favored Borromini. The activity in the service of the Pamphili family began with the project of a pavilion for the villa of San Pancrazio, studies for a palace and a fountain in Piazza Navona, projects that were not realized by Borromini. In the meantime, however, the pope commissioned a much more prestigious project: the restoration of St. John Lateran, which was in danger of falling into ruin. In the early months of 1646, Borromini presented his project. The constraints were great: the restoration had to be completed by 1650, a jubilee year for which many people were expected, and the pontiff imposed the preservation of the original structures, in particular the heavy coffered ceiling of the central nave. The Borrominian spatiality could only be fully expressed in the ambulatories. In the central nave, powerful pilasters each group a couple of columns forming impressive pillars, between which vaults are open.

Still under the pontificate of Innocent X, between 1644 and 1652, he studied the project of a building adjacent to Santa Maria in Vallicella, on the other side of the oratory; it was to include a rotunda vaguely antiquisite, but it was not done.

The church of Santa Agnese in Agona was begun in 1652 under the direction of Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi. Borromini was called in the following year. He partially modified the initial project: he increased the distance between the two towers and designed a concave façade to give more relief to the dome.

The construction of the Propaganda Fide palace was initially carried out by Bernini, who was replaced by Borromini in 1644, by the will of Innocent X. Borromini”s façade is organized around powerful pilasters between which the windows of the lateral wings are concave, while those of the central part are convex. Because of this continuous movement of the facade, the palace is considered today as one of the most interesting examples of Baroque architecture in Rome.

The Basilica of Sant”Andrea delle Fratte was partially rebuilt by Borromini between 1653 and 1658 but remained incomplete: the dome is interrupted at the cornice and deprived of plaster. The four buttresses stretched on the outside form a St. Andrew”s cross which add to the impression of incompleteness and contrast with the campanile which has the finesse of a jewel.

The Spada Chapel (1660), in the church of San Girolamo della Carità, reflects the renunciation of the usual use of architectural orders, it is a specific organization of space in order to compose a scene of a consummate domestic interior, jealous guardian of the family memory.

After 1661, Borromini was commissioned to design the roof of the oratory of San Giovanni in Oleo (already in 1657 he had planned the restoration of the roof of the baptistery of San Giovanni). He created a truncated cone-shaped roof on a short drum with palmettes.

Outside Rome, Borromini took part, between 1646 and 1652, in the studies concerning the village of San Martino al Cimino (it) for which he designed the Roman gate, he is also attributed the spiral staircase of the Doria palace and perhaps the drawings of the ramparts. In Frascati, he carried out the transformations of the Villa Falconieri (1665). For the Basilica of San Paolo Maggiore (and for the church of Santa Maria dell”Angelo (it) in Faenza, an altar: in both cases, his projects followed preliminary studies by Father Virgilio Spada, who was an amateur architect.

Isolation and death

The arrival on the papal throne of Alexander VII Chigi, in 1655, signaled the professional decline of Borromini who fell into a deep psychological crisis fueled by the new rise of Bernini, who once again became the favorite architect of the papal court.

During the summer of 1667, his health, already tested by serious nervous and depressive disorders, worsened with repeated fevers and chronic insomnia. The evening of August 2 was even more incoherent, and in the early hours of the morning, in a fit of anger and despair, anger that seems to have been triggered by a trivial annoyance: his assistant”s refusal to turn on the light so that he could continue to rest, Borromini tragically ended his life by throwing himself on his sword.

He was still able to write his will and receive the sacraments of the Church and died on the morning of August 3, 1667.

An examination of Borromini”s architecture, which is found almost entirely in Rome, allows one to appreciate the extraordinary breadth of his culture and the depth of his innovative vision. Borromini considered with fervent interest the great masters, such as Michelangelo, to whom he was in some respects spiritually related, but the entire Renaissance, Mannerist and proto-Baroque heritage belonged to him; he subjected it to a severe re-reading that had never been accomplished before. In the Roman environment, he brought the living sap of a fervor and an almost artisanal skill. Fertile Empiricism, because controlled by lively critical resources and a rigorous education. He drew from the antique, not from the sub-forms of erudite or academic humanism, but with the spontaneous freshness of the ingenuous rediscovery. He reproposed the gothic world as a tension of spaces, with the values of light, as a decorative repertoire always more vast. To the noise of the great scenographic and declamatory scores, he opposed a humble discourse, reserving more meticulous care to the details, treated with the sensitivity and the finesse of a goldsmith and alienated from any useless redundancy. He was endowed like few of his contemporaries with the ability to conceive complex architectural ensembles as a whole, and to constantly subjugate space, subordinating it to the plastic elaboration of the structures, applying a new, truly baroque dialectic to the relationships. He produced the most brilliant urbanistic answers, qualifying the exterior space as an integral part of his creations. He submitted to his audacious interpretation the codes of the classical orders: the “weirdness” with which his detractors qualified his architecture, was for him synonymous of innovation, ardent desire of the overcoming of the stagnant inertia. He liked to say: “whenever I seem to stray from the common designs, let us remember what Michelangelo, the Prince of architects, used to say: he who follows others never walks ahead; I would not have embraced this profession to be only a copyist…”.

According to Baldinucci”s testimony, Borromini was a man of beautiful appearance, tall and robust, a great soul, noble and elevated. He was sober in his diet and lived chastely. He placed his art above all else and for its sake he never spared his fatigue. Jealous of his own work, he said that his drawings were his children and that he did not want them to go around the world begging for praise. Before he died, he sacrificed many of them to the flame so that they would not fall into the hands of his enemies, who could have attributed them to themselves or corrupted them. Most of the surviving works are in the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

He had a restless existence, the shadow of Bernini always looming over his path, only attenuated between the years 1644 and 1655, when the good fortune of his competitor was put at half-mast. He enjoyed the protection of Innocent X who conferred on him, on July 26, 1652, the insignia of the Order of Christ. During his life he met some faithful and understanding friends, such as Father Virgilio Spada, who was very close to him until the time of the oratory, and the Marquis of Castel Rodrigo, to whom Borromini dedicated his Opus architectonicum.

Rivalry between Bernini and Borromini

The Roman Baroque is due to two great architects of the seventeenth century: Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. They contributed to the new image of Rome that still characterizes its historic center.

The initial harmony in which they worked together in St. Peter”s and the Barberini Palace soon turned into an extremely difficult conflictual relationship. This open rivalry was due to a different artistic conception and to strong, opposing personalities. Perhaps the most obvious example of this artistic difference can be seen in the comparison of the two staircases that each of them made for the Barberini Palace. See photos of :

Bernini was rich, well known, well introduced in the Roman artistic sphere and knew how to maintain solid relations with the powerful, his patrons. Borromini was of modest condition, introverted, withdrawn and surly.

The origin of this situation was the baldachin of St. Peter”s (1631-1633), a project on which the two artists worked together and in which Francesco”s own personal spirit can be seen, especially in the crowning of the work, which he also marked with his own figure: a seraph on a coat of arms. But the monument received only the paternity of Bernini, and the honors and the money returned to him alone. Frustrated, offended, Francesco would have exclaimed: “I do not mind that he has received so much money, what I do mind is that he enjoys the honor of my fatigue.

According to some biographers, Bernini was aware of the talent of his assistant, and feared his competition and his rise. This is the reason for his constant attempts to hinder his career, while benefiting almost gratuitously from his exceptional technical abilities by attaching him to his work with vague promises. Borromini did not let himself be blinded, he had the strength and the courage to distance himself from his rival and to oppose him. This rivalry lasted until Borromini”s death, between victories and failures, continuous humiliations, in an alternation of joys and pains that inexorably undermined his physical and mental health and brought him to suicide.

Major works

This little jewel that the Italians like to call San Carlino, precisely because of its size, is one of the masterpieces of Baroque architecture, even though it was Borromini”s first independent work; this shows that at the age of 35 the architect was already in his full maturity.

This work is perhaps the most complete synthesis of Borromini”s life and work. It shows the architect concerned, down to the last detail, with the people who would live in the space created, but also his taste for the ellipse and the curve. It is the place of his most beautiful friendship: with Virgilio Spada, but also the place of the controversy with his detractors: the project was withdrawn by the congregation. The facade, which is often compared to open arms, is in itself the image of the greatness of the man.

This realization, another masterpiece of baroque architecture, can be seen as a continuation, or even a completion of San Carlino, where Borromini also changed the classical relationships of the architecture, in particular between the drum, the dome and the original spiral lantern.

Its amazing design is based on the symbolic geometry of Solomon”s seal and also makes it a masterpiece of intelligence.



  1. Francesco Borromini
  2. Francesco Borromini