Joseph Connors, “Un teorema sacro. San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane”

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Joseph Connors, “Un teorema sacro. San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane”
Joseph Connors, “Un teorema sacro. San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane”, in Il giovane Borromini.
Dagli esordi a San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, ed. MANUELA KAHN-ROSSI, MARCO
FRANCIOLLI, exh. cat. (Lugano, Museo Cantonale d’arte), Milan, Skira, 1999, pp. 459–474.
S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, called S. Carlino because of its small size, or S. Carlitos by its
Spanish patrons, was Borromini’s independent commission and one that stood close to his heart
for his whole life. He won the commission when he was 35. He built the church between ages 39
and 45. At age 51 he came back to it to tell the monks his life’s story. At age 61 or 62 he
conceived a project to publish the church, and did a series of drawings revealing the secrets of its
geometry. At age 66 he began the facade, the most musical and movemented of all his works. He
was so fond of S. Carlino that at 67 he asked to be buried here and began to plan a high altar
chapel in the crypt. When he died at 68 the facade had reached the level of the main cornice; it
was finished a decade later by Borromini’s incompetent nephew.
The interior of S. Carlino is the most powerful expression of Borromini’s plastic architecture.
Arches jump from pier to pier, bent in permanent torsion. Because the space on this tiny site was
so constrained there was no question of having a normal Greek cross, with four equal arms.
Instead fictive space was suggested by nicchioni, big niches with optically adjusted coffering that
makes them seem deeper than they are. The cupola too is covered with coffering, like a
malleable net stretched over the surface. The source of the coffering design comes from a
woodcut in Serlio, but the plastic quality as it stretches over the surface of the cupola is entirely
Borromini’s own.
One can see so many references to St. Peter’s that S. Carlino comes to seem like a St. Peter’s
compressed into a tiny space, about as big as one of the piers of St. Peter’s, into which (in a
famous comparison first made in the early 19th century) it could all fit. But at St. Peter’s the
piers are massivly solid; here the piers are pierced by doors and windows and hollowed out with
chapels behind them. The way the columns follow the curved contours of the nicchioni has
reminded many visitors of the flow of space in S. Lorenzo in Milan or of the vestibule to the
Piazza d’Oro in Hadrian’s Villa.
But maybe the best way to understand S. Carlino is to compare it with a church that is at first
enormously alike, but then in the end quite different. This is the chapel at the Chateau of Anet in
France, built by Philibert Delorme in 1547-55. Borromini could easily have known it from the
prints published in 1567. Anet too is a Greek cross compressed into a tiny space, and it too has a
shallow cupola with perspectival coffering. It also has pierced piers with hidden spaces behind
them, and like S. Carlino each pier has three niches that spill over from the face onto the sides.
But if Anet is a source for S. Carlino, it is a source assimilated and then cleverly subverted. Anet
is all discipline; one has no trouble telling the arms from the circular crossing. In contrast S.
Carlino is all flow. One would be hard put to say for sure whether any part of the interior, say a
niche or a column, belongs to the crossing piers or to the arms. In Anet we are standing in a
classic space, in S. Carlo we are inside an enigma.
The riddle is made more complex when we try to assess the social level of Borromini’s
architecture. Is this a rich church, or a poor one? What does the architecture have to do with the
mission of the order that built it, unshod Spanish monks of the Trinitarian order dedicated to the
ransom of captives? Indeed, a perceptive critic named Andrea Comolli, applied a very harsh
judgment to it. Writing in 1792, he said that the architect of S. Carlino did not know his history,
in particular, the history of the penitent St. Charles Borromeo. The many cappricci that he
worked into the ornament would be better in the cabinet of a lady of fashion (“una galante
Madama”), than in a church dedicated to a grave and saintly archbishop.
So: unhistorical, impertinent, capricious, feminine; Comolli was writing in the anti-rococo spirit
of the French Revolution. We can dismiss him as unsympathetic if we want but he poses an
interesting question, namely, what is the social meaning of this overloaded little church? Who
were these monks and what were they trying to express? Was Borromini’s darling their
albatross? In the search for an answer we might begin very far from Rome, with the real mission
of the Trinitarian monks, in the prisons of Algiers.
Pirates and Redemtions
Towards the end of the first part of Don Quixote a stranger staying in an inn with the Errant
Knight tells his story. This is the famous “Captive’s Tale.” The narrator had been a soldier
serving on a galley in the fleet of Don Juan of Austria when he was taken captive at Lepanto.
Fifteen thousand Christian slaves were freed from the oars on that happy day, says Cervantes,
but this soldier was unlucky enough to be taken by a Moorish squadron that escaped destruction.
Set to the oars in the waters around Greece, traded and bequeathed to various masters in
Constantinople, the solder finally found himself a prisoner in the infamous prisons of Algiers, the
The Captive’s Tale is an improbable romance of love at first sight, trust between prisoners, and
successful mass escape, with the help of a beautiful and wealthy Moorish princess. When the
captive and his friends finally reach Spain after years of harsh captivity they kiss the earth, but
they see all around them a coastline depopulated by almost daily raids, and inland cities where
vigilantes ride out at the slightest danger signal. In other words they return to a country where
slave raids were an unhappy fact of life.
Cervantes, though he romanticized conditions in the baños, wrote from firsthand experience. He
himself had been taken prisoner while returning from Naples to Spain in 1575 and spent four
years in Algiers. At last he was ransomed by Trinitarian monks, at considerable expense, since
he was believed to be an officer. In gratitude he chose to be buried in the Discalced Trinitarian
church in Madrid. The church was rebuilt in 1673 and the tomb lost, but “las Trinitarias de
Cervantes” is a national monument.
The plight of the captives was terrible, but like Cervantes they could be ransomed. At the
beginning of the 13th century several smaller religious orders and two great ones were founded
for the redemption of captives. The Trinitarians, Cervantes’ heroes and our own, were begun in
1198, and their main rivals in the ransom business, the Mercedarians (Merced), were founded by
Peter Nolasco in Catalonia in 1218. These were the last of the great medieval orders to be
established before the coming of the mendicants in the 1220s.
The Trinitarians were founded in France by a young Provençale Theologian, Jean de Matha, who
had a remarkable vision during his first mass:
Vidit majestatem Dei et Deum tenentem in manibus suis duos vires habentes cathenas in
tibiis, quorum unus niger et deformis apparuit, alter macer et pallidus.
He saw the Majesty of God, holding in his hands two men chained at the ankles, one
black and deformed, the other white and thin.
The message was obvious. He should found an order for the redemption of Christian captives.
He immediately set off for Rome to seek papal approval. Innocent III had his doubts but was
won over when he was vouchsafed the same vision. Jean de Matha then toiled for years
ransoming captives and propagating the order. He died in 1213 and was buried in Rome on the
Coelian Hill, near the mosaic icon (1209-13) that shows his vision. In the mosaic the
“Maiestatem Dei” is shown as Christ Enthroned. The early sources stress that the order was
founded not by any man but my God alone:
Hic est ordo approbatus
Non a Santis fabricatus
Sed a Solo Summo Deo.
This order which has been approved was not devised by saints but by God on High alone.
This hagiographical core was later buried in a wealth of hagiographical accretion. The vision was
not any longer of the “Maiestatem Dei” but of a whiterobed angel. Jean di Matha was given a cofounder, Felix de Valois, and hence royal connections. On their way to Rome the pair stopped at
the hermitage of Cerfroid, where they saw a snow-white deer (cervus frigidus) with a cross
between its antlers. The blue and red cross became the symbol of the Trinitarians, worn on the
front of their habits. The deer can be found as an emblem on the facade of Borromini’s church,
along with statues of the founders, Jean de Matha with the book of a theologian, and Felix de
Valois with the royal crown of France, the hermitage of Cerfroid and the shackles of a freed
The Trinitarian rule prescribed that a third of the order’s revenues were to be devoted to
ransoms, hence their name, the Trinitari del Riscatto. The first ranson took place in 1199. The
monks undertook money-raising campaigns that included freed captives acting out their plight in
tableaux vivants. They were enormously successful in the coastal areas of France and the parts of
Spain close to Moorish lands, but they also established monasteries far from the Mediterranean.
The Rue des Mathurins (from Matha) still preserves the memory of their demolished church in
Paris, St. Mathurin, where the whole history of the order could be read in a great cycle of
paintings by a contemporary of Rubens, Theodore van Thulden. One finds an echo of this cycle
in the pendentives of Borromini’s church: the vision at mass, the miraculous redemption where
the wind blew the Trinitarians back to Spain in a mere six hours.
But both on the facade and in the altarpiece we find an alien presence. St. Charles Borromeo, the
archbishop of counter-reformational Milan, had no historical connection with the order and
among his myriad good works one will not find any mention of redemption of captives. S. Carlo
is there because he stood for the cause of radical reform.
In the later 16th century almost all the great religious orders underwent reform. Reform was not
gentle suasion; it was convulsion. The prototypical reformer is St. Teresa of Avila who brought
the age-old Carmelite order back to something approaching the conditions of austerity and
devotion for which it had been founded. But the Franciscans, Augustinians, Trinitarians,
Mercedarians and almost every other old order were rent by the onslaught of charismatic, radical
personalities who advocated the removal of abuses and a return to primitive austerities.
“L’asprezza dell’habito e nudità dei piedi” were the symbols of reform, and the new groups were
called scalzi, discalced, even though they were went about with sandals rather than strictly
barefoot. S. Teresa, Bernini’s great statue, is barefoot.
The unreformed, or mitigated trunk of each religious order bitterly resented the reform branches
and did everything possible to impede their growth. They resented the loss of recruits and
erosion of established authority. Physical violence between reformed and mitigated was not
uncommon. The scalzi aimed to found new convents; Teresa spelled out the strategy in detail in
her book The Foundations. With enough new foundations the scalzi could become gradually
independent of the mother order, first a separate province but eventually an independent order
with its own general. In this process it was essential to build up a base of support in Rome, to
build a house and church, to make contacts with the papal court. Thus Rome filled up with scalzi.
Reform struck the Trinitarians of Spain with special virulence in the latter 16th century. God’s
chosen instrument was monk of noble origins called Juan Rico Garcia, usually called by his
religious name Juan Bautista de la Concepcion (1561-1613). He put on sandals and advocated a
return to primitive austerity and the old practice of setting aside a third of the order’s income for
redemptions. The Trinitarian establishment grew defensive and hostile. Juan Bautista set out for
Rome. A campaign of denigration was set in motion. He went through a dark night of the soul.
His writings are obsessed with demons who taunt him and try to obstruct his mission. But in
1599 he left Rome vindicated, with a papal bull approving his reform and charting a course
towards gradual independence, if he could establish enough scalzi convents.
Juan Bautista, however, was no Teresa. The hollow unflinching gaze of the chosen prophet soon
alienated most of his followers, who judged him “a rigorous, harsh and terrible man.” He died in
1613 at age 52, wandering as an unwelcome guest from one discalced house to another. He was
not beatified until 1819 and did not appear in an altarpiece in S. Carlino until 1822; he was
canonized only in 1975. Given his ambiguous status, there was no question of Juan Bautista de la
Concepcion appearing anywhere in the decorative program of Borromini’s church. S. Carlo was
his substitute.
The generation of the scalzi reform was also the heyday of the North African corsair. Intensified
by the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain in 1609, and exacerbated by the weakness of
Spanish coastal defences, piracy grew far more intense than it had ever been. The “little war”
with North Africa scorched the coastal populations. An elaborate network of trade stretching as
far as Constantinople brought captives to Algiers, where they were thrown into the notorious
baños and set to work on chain gangs, kept alive, but just, waiting for ransom. The government
of Algiers was largely dependent on ransom money, and the redemptionists eagerly courted.
They fought the apathy of a landlocked government in Madrid, but they also tried to thwart
proposals that the money might be better spent on a fleet. As dangerous as the redemptionist
vocation was, there was a necessary symbiosis between them and the pirates. And the scale of
their operations was enormous. A recent book (Ellen Friedman) surveys the 53 redemptions
carried out by the Trinitarians in which 9500 captives were ransomed in the two centuries
following Cervantes. The last great redemption was carried out as late as 1769, a joint operation
between the Trinitarians and Mercedarians as the sunset of their history.
The history of the order allows us to explain the figurative imagery of the church. But before we
get to the design there is one nagging geographical question. Why did the Discalced Trinitarians
want to build a church in Rome at all, far from corsair-infested waters, and if in Rome why here
on the Quirinal Hill?
Scalzi on the Quirinal
The Quirinal was the old villa quarter of the city par excellence. In the Renaissance it was given
over to vineyards and ruins. Humanists taught Greek in little villas in the area, or edited the work
of the Roman agricultural authors. There were several great Antikengarten (Huelsen) with large
collections of classical sculpture. For example, almost every statue in the Archeological Museum
in Venice comes from the garden of the Grimani family, near the present Piazza Barberini. The
gardens of two other cardinals, Pio da Carpi and d’Este, were on hilltop sites later occuped by
the Quirinal and Barberini palaces. By an old tradition known as the lex hortorum the gates of
these gardens were open to the public, who could enjoy their allées of elm and cypress and
bubbling fountains, where marble nymphs might lie sleeping. Amidst the hundreds of antique
statues they might see an occasional modern piece, like Michelangelo’s late Pietà, which stood
in a grotto in the Bandini garden, a hundred feet or so from what is now S. Carlino.
Through the middle of this arcadia Sixtus V plowed his roads in 1585-90. The Via Panisperna
cut a relentlessly straight course through hill and valley to point at his own chapel in S. Maria
Maggiore, and his Via Felice (Sistina) cut the Grimani and Bandini villas in half in order to
arrive at the same goal. “So much wringing of necks to lay out straight streets” said the
newsmongers, who caught something of the aristocratic resistence to these thoroughfares.
Sixtus’s fountains brought water to this terrain and his tax breaks brought population. The street
fronts were built up into little houses (Terborch view) with the typically Roman toothed edge,
each house poised to expand at the expense of its neighbor. The intersection where the new Via
Felice cut across the older Via Pia was decorated with Quattro Fontane or Four Fountains, each
with its river god or goddess lying in a rustic cave, perfect villa fountains brought out of doors.
Another force was reshaping the area: wealthy pious women. In England the wealthy widow is
usually tempted to found an almshouse or a college, but in counter-reformational Italy she is
likely to take up the cause of the radically reformed religious orders or of the dynamic new
orders. In Rome these tended to cluster on the Quirinal Hill. The widow of the Duke of
Tagliacozzo split her large estate between the Jesuits (who would later build Bernini’s S. Andrea
al Quirinale on her land), and the Clarisse, reformed Capuchin nuns. An Orsini widow built S.
Maria Maddalena for rigidly cloistered Dominican nuns, which she then joined. Parts of the
Baths of Diocletian had been converted to a villa by the French Cardinal Du Bellay, but they
underwent a second conversion when Caterina Nobili Sforza bought the villa and turned it into a
monastery of the Foglianti or Feuillants, a newly reformed order coming from France. They
turned a rotunda of the baths into their church, S. Bernardino alle Terme. Next door the sister of
Sixtus V, Camilla Peretti, gave land for a convent of the female branch of the same order.
Carolyn Valone has explored this phenomenon, “matrons as patrons,” and traced its spiritual
ancestry to the Roman matrons who devoted themselves and their fortunes to St. Jerome.
In the Renaissance there were only four churches along the Via Pia, but by the early 17th century
there were twelve, with a dozen more in the nearby side streets. The old tradition of the villas,
with their open gates, co-existed cheek by jowl with the new scalzi houses locked in strict
clausura. The contrast could be stark, even in the same family. In 1627 Federico Cesi passed the
summer in the Bandini villa, working on his scientific projects. But in the same year, a stone’s
throw away, his sister Caterina Cesi founded the convent of S. Teresa alle Quattro Fontane,
which she then joined in order to pursue without distraction her Teresa-like devotion to the
Mystic Marriage to Christ with the Holy Nail. The spiritual worlds of these siblings and
neighbors were as night and day, and something of this shizophrenia can be said to characterize
the neighborhood at large.
Some of the scalzi movements who poured into the Quirinal had tremendous success while
others drank in the end the bitter cup of failure. The key was to win friends at court, if possible
supply a confessor to the papal family, and attract a wealthy patron. One can distinquish between
the phenomenally successful scalzi in Rome, the medium successful, and the failures. The
Agostiniani scalzi had the best of luck, attracting a papal nephew, Camillo Pamphilj, who built
them a great church, S. Nicola di Tolentino, just a few streets up from Piazza Barberini. On the
other end of the scale there were the Spanish Franciscan scalzi, who tried to make a go of it at
the church of S. Isidoro but suffered miserable failure when the pope who favored them, Gregory
XV, died after a brief pontificate.
In between there were the many scalzi offshoots who circled the Quirinal looking for approval,
cutting the old villas into cloistered enclaves, building tiny churches, hearing the confessions of
wealthy matrons. The meekest of the meek they might seem, but they were really famished
leopards waiting for Opportunity to walk under their branch. Rome was essential to their
strategy, but not without its dangers. When Teresa’s representative Pedro de los Angeles was
about to embark for Rome to plead the cause of the Carmelite scalzi, John of the Cross (saint and
mystic poet) warned him, “You will go to Italy with yours shoes off, but you will come back
with them on.” Something like this is what happened, under Borromini, to the Trinitarians at S.
S. Carlino
The Trinitari Scalzi bought a house at the Quattro Fontane in 1610 and turned it into a makeshift
church. The were proud to dedicate this storefront to S. Carlo Borromeo, canonized that year.
They had many scalzi neighbors, Carmelites, Clarisse, even the French branch of the Discalced
Trinitarians at a church called S. Dionigio (St. Denis). From this base the Trinitari Scalzi
launched their first redemption in 1625, bringing back to Spain 52 captives from Algiers. They
showed the world that, as far as redemtions went, the scalzi meant business.
Borromini enters the scene in 1634. He had served the aging Maderno faithfully up to his death
in 1629. Even before Maderno’s death he saw most of the major papal projects go to Bernini,
and his chances to succeed Maderno as architect of St. Peters’ wither. He did the drawings for
Bernini’s baldacchino. Together he and Bernini designed the Palazzo Barberini, with Maderno
too old and too crippled to be of any use. There are details were one can clearly see the architect
and the sculptor working in collaboration. The facade has a wealth of imaginative sculpture that
can only be due to Bernini, such as the great Medusa’s mask, the palladium, that says this is the
palace of Pallas. But the window of the upper story, where the volutes are set diagonally and
seem to shape the space around them, are probably a product of the collaboration, and so is the
great central door of the salone, where a pair of swans fight with the sperpents of Medusa’s hair.
Borromini’s Graphite Drawing Style
Palazzo Barberini is where Borromini brought to perfection a great innovation in architectural
draftsmanship, the pencil drawing, or to be more precise, the pencil presentation drawing. It is
worth a brief digression to explore this invention. A small drawing of a doorframe Palazzo
Barberini may serve to introduce the genre.
Even in this minor door Borromini insisted on elegant and complicated molding profiles, shown
on the tiny plan. To represent the jamb moldings Borromini uses a technique of parallel strokes
drawn with a hard, fine pencil. There are over 20 strokes per centimeter (twice the number on a
normal metric ruler), and over 300 for each molding on each jamb. Where the moldings curve
the strokes do too. To show a flat strip between moldings a hair-thin white line is left between
strokes, as though the pencil had passed over a length of fine gold wire. Light is cast from the
left, highlighting the door in such a way that the one jamb cannot be drawn as a mechanical
reflection of the other. The discipline of the ever-sharpened pencil and the hairthin strokes is
breathtaking. The drawing becomes a fine-tooled miniature of the door, faint but infinitesimally
exact, a brilliant exercise in rendering magnum in parvo.
Where does pencil come from? It is not used by the great masters of the High Renaissance.
Silverpoint, the dry stylus, and hard black chalk are all to be found in the early sixteenth century,
but not graphite. Michelangelo, who uses all the traditional media with the greatest originality,
does not know pencil.
Graphite is a new medium that came into use in the last third of the sixteenth century. It is first
mentioned in 1564, the year of Michelangelo’s death, in a German text (Johan Mathesius) that
speaks of it as a “new and self-growing metal used for writing.” The early graphite mines in
England and Spain were guarded like goldmines, but the medium rapidly spread. In 1565 we
have our first illustration of a pencil, called grafio piombino, which is praised as the draftsman’s
humble handmaiden, good for laying out drawings but destined to disappear underneath the final
layers of ink and wash.
There were pencils in the satchels of the many Lombard architects and masons who passed back
and forth between Milan and Rome. Pencil is ubiquitous, for example, in Montano’s drawings.
Maderno used pencil but only as the first step in the production of a beautiful, colorful artifact.
When he took Borromini on as an apprentice, this is the kind of drawing Maderno expected him
to produce: an outline in pencil, which is then covered over with colorful ink and wash.
It is in the unfinished drawings of Maderno’s shop that we can study the pencil-bearing hand of
Borromini at close range. In a drawing for a door in Palazzo Barberini, which Borromini
abandoned half finished in 1630, only the left leaf was finished in ink. A little restless, he
continued to sketch freehand pencil ornament on both leaves. The two halves of the drawing
seem to be in competition, each vying to be more precise and commanding. The plebean pencil
struggles to be an equal to the more stately pen and, amazingly, succeeds.
Then he hit upon the fundamental premise of his “graphite revolution,” which was to bring the
pencil drawing to the pitch of perfection and leave the ink and color out. Graphite alone would
hold sway. In the months after Maderno’s death in 1629, pen, like the disinherited Esau,
disappears almost entirely from Borromini’s drawings, while the pencil blossoms into a new
maturity. The result is a style of breathtaking lightness, clarity and precision.
It took an usually enlightened patron to accept a project on the basis of a pencil presentation
drawing. Take two elevations, one for the facade of the Oratory of the Filippini, and the other for
the nave of the Lateran. Anyone could see their delicacy, their precision, their hair-fine esatezza.
But was this not the medium of carpenters and apprentices? To take such drawings seriously one
had to find pleasure in the miniature and the mathematical, to prize intensity of thought over
sumptuousness of effect. Such sensibilities were often found among the naturalists and virtuosi
who formed encyclopedic collections and used the microscope to peer into natures own
miniatures. Galileo turned the microscope on the fly, Federico Cesi on the lordly bee, in his
Melissopgraphia print of 1625. When the sharp steady eye of the lynx was turned on Nature this
was the kind of image it expected to see. Rare is the Borromini patron who does not have a
collection of lenses; some, like Cassiano Dal Pozzo, write in pencil.
Borromini left us a nice metaphor for the graphite drawing. It is contained in a manuscript about
the Oratory of Filippini. In the dedication to a potential patron, the Spanish ambassador,
Borromini apologies for his clumsy writing. Literary style (stile) is not his strong point, and he is
more at home with the instruments of drawing (stile). His Excellency, he asks, will take the
rough text before him and with the “tongue of his graciousness give it form, in the manner of the
she-bear in the beastaries, who gives birth formless to her young and then licks them into shape.”
This is an old image. Titian had adopted it as him impresa. John Donne used it as a symbol of
over-attentive love:
And love’s a bear-whelp born, if we o’re-lick
Our love, and force it new strange shapes to take,
We err, and of a lump a monster make.
For Borromini the bear licking its offspring into shape expressed vividly his feelings about his
cherished creation the pencil drawing.
Borromini and the Trinitarians
In the early 1630s Borromini set out on his own. He offered his services for free to a number of
patrons, but only the Trinitarians responded. By this time they were led by a monk who was
more eager to build than to go off on ransom missions. His name was Fra Juan de la Anunciacion
(1595-1644). Born of minor nobility from the Rioja, he studied law in Salamanca and took the
habit of the Discalced Trinitarians in 1617. After a novitiate in Madrid and study in Baeza and
Alcalá de Henares he was sent to Rome, where he settled into the life of the little community at
the Quattro Fontane. In 1628 Cardinal Francesco Barberini heard him in the pulpit and named
him as his confessor, a post that he held until his death in 1644. To maintain a facade of
neutrality Urban VIII’s two cardinal nephews were meant to represent the interests of the two
warring crowns, Francesco of Spain and Antonio of France. So at age thirty-three Juan de la
Anunciacion suddenly found himself an eminence grise courted by cardinals, princes and great
men. He remained a staunch advocate of Spain in a largely Francophile court.
Juan de la Anunciacion would commission a fresco of the Annunciation in the church as a kind
of signature, and we have a portrait that shows him with a plan of the church in hand. This was a
man with a grand design, a disegno as he called it, to build a church richer than Solomon’s
temple, with a floor of emeralds and precious stones. But his order was desperately poor. Then
Fra Juan had a stroke of luck. Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the papal nephew, heard him preach
and asked him to become his confessor. At age 33 Fra Juan became an eminence grise, a
hispanic presence in a francophile court. He was widely courted, but in the end no one stepped
forth to take up the project of a new church. Fra Juan began building anyway. He sent his monks
out to say mass for a carlino, the smallest coin. Building became a kind of asceticism for Fra
Juan, a constant battle with hardship and poverty, but one undertaken with confidence and inner
joy. Should the Queen of Sheeba visit him she would admire him as Solomon.
This was the strange brief for the commission. S. Carlo had to be small and poor, no bigger than
the small house which the Trinitarians had been worshipping in for a quarter-century. It had to
remind everyone of the history and mission of the Trinitarian order. But it also had to represent
the aspirations of the scalzi to independence from their hated calced brethen. It had to be a
sophisticated design, capable of attracting patronage from a sophisticated court, but it had to be
built for next to nothing. On these terms Fra Juan’s disegno would merge with Borromini’s.
Planning S. Carlino: Albertina 171
We have the earliest plan for S. Carlino and the monastic complex around it. It is a classical
example of the graphite drawing, maybe the most complex in Borromini’s work, darkened with
reworking. Borromini first built a simple dormitory for the monks. The most elaborate room was
the refectory, with its vault born on the shoulders of angels and its perspectival niche. Next
Borromini built a very simple but magical cloister. It is a good example of his ability to condense
a majestic model, the cloister of Brera, the Jesuit college in Milan, into a tiny compass. Instead
of having three columns in the corners he has two, which jump the corners with consummate
grace: “la natura è nemica degl’angoli.”
When we turn to the church, the she-bear seems to have licked her whelp out of all recognition.
What has happened is this. In 1634 Borromini drew a precise plan for whole complex. It
included, naturally, a plan for the church, which was where we might expect it, behind the corner
fountain, but still relatively small. Then when the church was about to be begun in 1638, the
architect’s ambitions, and those of Fra Juan, expanded.
To get at the earliest idea we have to develop a kind of graphite archeology, penetrating down
through the smudges with spade-like eyes until we reach whatever traces are left of the bottom
strata. Blunt and Steinberg excavated down to a lower stage where they found a large plan,
shaped like a four-leafed clover or quattrefoil. But we can dig deeper. In the right light we can
see a crossing pier with a convex face and a niche. There was a small circular cupola supported
by four such piers. The design was so simple, so right for the scalzi. It recalls the plan of the
early Christian oratory of the SS. Croce at the Lateran. Sixtus V tore SS. Croce down long before
Borromini got to Rome but it was recorded in countless drawings. This is the earliest stratum.
Even after it was superseded the SS. Croce plan was preserved in a little chapel in the crypt, with
the same convex piers.
We can now come up from the depths, slowly, like experienced divers, and see what the later
strata amount to. The quattrefoil represents a phase of sudden expansion, as though Borromini
wanted the church to reach the side street and the light that could come from a large window
here. He may have been thinking of a small Michelangelo plan, sketched at the end of his life
when he was building the Sforza Chapel. But then in the final stage we have the quattrefoil in
compression. Instead of deep apses on the sides we will get shallow apses, made deeper in
appearance by perspectival coffering. Columns arrive, 16 of them, snaking around the perifery.
Thus in the end we have a plan that went through many phases, but kept something of each in the
final synthesis.
Let us go back into S. Carlino. It should make more sense now that we have looked at the plan
evolving on the drawing: the four original piers, then the quattrefoil with four expansive apses,
then the quattrefoil compressed and the dome squeezed from a circle into an oval. But Borromini
is thinking in elevation as well as in plan, and thinking allusively, packing concrete images into
the church.
The interior would indeed become something of a mini-St.Peter’s. S. Lorenzo in Milan is there
too. But if we look closer, at the very texture of the walls, we will see further allusions. The three
niches of the crossing piers, originally meant to be all on the same level, with giant columns
rising up between them and the wall punched out below the architrave, is a quotation from a
famous building of Raphael, the Villa Madama. But Borromini opens up his wall even more that
Raphael, at four points rather than two. This is the beginning of the skeletal wall, a hallmark of
the baroque.
Perhaps the clearest of all the allusions is on the outside, in the tempietto (Borromini’s own term)
over the cupola. The scalloped bays between the columns (actually there is not a piece of stone in
the tempietto) have reminded all visitors of Baalbek. But as long ago as 1924 Hempel showed
that reading was more important than travel, and that such structures were sprinkled across the
pages of Montano’s books on tempietti in the Roman countryside. This tempietto was meant to
be crowned with a cross of red and blue glass, the cross of the Trinitarians’ habit.
Like the bells rung by the acolyte at a Tridentine mass, in three sets of three rings each, using a
triple bell, S. Carlino is full of ingenious triplicities: three niches, three shells (a “trivalve”), three
angels in the pendentives, triple oak leaves and three-leafed clovers, three comparments in each
leaf of the beautiful iron girlles.
Elastic, interwoven with allusion, highly skeletal, S. Carlino is also a hothouse of luxuriant
growth. Leaves have covered the capitals, the ovolo has turned to pomegranates bursting with
seed. The altar frames are bundles of flowers. Above the altars are friezes with acanthus, a
“peopled scroll” where tiny birds, snakes and lizards thrive. Even the iron grille takes on some of
the qualities of vegetal growth.
Behind these grilles are two tiny hexagonal chapels. One is completely devoid of floral
ornament. It shows what moldings, properly handled, can do to a vault. The strong cornice
makes the vault seem to soar overhead; an oval hovers in the center of the rib clusters; the whole
design seems like an essay in magnetic force. The other chapel, the Barberini Chapel, is an essay
in allegorical botany, and it takes its inspiration from the Barberini gardens that lie just across the
street. We are in the world of Poussin’s Flora. All these flowers cannot help but attract bees, and
the whole chapel was designed as a lure for Barberini patronage, but their largesse never really
showered on the church.
Once one has experienced all this, to descend from the upper church into the lower is to move
from spring to winter. In this burial place for the monks there is no ornament at all. A visit to the
crypt clears the mind, like a walk in the clear night air after an intoxicating dinner. Here better
than anywhere else the overstimulated spectator can see that there is a crystalline geometry at
work governing the movement of the walls above.
Geometry and Meaning
The monks often observed visitors coming into the church from their hidden choirs. The same
people came back again and again and turned around and looked all over, contemplating the
building in silence. The monks, for whom all aesthetics was theological, explained the
fascination of the church this way. Rich and sumptuous interiors, like the Gesù or S. Maria
Maggiore, delight at first and then cloy the imagination. But here people come in in silence, and
they seem to see always something new, never with boredom, but with an appetite to see more.
This desire is like that of angels to see the Trinity. Human things lead to boredom; Divine things
one conceives an appetite to return to see.
We know the name of one distinguished visitor, Alphonse de Richelieu, archbishop of Lyon and
brother of the Great Cardinal. He was in Rome in 1644 for the conclave following the death of
Urban VIII and returned to S. Carlino many times. We might guess that he was accompanied by
the his protégé Pierre Mignard, the painter of the altarpiece. He could not describe the delight he
experienced in the design. He pressed the monks for a plan. He was not the only one. Visitors
from foreign parts--Flanders, Spain, the Indies--commented to the monks on its beauty and asked
again and again for a plan.
For years Borromini refused, but in his last years he did envisage a publication. In preparation he
drew a series of plans which show a geometrical shema: two triangles forming a diamond, with
the four apses as half circles or half ovals swung off the points of the diamond. We have to be
cautious with these geometrical drawings. They always used to be taken as projects for the
church, but in fact it can be shown that they were done 25 years after it was finished. They
simplify the design enormously. But a geometrical core there always was. It allowed Borromini
to govern his winding walls and to plan interesting axes of vision (priest at the side altar straight
through to the altar of the Barberini Chapel). But it also allowed him to express a particular
sensibility about the natural world.
In the 17th century the geometry of natural objects was scrutinized as never before. Anthony
Blunt found an entrée into this world through Galileo’s famous utterance, that the book of Nature
was written in the language of mathematics. This was indeed a brilliant intuition. But perhaps for
the moment the most compelling example of this mentality that I can produce is a slender treatise
of Kepler’s, The Six-Cornered Snowflake, of 1611. Kepler was crossing the Charles Bridge in
Prague one white Christmas, on his way to dinner, lamenting the fact he had no present to bring
his friend. A snowflake landed on his glove. He looked closely. He had it! “I bring you nothing,”
he said to the friend, “Nichts, Nix.” His treatise explores, for the first time, the hexagonal
symmetry of snow crystals, and goes on to meditate on the divine source of the architecture of
the honeycomb and the facultas formatrix (or vis, or ratio, or anima), the code by which Nature
(daedala tellus) shapes all things. The essay planted the seeds of crystallography and closepacking, and influenced Descartes, Grew and Hooke.
Borromini certainly never read De Nive Sexangula, but the scrutiny of nature for its
mathematical foundations was widespread in 17th-century Rome, particularly in the circles
around Cassiano Dal Pozzo and the Barberini library. The idea was in the air. The plan that fits
hexagonal chapels so tightly next to the diamond core is indeed close-packed like a crystal,
though it comes alive in a more botanical sense on the interior. For the Trinitarian patrons, who
never read a word of science but who responded instinctively to triangles, Borromini could
suggest that there was a continuity between heaven and earth (Holy Spirit in triangle in vault;
triangle and circle in the plan).
Borromini did not want his church to be an easy experience. The spectator was meant to deepen
his or her perception slowly by repeated visits, initial confusion, followed by an odyssey through
the complex, movement from cortile to church, descent from church to crypt and then repeated
all over while perception deepened.
We might return at this point to the question of social status that we posed at the beginning. How
relevant was this highly elaborate little church to the fundamental mission of the Trinitarii del
Riscatto, and how effectively did it represent the needs and aspirations of the scalzi? The answer
is that, in Rome, the Trinitarians needed neither a naval base nor a penitential convent, but a
building that would express their dignity and their desire for independence from the mother
order. They got precisely what they wanted. In the middle of construction Urban VIII recognized
the full independence of the Trinitari Scalzi from the Calced Trinitarians. They could even have
their own general. Never again would they have to fear anyone hobbling them with shoes. It was
rumored that Fra Juan de la Anonciacion was going to be made a cardinal. People began to
congratulate him. But then France nixed the nomination. Fra Juan returned to his tiny cell at S.
Carlino, kissed the floor and thanked God for saving him in the nick of time. From then on he
wore a habit close to rags and never left his cell, except to assist at the deathbed of Urban VIII.
He followed the pope to his grave soon after, and was buried without marker in the crypt of S.
Cardinal he would never be, and eminence grise only of the second class, but the disegno of Fra
Juan de la Anunciacion, to build a church richer than Solomon’s temple, found expression in the
ambition of a young architect to pack his first church with “tutto il suo sapere.”
For years Borromini resisted the suggestion that he publish a plan of S. Carlino. He was jealous
of his invention and afraid that the church might be copied. But in his last years he gave in and
not only did drawings that were meant to be published, but even went so far as to allow a copy of
S. Carlino to be built, the church of S. Maria del Prato near Gubbio.
In 1662 a fresco of the Madonna began working miracles on the road leading south in the
meadows outside of Gubbio. The Bishop who took the miracle in hand, Alesandro Sperelli, knew
Borromini’s architecture at first hand and was close to one of his patrons, Cardinal Carpegna. He
asked for a plan. How could Borromini refuse? He sent a plan and some essential drawings, and
the copy, S. Maria del Prato, was built in 1663-67. The local master mason made several trips to
Rome and doubtless conferred with Borromini.
To walk into the church in Gubbio is a slightly unnerving experience, because it is uncannily like
the original, but also different. The plan is the same, though enlarged. One finds the same 16
giant columns, the crossing piers with their triplets of niches, the undulating cornice, the
pendentives like St. Peter’s, the oval cupola. But there are glaring differences. Some of the finely
tuned allusions to Raphael or the antique that Borromini wove into his wall surfaces are just not
there in the provincial copy.
A bigger difference still: there are no perspectival coffers. There was a good fresco painter in
Gubbio, Francesco Allegrini. Bishop Sperelli had his man, and he would have his frescoes. So all
of the coffered vaults of S. Carlino, the cupola and the vaults of the four nicchioni were replaced
in Gubbio by smooth vaults covered entirely in fresco. This creates a radically different
impression. The pendentives and arconi give the appearance of a thin and flimsy structure,
opened up to the heavens like a garden pavilion. The frescoes show a Wagnerian epic about the
Ascension of the Virgin to the Paradise depicted in the cupola. The niches, originally empty in
Borromini’s church, are filled with prophets who forsaw the event, like Isaiah. He galvanizes
attention across a charged space. Whereas Borromini had tried to communicate through a refined
language of architectural allusion, S. Maria del Prato has been thoroughly Bernini-ized, and
communicates through a concerted mixture of sculpture, painting and architecture.
Facade of S. Carlino
The facade of S. Carlino is Borromini’s last work, one of his most movemented and lyrical. It
takes the design of one of the crossing piers of the interior and brings it out of doors, in the
process making it more sinuous and more sculptural. The pier is part curved in plan and part
straight, but the facade is all curves. The pier juxtaposes giant columns and shorter pilasters, but
the facade is all columns. An architrave threads its way behind the columns of the piers, but on
the facade the architrave is much more three-dimensional and is abruptly cut by the columns.
The cornice of the facade, because it projects far out into space, appears to curve even more than
the facade itself, creating a powerful drama over the spectator’s head. Concave meets convex
with no sharp transitions. For the curved facades of antiquity one might reach for metaphors
from the plastic arts, but this facade one is tempted to compare to a bar of music.
The facade we see is, of course, the product of two hands and two minds. The lower half is by
Borromini, built in 1665-67, while the upper half is by his nephew, built in 1675-77. The
topheavy look is due to Bernardo’s expansion of his uncle’s design. The campanile as we see it is
by Bernardo, and so is all the sculpture. Borromini’s late masterpiece was presented to the world
by a young man who was still confident enough in his talents to introduce major innovations.
Early Facade Designs
The dilemma of the architect is that the facade was condemned from the start to be as narrow as
the house front it replaced. While the church was still conceived of us a small chapel, as in the
first design on Alb. 171, this was not an overwhelming problem. But when the church grew
majestic, as it quickly did on the same drawing, the facade had nowhere to expand. To take over
the corner fountain posed a problem of decorum, since the hoary river god was never going to
move and not even a magician could have made it seem appropriate for a church.
During the thirty-year building history Borromini changed the context in which the facade would
be seen by making the convent on either side of it progressively more aulic. He had started with
an idea of great simplicity for the side facade in 1634-35. Then in 1641-44, with the church
finished on the interior and the side facade standing in rustic brick, with much demolition and
rebuilding Borromini reorganized the three bays along the side of the church into a powerful
presence. The facciatella is still not quite a full-fledged church facade, but with the resplendent
ornament of the central bay and strong pilaster clusters it is no longer bare and abject. It seems to
demand a more august church facade.
At this point a patron appeared who wanted to shower money on S. Carlino. The Spanish
ambassador, the Marchese di Castel Rodrigo, “aficcionatissimo a fabriche,” dangled an
incredible offer before the Trinitarians and their architect:
‘Voglio [dice Castel Rodrigo] che a questa chiesa si facia la facciata per conto mio, et
voglio [che] spendere in essa vinti cinque milla scudi.’ Detto Sig.re Francesco gli disse,
Ex.mo Sig.re, il sito della facciata non e capacie di cossi grande spessa. Et risposse sua
Ex(cellenz)a, ‘Voglio che tutta la facciata sia di mormoli’.
This exchange would have taken place shortly before 1640. There was a small delay and it
proved fatal, since later in that year a distant and unforseen revolution brought about Castel
Rodrigo’s bankruptcy, sudden loss of office and permanent removal from the city.
There are two autograph sketches for the facade, one early and one late. Alb. 187 can be assigned
approximately to the period of Castel Rodrigo’s offer, 1640. It shows an architect desperately
searching for room on a narrow streetfront. The giant columns may represent an attempt to
achieve compensatory grandeur in a limited space.
On Alb. 187 Borromini is wrestling with the great model of his youth, S. Giuseppe in Milan.
Ricchini had given him a lesson in how to concentrate all the forces of an active and energetic
lower story onto a narrow aedicula on the upper story. Borromini’s aedicula frames an oval
window that was meant to let light into an opening pierced in the semidome over the entrance.
Above this window the drawing shows a pediment like the Oratorio dei Filippini (1641-42),
partly curved and partly straight.
In 1638-41 Borromini built a rustic facade in brick, which could be reveted with travertine or
even marble if Castel Rodrigo or some other maecenas stepped forth. Cruyl’s veduta of April
1665 shows us what it looked like, and to supplement Cruyl we have two quick sketches by
Tessin done in 1673 and two valuable drawings by Borromini himself, a plan (Alb. 177) and a
partial elevation (Alb. 194). In this rustic stage the facade consisted of a bulge in the middle
nestled in an embracing concave curve. This larger curve was not generated from a single center
but from two, so really might be described as a segment of an oval, not of a circle. Where convex
met concave the transition was angular, not smooth.
The 1640s and 1650s were lean years for patronage. Castel Rodrigo vanished from the Roman
scene in 1640. Barberini patronage never materialized. In 1650 Fra Juan di San Bonaventura
could say that S. Carlo was ripe for a facade worthy of a cardinal:
il disegno, che il Sig. Francesco Borromini tiene nella sua idea, che senza dubio sarà di
grande stima et dichiarativo delle Eccelenze del suo ingenio.
But no drawing survives from this middle period, and no cardinal stepped forth. Borromini
returned to S. Carlo for a modest intervention in 1658-59, the rebuilding of the campanile. Some
sort of campanile had been built in the campaign of 1641-44, and a bell had been cast in 1643.
But the new campanile was taller. It is visible on Cruyl’s veduta, a tempietto over a triangular
base that stands directly over the fountain corner. It is a modest cousin of the great needle of S.
Andrea delle Fratte, built a few years earlier in 1655-56.
Final Facade Design
The final design for the facade appears in plan on the famous set of geometric drawings, done
around 1660-62, possibly as part of a larger project to publish Borromini’s work. Even if they
idealized the church and cloister, they show quite clearly the geometry of the facade.
Geometrically speaking, the radii that shape the two concave side bays are very short and so
generate side curves of intense drama, which meet the central convex bulge in a continous
sinusoidal curve.
Something of the geometrical mystery of the interior, its quality as theorem, has come to pervade
the exterior as well. But there is a subtle difference. At least some small part of the diamond that
lay at the core of the plan is visible on the interior, in the straight faces of the piers. The same
may be observed in the interior of S. Ivo, where some part of the governing triangle, to be
precise one third of each side, is still visible in the straight sections of wall. The facade of S.
Carlino, on the other hand, has no straight sections; it is governed by a triangle that is entirely
invisible. The generated curves are there to produce intense emotion, while the generator, the
invisible triangle, is left to the mathematical imagination.
It is only since the cleaning of 1992 that we can observe how organic the ornament of the facade
is. The capitals are more like a new species of plant than the orthodox composite that they
distantly resemble. It is not so much that they are covered with foliage. Rather they sprout it,
literally; the abacus tiles metamorphose at the corners into tendrils that weave in and out of a
royal crown. Likewise the frames of the oval windows suddenly turn into palm fronds which curl
beyond the reach of the frame and continue in lively low relief on the background wall. The great
cornice affords room for lavish undergrowth. The consoles have turned into palm fronds and
between them are many laurel wreaths, except in the center, where the space is reserved for still
another crown.
Entering S. Carlo was made a heavenly experience by Borromini’s ornament. A wreath of sixand eight-pointed stars is carved on the underside of the lintel with such deep undercutting that
the stars seem to float on the surface of the stone. Angels inhabit the capitals of the door jambs,
almost within reach, and confront every visitor with their melting gaze.
We can reconstruct Borromini’s plans for the upper story in approximate terms. A team of Italian
scholars has argued convincingly that work in 1667, the year of Borromini’s death, went a few
feet higher than the main cornice and included the four plinths of the upper story and the
balustrade in front of the central window. Indeed, Tessin already shows one of these plinths in
his sketch of 1673, two years before Bernardo set to work. This implies that Borromini wanted
four columns on the upper story, and thus that he had put aside his early idea of a Ricchini-style
aedicula, narrower than the lower story. His upper story would have had the same width as the
lower story, the same curve and the same number of columns. But it would have been rather less
tall than what Bernardo eventually built.
Falda, in a the background of a veduta of the Quirinal Gardens, gives us a glimpse on a very
small scale of what Borromini’s upper story might have looked like. His rendering shows the
four columns, the sinusoidal curve, and a central window. Immediately above the window he
shows a cornice and a mixtilinear pediment like the Oratory. We may surmise that somehow or
other Borromini would have made the upper parts of the facade work in concert with the
campanile. This is probably the reason why before his death he told the monks that he wanted to
tear down the campanile of 1658-59, the one shown by Cruyl, and rebuild it lower.
When he continued the upper story in 1675-77 Bernardo inflated his uncle’s design and made it
topheavy. He raised the cornice and topped it with a balustrade, like Maderno’s facade at S.
Susanna. He introduced six smaller columns not shown on the Falda print to give his work some
of the complexity of the lower story. One of the most striking but illogical motifs is the “sentry
box” that frames the central window. It is not shown on the Falda print and it seems to be
Bernardo’s invention. He took it from the great cinerary urn in Borromini’s monument to
Alexander III in the Lateran, complete with its a tent-like crown. But by nature an urn is solid; to
pierce it with a window is illogical; to put it in the center of a facade is inexplicable.
Above all Bernardo was statue-happy. He had already filled up the niches of the lower story with
sculpture, but now he made the facade culminate in the image of two flying angels bearing aloft
a huge medallion of the Trinity. This is a Berninian motif. We find it in his Fonseca Chapel in S.
Lorenzo in Damaso and in his church of S. Tommaso di Villanova in Castelgandolfo. In
Bernini’s altars the angeli reggimedaglione drift effortlessly aloft, but at S. Carlino the medallion
they bear is made to cut through the cornice with the help of sharp-pointed volutes. The cornice
in turn slams into the campanile that Bernardo had rebuilt in 1670. The effect of the skyline is
everywhere jumpy and discontinuous.
Bernini and Borromini on the Via Pia
Borromini brooded on the facade of S. Carlino for most of his adult life. The final design, while
it owes much to the design of the crossing piers and thus indirectly to Anet, St. Peter’s and Villa
Madama, makes no gestures to any contemporary work, and this in the half-decade when almost
all of the great facades of the Roman high baroque were planned or begun: Cortona’s S. Maria
della Pace (1656) and S. Maria in Via Lata (1658), Carlo Rainaldi’s S. Maria in Campitelli (first
scheme 1658), and Bernini’s churches in Castelgandolfo and Ariccia (1658-61). None deflected
Borromini from his inner vision.
Nor did Bernini’s facade of S. Andrea al Quirinale, a close neighbor of S. Carlino. In 1658, when
S. Carlino was still a box of brick, Bernini planned a simple brick facade for S. Andrea, probably
close to the facade he had just lost, the Re Magi Chapel at the Propaganda Fide. By 1659-60 he
began thinking of a facade with a giant order. He finally built his magnificent travertine facade
with its semi-circular portico in 1670. By then it was too late to influence Borromini’s
conception, built up to the cornice in 1665-67.
In any case Bernini’s facade is worlds apart from Borromini’s. S. Andrea has a semi-circular
porch and concave side wings, but there is no sense of sinusoidal flow. Bernini’s facade speaks
the language of cinquecento classicism and resolutely refrains from arbitrary invention. The idea
of designing a new species of capital would have appaled him. The whole composition might be
mistaken for a bay of Michelangelo’s Palazzo dei Conservatori remade with slight adjustments
as a church door.
By the end, as Tod Marder has suggested, S. Andrea had turned into something of a palatine
chapel, the favorite church of the great ecclesiastics who frequented the court. The beauty of
Bernini’s church and its proximity to the palace probably siphoned off some of the prelates who
might have strayed further down the street to S. Carlino. Borromini’s church was sought out by
some great prelates but in general attracted a different type of visitor, foreigners with their lists
of new and noteworthy sights, virtuosi like John Evelyn, or lovers of architecture like François
Blondel, who visited the church in 1671 with his charge, Colbert’s son, the Marquis de
For all their differences, Bernini’s church and Borromini’s became the great sights of the Via
Pia, eclipsing the many churches that had not strayed quite so far from the austerity of reform.
These two buildings came to be seen as symbols of the rivalry of their authors. But aside from
the venom that dropped from the pen of the critic Bellori, to the effect that the architect of S.
Carlo was an ignorant goth who had currupted good architecture, there was no question that both
churches were masterpieces. On this boulevard of scalzi these two stood out, the one as though it
were built with all the wealth of Solomon, the other with his wisdom.
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