The Baroque churches of Rome: Pietro da Cortona, Bernini and Borromini.

The great period of the Baroque that produced the most admirable architectural works, approximately between 1625 and 1675, was dominated by the names of three exceptional architects: Pietro da Cortona, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. Pietro da Cortona (1596 or 1597-1669) arrived in Rome from Florence around the year 1612. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the son of a Florentine sculptor living in Naples. He himself was, in addition to being an architect, the best sculptor of his time and an important painter. Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) arrived in the papal capital from Lombardy around 1614 to work under the direction of his uncle architect Carlo Maderno. He began as a sculptor and draftsman of architectural drawings (Bernini employed him in this regard) and finally, around 1634, he began his independent work as an architect. Rome owes much of its architectural splendor and the influence it exerted on 17th-century European art to the coincidence of these three great artists.

Pietro da Cortona remodeled the church of Santi Luca e Martina and built its façade around the year 1630. This façade has a protruding, convex shape, following a segment of an ellipse, which establishes a relationship with the dome’s shape, a feat that wouldn’t have been possible with a flat Renaissance façade or like the one Maderno designed for St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Let’s highlight here that the façade-dome relationship was fundamental at this time when the dome was considered an almost indispensable element in a religious building because it represented the sky over the place of worship (the altar). The elliptical curvature of this façade marvelously harmonizes with the dome, and to relate the two even more closely, Pietro da Cortona placed in the center of its upper part a small curved tympanum with a decorative trophy that exactly indicates the point where the axis that unites the lantern, the dome and the center of the convex façade run.

View of the church of Santi Luca e Martina (Rome) rebuilt by Pietro da Cortona in the 17th century. This church was erected over the early Christian crypt of Saint Martina martyred in 228 AD during the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus.
Façade of the church of Santi Luca e Martina (Rome) by Pietro da Cortona. The abundance of columns, the unconventional use of ornamental motifs and the skillful play of light and shadow on its curved surfaces characterize the Baroque style. The vertical composition of De la Porta’s façade leads the eye towards the dome in an almost forced transitional movement from the building’s door, to the tympanum, and from them to the dome and, finally, to the lantern.

Da Cortona faced an entirely different problem when he built the façade of Santa Maria della Pace in 1656 and developed the small square in which it’s located as well as the streets that converge there. This church was, in effect, the church of the Roman nobility and it was therefore necessary to pay great attention to all the visual effects of the urban complex around it.

To do this, Pietro da Cortona arranged a façade with two gently concave wings that vividly highlight the prominent central body; this included, in its lower part, a curved pronaos inspired by the designed developed by Bramante for the Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, except that here the columns are paired in such a way that they create alternated wide and narrow intervals; in the upper part he used a convex elliptical section, similar to that employed in the church of the Santi Luca e Martina. The ensemble of the façade and the square produces a fantastic scenographic effect with its play of lines and curved surfaces (concave and convex) moving in space.

Façade of the church of Santa Maria della Pace and partial view of its square (Rome), both commissioned by Pope Alexander VII in 1656–1567 to Pietro da Cortona. The tiny square of the Piazza della Pace had to be enlarged in order to accommodate the carriages of the wealthy parishioners of the church.

It is curious that these churches, like most of the most beautiful Roman Baroque temples, are relatively small buildings. One of the smallest is Bernini’s masterpiece: Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, with an unusual elliptical interior in which the minor axis of the ellipse corresponds to the main door-altar orientation, thus resulting in an ellipse extended in the direction of the width of the church instead in the direction of its length as we should expect.

In the lower part, a dark reddish marble gives the interior a warm glow, while in the dome, equivalent to the celestial sphere, everything is white and gold. The façade, from 1658, makes us think that Bernini drew it resembling Santa Maria della Pace, which Pietro da Cortona had built three years earlier: in the center of a concave wall in the shape of a half ellipse (which acts as a counterpoint to the convex oval of the building) is a portico of an extraordinary plastic force, almost sculptural. It essentially consists of a small semicircular pronaos, supported by two columns, located under a deep arch flanked by flat pilasters and surmounted by a monumental triangular pediment. The combination of straight and curved lines and the counterpoint of concave and convex surfaces create here, despite its small size, an architectural marvel.

Façade of the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (Rome), a work by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (groundbreaking: 1658 – completed: 1670). Like most Roman Baroque churches, this church is very small in size. Its elliptical floor plan (see pictures below) distributes the chapels with a hexagonal rhythm and a laborious coming and going of its curved lines, barely perceptible in the dim light of the interior, make this church a place of exaltation of the religious spirit.
Floor plan of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
View towards the main altar and adjacent side chapels of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (Rome), by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Partial view of the dome and lantern of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (Rome), by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sculpture over the tympanum on the main altar depicts Saint Andrew ascending to the sky on a cloud, by Antonio Raggi.

Finally, we must refer to the temples built by Francesco Borromini, all characteristic for their extreme formal tension and for their originality that sets them apart from any classical or humanist heritage. For this reason its author was denounced by his contemporaries as he was considered the ‘height of extravagance’. The very fact that Borromini committed suicide because he believed that he wasn’t reaching the spiritual values he wanted to express through architecture is further proof of the restless and anguished climate of all his creation. The interior of the small church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane was his first work as an independent architect (1638-1641) and its façade (1665-1667) was his last. The plan of this marvelous building, affectionately called San Carlino by Romans, is so intricate that it’s difficult to describe. Essentially it’s based on an oval, on top of which stands a complicated, highly dramatic space, surmounted by a strange elliptical dome. The façade alternates concave and convex areas, inserting small openings flanked by small columns, within larger spaces flanked by large columns. Everything is dominated by the passion for the movement of lines and surfaces.

The church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is located at one of the corners of the “Quattro Fontane” (‘Four Fountains’), referring to the four corner fountains set on each corner at the intersection of two roads, the Strada Pia and the Strada Felice in Rome.
The façade of the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Rome; groundbreaking: 1638 – consecrated: 1646) was Francesco Borromini’s last work, where all its elements, all its surfaces follow a progression that goes from the circle to the ellipse. For this reason, this church is considered one of the most dynamic conceptions of all 17th century architecture.
Floor plan of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Francesco Borromini.
The interior of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Rome) was the first work of Francesco Castelli, who at the age of 28 was to adopt the nickname of Borromini. It is said that this entire church could fit on one of the pillars of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
View of the dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Francesco Borromini, with its intricate geometrical pattern and design.

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (1642-1650) is another small church by Borromini inserted at the end of a pre-existing courtyard with arcades at the University of Rome. The plan is based on a six-pointed star (probably this shape, which is inspired in the regular hexagon of the beehives, was chosen as a tribute to the heraldic symbol of the Barberini family: the bee), and the dome is also segmented into six lobes that thus become an abstract sculpture. On the outside, this dome is crowned by a tall lantern ending in a spiral that curls up into the sky.

The façade of the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (Rome) appears to be embraced by the wings of the Palazzo alla Sapienza (‘Palace of Wisdom’) of the University of Rome. The church was built between 1642 and 1660 by Francesco Borromini and it was dedicated to Saint Ivo, patron saint of jurists. The courtyard was designed by architect Giacomo della Porta
Interior view of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Borromini.
Interior view of the dome of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Borromini.
The lantern of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Borromini.

Between 1653 and 1657, Borromini took over the direction of the works of SantAgnese in Agone, in Piazza Navona in Rome, whose interior had already been started by architects Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi. The façade added by Borromini presents a graceful arrangement, with a curved and convex central area, and two protruding lateral bodies that advance serving as the base for the elegant bell towers. In the center of the façade, the dome rises on a high drum located on the frontal plane of the building, immediately gravitating over the door and not over the center of the interior space, as all architects had been doing until then. It is evident that Borromini wanted to contrast the vertical tension of the bell towers and the dome with the horizontal axis of the square that still has the elongated shape of the old Roman circus that originally stood there. So here, Borromini also did the work of an urban planner conceiving his façade as a contrasting element with respect to the opening of the square that has had the same shape for over 2.000 years.

Façade of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone (Rome) by Francesco Borromini. Construction began in 1652 and it was completed until 1859. The church was erected at the site where the Early Christian Saint Agnes was martyred in the ancient Stadium of Domitian that used to occupy today’s Piazza Navona. Sant’Agnese was the last commission of Pope Innocent X to Borromini. The complex history of its construction, arbitrarily modified on the pontiff’s death, had a significant influence on the architect’s serious personal crisis. Despite the fact that the bell towers were located much further away than expected, that the lantern was reduced, and that multiple ornamental details were simplified, the work is of enormous architectural and artistic interest. Here Borromini started from the traditional horizontal subdivision of the façades, but achieved an incredible sense of vertical expansion towards the sky.

Borromini’s continuous search for original forms, his independence as a true creator with respect to stereotypes and norms, led him in 1642 to use curved walls on the façade of the Oratorio dei Filippini (‘Oratory of Saint Philip Neri’). The same creative independence is seen in the western façade of the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide (‘Palace of the Propagation of the Faith’, 1662) —the main façade, in Piazza di Spagna, had been built 20 years earlier by his staunch rival Bernini— combining solid and filiform elements, colossal pilasters and delicate little columns, flowers, garlands and palms, and classic architectural forms. With a miraculous fantasy, he mixed in this façade elements reminiscent of the Syriac architecture of Baalbeck and ancient Egypt, with prophetic inspirations that already resemble the architecture of the 18th-century.

The façade of the Oratorio dei Filippini (‘Oratory of Saint Philip Neri’, Rome). The building was erected between 1637 and 1650 by Francesco Borromini.
Partial view of the façade projected by Francesco Borromini for the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide (‘Palace of the Propagation of the Faith’, Rome). The building was designed by architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, then Francesco Borromini took over. The building’s main façade facing the Piazza di Spagna was designed by Bernini in 1644, while the side on the via di Propaganda was the work of Borromini (1646) with its distinctive concave and curved lines. The building was completed in 1667.

The last works for the completion and decoration of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which gave it its current appearance, also belong to the 17th century. The architect who completed its interior was Carlo Maderno, who also designed the façade. Bernini, who had built some baroque bell towers in Saint Peter—which we can only appreciate from drawings, since they collapsed— also designed the so-called “Scala Regia“, an infinity of statues to adorn the interior, the baptismal fonts, the chair of St. Peter and the great bronze altar, with the gigantic canopy (baldachin), much criticized, 29 meters high, on which he spent eight years working. To raise this gigantic baldachin, Pope Urban VIII Barberini had the roof of the pronaos of the Roman Pantheon melted down, which was still preserved intact. Horrified by the lack of respect for such a monument of Antiquity, Pasquino, from the side hostile to the Barberini, exclaimed: “What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did. From the collected bronze, after building the four colossal Solomonic columns of the baldachin, enough was left to cast 80 cannons destined for the defense of the Pontifical Castle of Sant’Angelo. The gigantic baldachin was inaugurated on Saint Peter’s Day in the year 1633. Maderno’s and Bernini’s Saint Peter is the basilica we can see today, and the one that the whole world contemplates in a superficial inspection that seeks a quick visit. Without a deep critical analysis, the visitor sees nothing of the church of Bramante and Michelangelo, but of the Baroque sculptors and decorators, and it must be recognized that they achieved an effect of magnificence unsurpassed in any other modern building.

Carlo Maderno’s main façade and Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, seen from Bernini’s St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City (Italy). The façade is 114.69 mt wide and 45.55 mt high and includes a giant order of Corinthian columns and a central pediment rising in front of a tall attic surmounted by 13 statues: Christ flanked by eleven of the Apostles (except Saint Peter, whose statue is down to the left of the stairs) and John the Baptist. One problem of the large dimensions of this façade and the elongation of the Basilica’s nave (as originally designed by Michelangelo) was that it obliterates the view of the dome, so when seeing the Basilica from the front, it has no vertical height (that is, the dome is not visible), only if seen from a distance.
View of the Scala Regia (‘Royal Staircase’) in the Vatican City, one of the formal entrances to the Vatican. The stairs were re-designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and completed in 1666 after an initial project by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger from the early 16th century. From the official entrance to the Apostolic Palace through the Portone di Bronzo, you enter the Scala Regia which leads you to the Sala Regia that connects to the Sistine Chapel and the Pauline Chapel. Today, tourists visiting the Sistine Chapel are allowed to climb the staircase.
The main nave of St. Peter’s Basilica towards the main altar and Bernini’s baldachin.
The Cathedra Petri (‘Chair or Throne of St. Peter’, completed in 1666) and Gloria by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City). For the throne (Cathedra), Bernini used a precious relic, a chair which was claimed to have been used by St. Peter (modern dating asserts though that it seems to date from the 12th century). Because of the chair was fast deteriorating Bernini enshrined it inside a large bronze ornamented throne, and raised it high on four looping supports held by massive bronze statues of four Doctors of the Church (see picture below). Behind and above this ensemble, a softened ‘golden’ light comes in through a window of yellow alabaster bathing the interior of the Basilica with a warm color, with the Dove of the Holy Spirit at its center.
The Cathedra Petri (‘Chair or Throne of St. Peter’, completed 1666) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City).
The main altar with Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City). This famous bronze canopy (baldachin, in Italian baldacchino) that Bernini made for St. Peter of Rome between 1624 and 1633, marked the beginning of the career as architect of the then brilliant sculptor. The twisted silhouette of the Solomonic columns, which raise the top to 29 meters high, is outlined against the architecture of the basilica and creates a series of visual connections, a harmonious spatial organization (ruled by the laws of perspective), that is totally sensational and theatrical.
The St. Peter’s Baldachin (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City) by Bernini is placed over the high altar of the Basilica, at the center of the crossing, and directly under the dome. The baldachin marks in a monumental way, the place of Saint Peter’s tomb underneath the Basilica. The structure was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and was carried out between 1623 and 1634. Besides its ornamental and symbolic meaning, the baldachin acts as visual trick to counteract for the enormous scale of the building and the human scale of the people officiating the religious ceremonies at the main altar.

Also from this period is the urbanization of Saint Peter’s Square, designed by Bernini, and carried out under his direction between 1656 and 1663, one of the most successful monumental ensembles in the world. The square forms an open space, elliptical, or rather, ‘elongated’ circular, because it is formed by two circular arcs whose centers are separated by a space of 50 meters. In the middle of the square stands the ancient Egyptian obelisk of the circus of Nero, consecrated again by the Pontiffs to the divine Majesty. On each side, two fountains project their beautiful plumes of water into the air. A vast portico, Bernini’s famous Colonnade, made up of four rows of Tuscan columns, surrounds the vast perimeter; in the background raises the façade of the basilica. At the other end, which originally was projected to be closed, Bernini had designed a monumental body of columns that would appear symmetrical to the Basilica’s façade and that gave access to the great square. This is how the square was portrayed in medals and drawings of the time that intended to show the completed work; this was to be, however, the only embellishment that wouldn’t be added to the magnificent architectural complex of the Vatican we appreciate today.

View of St. Peter’s square from the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City). The superb colonnade of St. Peter in the Vatican, as well as the urbanization of the square, are works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini begun in 1656. Their conception is simple and original: an enormous oval is surrounded by a series of free-standing columns surmounted by a straight entablature. Bernini himself compared it “to the arms of the church that welcome all Catholics to strengthen their faith.” From St. Petersburg (Russia) to Greenwich (Great Britain), this formula by Bernini has been repeated frequently ever since.
When viewed from two marble discs with the embossed words ‘centro del colonnato‘ (‘center of the colonnade’) embedded into the cobblestones of St. Peter’s square, between the fountains and the obelisk, the viewer can see that the four rows of columns of the nearest colonnade line up perfectly, creating the illusion that there is only a single set of columns.