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Rome in the 1600s: the strong rivalry between two geniuses, Bernini e Borromini


Rome in the 1600s: the strong rivalry between two geniuses, Bernini e Borromini


The cultural scene of the Baroque Rome is dominated by two great artistic figures: Bernini and Borromini.

They both gave a decisive contribute to the architectural and sculptural panorama of the city. The relation between them was nevertheless extremely difficult and always marked by conflict, even if they managed to cooperate to realize, among other things, one of the emblems of St. Peters Basilica: the wonderful Baldachin over St. Peter’s altar.

So, two major figures, very different from each other: this difference between their personalities, and the vicissitudes of life, resulted in a natural rivalry that in some cases became legendary.

On one side Bernini, of Neapolitan origin but with Rome as adoptive city. He became the protégé of Pope Urban VIII’s Barberini. The Pope saw in him the artist that could fulfill his idea of a majestic Church, through works able to communicate this grandeur.

The Church was in fact emerging from a complex century, with the Protestant Refomation just behind it: the desire for a new start was strong, and architecture too had to show it.

Urban VIII’s intentions and Bernini’s flair found an interesting opportunity with St. Peter’s Basilica. It is with the Pope’s approval that Bernini realized St. Peter’s Baldachin, with the participation of Borromini, who conceived the wonderful spiral columns.

With the death of Urban VIII, however, Bernini’s luck turned. He lost his patron, and the new pope showed a quite different approach with regard to great works: the papacy was going through a period of economic crisis and big ostentations of opulence no longer suited the new atmosphere.

Pope Innocent X cast Bernini off his throne of court’s architect, and when selecting architects for the next works he chose rival artists, like for instance Borromini, over him.

Borromini’s personality was very different from Bernini’s one, he was more shy and troubled. Born in Ticino, he arrived in Rome as Carlo Maderno’s relative, after an intermediate phase of apprenticeship inside the building site of the Milan Cathedral.

He was the one put in charge by Innocent X of the redevelopment of St. John Lateran Archbasilica, decision that begot Bernini’s resentment.

The Pope that followed, Alexander VII, reversed once again his preferences, and decided to work with Bernini and to entrust him with the realization of the great elliptical colonnade of St. Peter’s square.

Legends has it, the grudges between the two architects were carved even in stone. That would be the reason, for example, of the attitude of one of the statues of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, in the Piazza Navona: it seems to be covering its eyes to defer its gaze from the “hideous” facade of the church of Sant’Agnese, designed by his rival Borromini.

And yet, it is also said that when Borromini was working at the construction of the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide, Bernini used to live nearby. It would furthermore have been a job given to Borromini after a fist project by Bernini. Borromini inserted in the building two donkey ears turned towards Bernini’s house, and the latter replied by placing a male organ facing his rival’s work.

Both extensions were removed for public decency, but the legend has spread even to us.

So, the rivalry between them marked that period of Roman artistic life, nevertheless they both gave Rome some of the architectures and art works that still make it one of the most beautiful city in the world.


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