Francesco Castello, often considered the greatest Baroque architect and a true genius, was born to a stonemason family in Bissone. He was related to the papal architects Carlo Maderno and Domenico Fontana; hence, it was in his blood to become a builder. He later changed his name to his mother’s family name, Borromini, and his true architectural career began. At the pinnacle of it all, we find the beautiful church of Sant’ivo Alla Sapienza, where his mastery in the creation of complex spaces is evident in a very confined project.
Young Borromini began his training in Milan, and when he finally arrived at Rome, he worked as a decorative sculptor. He was “immediately introduced to the workshop of the most important building project being undertaken in Rome at the time, the completion of St. Peter’s” where he began working for Maderno who became his first master.(16) He soon became Maderno’s most valued assistant because of his draughtsman skills, and was even allowed to contribute and design in his projects. Maderno’s guidance helped Borromini become one of the first true architects.
When Maderno passed away, Borromini worked under the artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a prolific sculptor. Bernini, who wasn’t trained as an architect, took credit for the work he did at St. Peter’s where he had heavily relied on Borromini’s technical genius to solve structural problems. This enraged Borromini and sparked the rivalry between the two architects.
Bernini and Borromini were instrumental in the creation of the Baroque style of architecture, where the Roman Catholic Church expressed its buoyancy after the Counter Reformation. Bernini created a visual spectacle of light, sculpture, pompous materiality, and painting. Borromini’s embodied designs were crisp yet complex with flowing curves and geometries. Their expression of the Baroque style differed in the sense that “One looks at Bernini’s buildings with the eyes; [and] one feels Borromini’s with the whole body.”(24)
Sant’ivo Alla Sapienza
In 1632, Borromini was commissioned to complete the design of the Archiginnasio, where he created a domed jewel perfectly crafted in between two arcades. Giacomo della Porta’s original design had a circle with two side chapels, but Borromini added layers of complexity with his maniac technical skills, creating one of the most beautiful churches in Rome.
Borromini’s skillful manipulation of geometries became evident when reproducing his design in Rhino. Two equilateral triangles become the major organizational components, delineating the location of the concave and convex niches. These triangles measure one hundred and five palms and create a hexagon with each side measuring thirty-five palms. The triangle pointing towards the west creates the three convex niches with the main entrance at the westernmost tip. The triangle pointing east creates the concave surfaces, with 35 palm diameter semicircles. These geometries are then combined to form the beautiful plan of the church.
The most impressive part of the design is in its dome, where the complex corners and curves of the plan are pulled upwards like a tent. Standing at the center of the church and looking upwards, it’s beautiful shape is revealed, and the pronounced entablature makes the visitor want to flow around the space, following its shape. The dome is filled with natural light, which elevates the space into a spiritual experience.
Borromini’s design for the church had to be impeccable because of the Sapienza’s location. It is at a vital area of Rome, right between the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. Looking at the ground plans of the Pantheon and Sant’ivo, there exists a beautiful formal relationship between the two. They are both made up of complex curvilinear niches that are very differently set up. An octagon becomes the main organizational form of the niches at the Pantheon, which is at a massive scale compared to Sant’ivo.
Borromini built an architectural masterpiece in a space that was ninety-five palms long and about one hundred and fifteen palms deep. Sant’ivo is the jewel of baroque architecture, giving off a sense of harmony and beauty.