The whole history of art is full of stories of “sworn enemies”. This time I would like to tell about Bernini and Borromini, the two greatest Baroque artists.
The setting of this story is the beautiful and well-known Piazza di Spagna. Each corner of this amazing place is full of anecdotes: the Spanish Steps, the Fountain, the column of the Immaculate Conception … But this story is about the last hidden corner, on the South side of the square. Here is the Palazzo (palace) of Propaganda Fide.
Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide
The Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith is the institution of the Roman Curia in charge for the missionary activities and related stuff. It was instituted in 1622 by pope Gregory XV and even now is a very powerful congregation, so powerful that its prefect is called the Red Pope: influential as the pope but red as cardinal!
In 1623, soon after the foundation of the congregation, Gregory XV died. His successor was Urban VIII, the Barberini pope. His papacy was really a grand moment for the history of art, mostly thanks to Bernini’s genius. Bernini was Urban’s official, favorite, ideal artist. The St. Peter’s Baldacchino, the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa, the Triton Fountain, the Fountain of the Rivers and… I think you got it. The best. Well done Urban! Even though for making his new Rome, he destroyed the ancient one and her many inestimable artworks. Rome’s adage is “What Barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did”!
The adage is usually related to the bronze used for the Baldacchino, stolen from the Pantheon, but could be adopted for much more
Obviously Urban the VIII gave Bernini the task of designing the Palace for the congregation.
To understand Bernini’s design you should look the facade on Piazza di Spagna: the palace, as conceived by Bernini, is characterized by straight and clear lines: a bricks structure with squared windows. On the top, the coat of arms of Urban the VIII: an empty (blue) field with three bees (wherever in Rome you see the bees – also here in Piazza di Spagna on the fountain of the Barcaccia – that it’s a Urban’s work. It’s a kind of scavenger hunt!).
Bernini’s style reflects his personality in some ways: he was a “businessman”, rich, extroverted and very religious. For this reason many of his works are rigorous, because all the works are based on the same proportions of the human body: man was in fact created in God’s likeness, hence his proportion are universal, harmonic and divine.
… and Borromini’s one
In 1644 Urban VIII died and Innocent X became the new pope, who substituted Bernini with Borromini on the task of the Propaganda Fide Palace. Anyway the facade on Piazza di Spagna was already done, so he worked on the interiors and on the side. Turn on via di Propaganda and look the facade: here you can easily seen the difference! Contrary to Bernini, Borromini was anxious, solitary and quick-tempered. His style really reflects his personality: moved, dominated by curves, concavities and convexities. The facade really seems to pop out! And actually many historians of art sustain that this facade seems too much imposing to be seen by this small street: it would need a wider space to be appreciated… That’s not a coincidence.
Guess what there was on the opposite side of the narrow via della Propaganda? …. Bernini’s house, where the artist and his family lived! Well, Borromini’s plan, or better we’ll say his dream, was to demolish the palace to create a wide appropriate square for his facade
So deep was the hate between the two artists that Borromini, not satisfied enough to have stolen the job to his rival – who actually was also forced to see the progress of works every day from his own windows – sculpted on the lateral facade of Palazzo di Propaganda Fide a pair of donkey ears. The reply was swift: Bernini sculpted on the shelf of his balcony a penis… yes, you got it, a penis
Unfortunately there’s no track of this skirmish because both artifacts were then removed to protect the “public decency“.
What you can still see are the different styles of the two greatest artists of Baroque Rome… Did you already decide between Bernini or Borromini? Well, I didn’t, it’s too hard!
This was just one of the many anecdotes about the rivalry between Bernini and Borromini, so let’s say to be continued…
Do you want to feel the sensation to have feet in two different nations? First come to Rome Once here go to the main entrance of the Palazzo of Propaganda Fide and enter just with one leg: it’s done! The Palace has indeed the privilege of extraterritoriality, that means that it is part of the Vatican State: that’s why on the facade there’s the Vatican flag.
- Palace of the Propagation of the Faith – etching by Giuseppe Vasi
- Circular ownership stamp “C V P F” from the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide – CC BY 2.0 – Kladcat
- Gian Lorenzo Bernini – self-portrait, 1623
- View of Palazzo di Propaganda Fide from Piazza di Spagna – CC BY 3.0 – Georges Jansoone
- Francesco Borromini – portrait, 1630
- View of Palazzo di Propaganda Fide from via di Propaganda – CC BY 3.0 – Manfred Heyde