Bernini and Borromini: 6 things to know to discover their legendary rivalry

Among the most beautiful things to see in the historic center of Rome, you have certainly seen that there are many works by Bernini and Borromini, two great Baroque geniuses.

You will surely find some examples of their masterpieces at Piazza Navona and at the Quirinale, but the most beautiful works by Bernini and Borromini are almost everywhere in Rome. Borghese Gallery, Piazza Barberini, Palazzo Barberini, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, and even San Pietro are just some of the most famous places where you can find their masterpieces.

These two great personalities of the ‘600 left an indelible mark on the Eternal City, but what is hidden behind their works?

You should know that Bernini and Borromini were not only great architects and sculptors but real geniuses of their time.

They worked together at San Pietro and often finished each other’s work like Palazzo Barberini. What is almost never told is that they had different ways of think about art, very different temper and a very strong rivalry between them.

We all know that great artists are often exalted and idealized. However, one of the funniest things is to discover the men behind the genius and understand that the artists were human beings just like us.

I already told you about Raphael’s provocations towards Michelangelo or the anecdotes about the Sistine Chapel. Well, if these stories have intrigued you and made you smile, then get ready to discover one of the moments of maximum tension in Roman art in the 1600s.

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1 – The tempers of Bernini and Borromini

Bernini and Borromini were two absolute masters of the ‘600, but they had completely different tempers and styles.

Bernini, of Neapolitan origin, lived in a privileged environment. His father Pietro was, in fact, an important sculptor with a strong influence and a lot of knowledge in the city of Rome. Not only! Sensing the talent of his son, he tried in every way to enhance his talent.

Precisely for this reason, Bernini always managed to obtain the best jobs in Roman construction sites, especially under Pope Urban VIII.

To get an idea of ​​his influence at the papal court, just think that he was the one who took care of the monumental construction of the colonnade of San Pietro and of numerous works and fountains in Rome.

And Borromini?

Well, if Bernini was charismatic, Borromini instead had a rather shy temper. He lived the first part of his life in Milan and then arrived in Rome only at the age of 20. He immediately worked at the San Pietro factory, thanks to a family relationship with Carlo Maderno, and then continued under the direction of Bernini.

However, the relationship between the two was not intended to continue in harmony.

In fact, in 1634 the two architects separated definitively, both because of growing contrasts, and because Borromini had the opportunity to design the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, which I will talk about shortly.

But that is not all.


2 – Their style

Borromini was above all an architect and is known for his original solutions in space management. If you have ever seen any of his churches, you will have noticed that the facades are made using precise and alternating geometries. Thanks to these expedients, Borromini very often experimented with particularly innovative solutions for his era, which were in clear contrast with Bernini’s art.
Bernini, in fact, adopted a much more solemn and “religious” approach, with well-defined and more classical proportions.For this reason, and due to the close relationship with the Pope, Bernini’s career was very fast from the early age, when he executed the sculptures for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, today still at the Borghese Gallery. But almost all the popes, during his career, favored him. In particular, Pope Urban VIII made for him exactly what Julius II had already done with Michelangelo Buonarroti, rewarding him in almost all the capital’s contests.It is therefore not strange that Borromini harbored a deep resentment towards his rival, receiving only commissions of “secondary” value. At least until the death of Urban VIII.Here’s what happened next!


3 – The legend of Piazza Navona

In 1644m it finally seemed that luck was turning in the direction of Borromini. With the death of the Pope and the election of Innocent X, Bernini was in fact removed from the papal court and replaced by Borromini. He had indeed failed to build the two bell towers planned for San Pietro, one of the most ambitious and important projects of his career, and many people had spread malignant rumors about him, slandering him.

Bernini certainly did not give up and did not step aside.

Thanks to his charisma, he succeeded in obtaining the favor of the Pope’s sister-in-law, Donna Olimpia, who helped him to have a very prestigious job. Surely you will also know this work because it is the marvelous fountain of Piazza Navona. His work was so prestigious that Bernini once again succeeded in relaunching his career.

It took almost a year for Borromini to get a little revenge.

In 1652 he obtained the task of building the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone which is right in front of the monumental Fountain of the Four Rivers. He did his best to prove he was the best architect in Rome, and that is where the legend begins.

One of the most famous stories in Piazza Navona is that Bernini sculpted the Fountain of the Four Rivers so that the statue representing the Rio Della Plata seemed frightened by the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, built by Borromini.

What does it means?

If you have ever carefully observed this masterpiece, you will have noticed that the statue created by Bernini puts its hands forward as if it was afraid that the church could collapse at any moment. For the same reason, the statue of the Nile would have a veiled head, just to avoid seeing the horror of the facade.

But is it really?

In reality, this story is only a legend: the church was in fact begun in 1652 and finished in 1657, while the fountain had been designed already in 1649 and inaugurated two years later.

Bernini could not know that his colleague and rival would work at the church and it is impossible that the statues of the fountain of the four rivers could be a provocation against Borromini.

But then why does the statue of the Nile have its face covered?

The answer is much simpler because it was a way of representing the fact that, at the time, the sources of the river were not yet known.

But if this is only a Roman legend, here are some stories that will better clarify the situation of the relationship between Bernini and Borromini in Rome of the time.

bernini-rio della plata

4 – San Carlino by Borromini

On the Quirinal in Rome, there are two churches that show you the differences that existed between Bernini and Borromini.

We are in 1634 and the first church to be built is precisely San Carlino by Borromini which, born as San Carlo, took its diminutive for its small size. Think that the whole church is as big as the pillars that keep the dome of St. Peter’s of the Vatican.

Surprising, isn’t it?

The commissioners of the work were some mendicant friars and Borromini accepted the job, not for the salary, but for his profound religious faith.

But that is not all!

Precisely to save money for the construction site, the materials used are not among the most precious and Borromini tried to do his best with travertine, brick and stucco.

The result?

Well, he managed to make a real miracle!

Despite the small size and the poor quality materials, Borromini succeeded in giving the façade a wavy shape that, thanks to the lights and shadows, makes it seem much larger than it actually is.

The interior is also wonderful.

The choice to make everything in white helps to give the feeling that the spaces are much larger and also increases the brightness of the church as well as representing the purity and simplicity of the sacred place.

This was just the ideal by beggar order that preached poverty. The simple stucco decorations, however, like the crosses on the oval dome, are designed to be of a decreasing size just to make it look bigger and taller.

Borromini managed to exploit the “disadvantaged” situation of this small church, shaping the spaces with the materials he had available.

And Sant’Andrea by Bernini?

Now I’m talking about it!


5 – Sant’Andrea al Quirinale by Bernini

Only 100 meters away, in the direction of the Quirinale Palace, there is a Bernini’s church, built in a completely different way. The artist had in fact much more space available and the differences are already evident starting from the entrance.

In the front of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, there is a small open space, and the rounded shape is however characterized by a classical and solemn style.

When you enter inside you find a very different environment than in San Carlino. Here there are many precious materials including beautiful marbles, gold, and bronze. The space is certainly bigger but Bernini’s genius is evident above all in some details.

The first concerns the statue of Sant’Andrea which, despite its size, seems to fly towards the center of the dome with absolute lightness.

The second is, instead, impossible to notice, if not through its effects. Bernini has, in fact, succeeded in creating a hidden window from which comes the light that seems to come directly from the sky. The gilded bronze rays create a spectacular play of lights so that the Saint really seems to fly towards the sky.

But why all this difference between the two churches?

Regardless of the unquestionable talent of both, while Borromini had to cope with the economic constraints of the friars, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale had been commissioned by Cardinal Pamphili with the benevolence of the Pope.

It is not difficult to imagine that the budgets available were completely different.

Chiesa di Sant'Andrea al Quirinale (Rome, Italy)

6 – Obscene sculptures in Rome

Another very “funny” story concerns the building of Propaganda Fide.

In fact, Borromini succeeded in “stealing” the building commission from his rival, who lived right in front of the building site. To mock him in his defeat, he carved two large donkey ears on the still incomplete facade.

Bernini certainly didn’t stay to watch. For a prompt answer, he made a gigantic… penis!

These two sculptures were later removed for reasons of decency, but the legendary rivalry of these two geniuses still echoes through the streets of Rome.

Palazzo propaganda fide

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Andrea Grossi

Andrea Grossi

Ciao, sono Andrea, sono laureato in Ing. Informatica ma da diversi anni mi occupo di web marketing e SEO. Ho iniziato davvero a viaggiare da quando ho conosciuto Elisa nel 2010 e da allora non posso più farne a meno.

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