It is quite a strange thing; the power of relationships and who you know carries you much further than raw ability and talent. Take Franceso Borromini for example. He was quite literally a much better trained architect who understood the mathematics and technology behind creating some of Rome’s most beautiful churches, yet he remains relatively unknown to the throngs of tourists that besiege Rome every year. Why? He didn’t play the game. Bernini, on the other, hand was a master courtesan who capitalized on relationships and won the majority of the best commissions during his lifetime even if that meant stealing them.
Borromini was literally despised by the powerbase of Rome. He was irrational, didn’t listen to what the patrons wanted, and was a stubborn man, who thought he and he alone knew best. It put him into a position that forced him to look into the world of art from the outside hoping to win work over better positioned artists with lesser ability, but better connections.
During his lifetime he was trained as an architect by Carlo Maderno and had the privilege of working on Saint Peter’s in Rome. He worked alongside Bernini on the project with Maderno in charge. The two architects were rivals through and through and during their lifetimes pushed each other to even better achievements. Bernini’s came easily where Borromini’s came with a struggle. That is to write that Borromini’s work came easy because he was a masterful architect, but his disagreements in design and execution with his paying patrons and other architects forced him to bitter arguments and disagreements almost daily.
It has been written that Borromini’s work came from his soul. He was a devout Catholic and his devotion was delivered in his architecture. One of his best works is San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome. It was built for free by Borromini for the religious order of Barefoot Trinitarians. The dome of the church is a sight that should make any itinerary. Borromini uses some core geometric figures as a religious metaphor: the triangle and the circle. The triangle represents the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The circle represents the eternity of God.
“These figures and images are everywhere in San Carlo(ino), and they reach their figurative and literal zenith in the dome itself. Looking up from the center of the church, a visitor sees a dove, its wings outstretched, enclosed in a triangle, which in turn is surrounded by a circle. Borromini placed a potent symbol of God surrounded by the Trinity and the Infinite at the pointin the church closest to Heaven. It is a stirring reminder of the order’s and Borromini’s faith.”
The others of his most famous works are Saint John Laterano and Saint Agnes in Agony. Saint John is the official church of the Papacy in Rome. This was a huge commission for Borromini. Saint Agnes was done for the Pamphili family and Pope Innocent X.
During the work on Saint John a worker was found murdered and Borromini took the brunt of the blame. The Pope had to intervene to insure that his punishment wasn’t too severe so he could continue work on the project. He didn’t commit the murder, but it was on his watch. Saint Agnes is eternally harassed by Bernini from his fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. The statue with his hand being repelled by the church and covering his face is said to be Bernini’s final argument against the work of Borromini. Whether it is true or not remains a mystery. You should decide for yourself when you visit the Piazza.
Borromini, after a long and difficult life, fell on his own sword. He died alone and unloved. His works are his children and his gift to us. It is who you know not what you know that leads to success and a life of leisure.
Be sure to visit San Carlo, Saint John, and Saint Agnes in Rome to experience a delightful view of a master’s mind and what comes of raw ability in spite of a lack of powerful friends.