The Touch of the Master

October 1, 2009 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Lazio
honey-combs300The Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, near the Quirinale, is a magnificent example of Borromini’s architectural ingenuity.¬†

This baroque master – a rival of Michelangelo’s – must have delighted in confounding his audience. With their unending play of concave and convex shapes, the interior walls seem to be made of white frosting rather than of marble. Following the sweeping cupola, honey-combed with different shaped cavities, to the molded walls decorated with pilasters, it is difficult to unlock the secret behind the building’s unusual harmony.

A young man is thoughtfully eyeing the inside of the church. An architecture professor from Madrid, he too is baffled by the construction’s conceptual points of reference. But that is probably what Borromini intended: to fool even the eyes of specialists.¬†According to the professor, Alejandro Virseda, “Even today, the complexity of Borromini’s baroque innovations is not fully appreciated.”

A trip to the crypt below and the winding staircase leading to it, further convinced me of the truth of this statement. Che fantasia!


by Alejandra Fabris

— Contributed by Alejandra Fabris, writer, American University of Rome Senior, Italian Notebook Editorial Intern.

10 Responses to “The Touch of the Master”

  1. David Hammond

    Thanks for the note!

    However, he was a rival (in some ways, although they worked together too) of Bernini, not Michelangelo.

  2. Borromini was a contemporary and rival of Gian Lorenzo Bernini NOT Michelangelo, who was said to have no rivals and died more than 50 years before Borromini was born. :) The work of Michelangelo and Bernini overlapped briefly in the design and execution of St. Peter’s Basilica, but they were not contemporaries. Borromini was younger than Bernini, more volatile, and, by legend, always jealous of Bernini’s more flamboyant success. The rivalry of Bernini and Borromini plays out most dramatically in the Piazza Navona, where Borromini’s Church of St. Agnes in Agony casts a magnificent shadow over Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain.

    That said, San Carlo truly is a jewel. Well worth a mention and a look for its exquisite baroque design and peaceful detail. The contrast between the busy street outside and the quiet, white interior is heavenly. The pristine white contrasts too with the busy colored marble and gilded decoration of the high baroque Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria just up the street, which contains Bernini’s sculpture masterpiece of St. Theresa of Avila in the Cornaro chapel. Two rivals’ interpretations of the same architectural movement.

  3. Frank Scaramella

    remembering that I lived in a pension in Via 4 Fontane and thecorner ov Via Nazionale while in College and working for a special agency of a foreign Country,is enough to bring tears and try to relive the noise of the filobus running from Piazza Esedra to Corso Umberto and the noise of te girls college right next to me ,all kids from Italian Families working and living in Egypt,but being educated in Italy as desired B.M.Strange as it may seem ,One day while visiting my tailor at across the street at No.33 2nd floor,He introduced me to Mr.Togliatti that ,offered me a job at his Party HDQTRS and,naturally refused.

  4. Alejandra Fabris

    Good point! However, my point was that Borromini tried to outdo his predecessor, Michelangelo. “Rival” does not necessarily mean contemporary! Glad you all enjoyed it despite the confusion!

  5. William Strangio

    I walked to this church on two different trips to Rome and it was closed both times!!! Any hints on how to make sure it will be available?

  6. Dante Bianchi

    My wife and I have visited this church at least three times, and for good reason. It is beautifully different and I think you explained it for me when you referred to “the interior walls to be made of white frotening instead of marble.” I have no suggestions for Signore Strangio other than the church does close in the middle of the day, at least during the week, but re-opens. One should probably check the hours, perhaps on the “net?”
    Thank you for the great photos and bringing back a special memory.
    Dante Bianchi

  7. Joan Schmelzle

    I see that someone has already beaten me to at least the idea of the comment I was going to make. I don’t believe that Borromini could be a rival of Michelangelo since the latter died in 1564 and Borromini was bone in 1599. I believe that Borromini was a rival of Bernini, another Roman great who was born in 1598.
    I do love these notes and can’t remember finding what I think mignt be mistake at least in wording. Also I have visited this church several times. I usually odn’t miss it when I am in Rome.
    I guess after reading all the comments I can see the author’s idea, but still to me “rival” means working at same time.

  8. Leslie Johansen

    On a recent visit to Rome I made a point of visiting Borromini’s oval San Carlino first, then Bernini’s answering oval church, S. Andrea al Quirinale about 100m away. It’s a perfect way to compare the rivals, and I found new admiration for the tortured Borromini. I suggest the Borromini first – so beautiful and peaceful, with an adjacent cloister that is not to be missed – followed by the dramatic, bombastic Bernini.

    Also – S. Carlino represents the earliest and latest of Borromini in that the interior is one of his first commissions, but the facade was completed at the end of his life, shortly before he commited suicide.

  9. William Strangio

    The contrast between Borromini and Bernini seems to be similar
    to relationship between Michelangelo and Raphaele Sanzio. In each
    an introverted person and an outgoing person had conflict because they were so different in every way!


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