The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, And the Rivalry That Transformed Rome

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-01-20
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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The rivalry between the brilliant seventeenth-century Italian architects Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini is the stuff of legend. Possessed of enormous talent and ambition, these two artists -- one trained as a sculptor, the other as a stonecutter -- met as contemporaries in the building yards of St. Peter's in Rome and ended their lives as bitter enemies. Over the course of their careers they became the most celebrated architects of their era, designing some of the most beautiful buildings in the world and transforming the city of Rome. The Genius in the Design is an extraordinary tale of how these two men plotted, schemed, and intrigued to get the better of each other. Full of dramatic tension and great insight into personalities, acclaimed writer Jake Morrissey's engrossing and impeccably researched account also shows that this legendary rivalry defined the Baroque style that immediately succeeded the Renaissance and created the spectacular Roman cityscape of today. Almost exactly the same age -- Bernini was born at the end of 1598, Borromini nine months later -- they were as alike and as different as any two men could be, each a potent combination of passion and enterprise, energy and imperfection. Bernini was a precocious talent who as a youth caught the attention of Pope Paul V and became Rome's most celebrated artist, whose patrons included the wealthiest families in Europe. The city's greatest sculptor -- the creator of such masterpieces as Apollo and Daphne and the Ecstasy of St. Teresa -- Bernini would also have been Rome's preeminent architect had it not been for Francesco Borromini, the one man whose talent and virtuosity rivaled his own. In contrast to Bernini's easy grace, Borromini was an introvert with a fiery temper who bristled when anyone interfered with his vision; his temperament alienated him from prospective patrons and precipitated his tragic end. Like Mozart and Salieri, these two masters were inextricably linked, their dazzling work prodding the other to greater achievement while taking merciless advantage of each other's missteps. The Genius in the Design is their story, a fascinating narrative of beauty and tragedy marked at turns by personal animosity and astonishing artistic achievement.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
The Beginning and the End
Talent and Ambition
The Perpetual and the Beautiful
A Collaboration in Bronze
The Circle and the Triangle
``Ignorant Persons and Copyists''
An Ox and a Deer
Ecstasy and Wisdom
A Pope's Renovations
Water and Disappointment
Affection and Caprices
Training the Eye to See
No Greater Favor, No Sadder End
A Legacy in Stone
Notes 273(26)
Selected Bibliography 299(6)
Acknowledgments 305(2)
Index 307


The Genius in the Design
Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome

Chapter One

The Beginning and the End

Suicide is never an easy death, its details can be simple, its execution effortless, even graceful. But the pain that incites it in the first place, the anguish that breeds the longing for self-destruction, never fades. It stands out on the soul like a welt on tender skin, aching and raw. Even after the deed is done, the mark remains -- a last, terrible legacy of a life lived in torment.

The sad, strange suicide of Francesco Borromini was such a death, as complex and as peculiar as the man himself. At once abrupt and protracted, impulsive and deliberate, his death stunned his small circle of intimates by its curious mix of recklessness and calculation, just as the churches and palazzi he designed over his three decades as an architect startled Rome by the power of his demanding, idiosyncratic genius.

His passing marked the end of an extraordinary career, on ethat would have made him the undisputed architect of Rome and the founder of the era known as the Baroque had it not been his fortune -- or misfortune -- to have lived during the lifetime of an artist whose acknowledged talent, worldwide reputation, andenormouss success bedeviled Borromini to the very end: Gianlorenzo Bernini.

This is their story.

The two men could not have been more different. Unlike the subtle, gracious, diplomatic Bernini, who moved easily through the courts of popes and princes, Borromini found it difficult to sustain relationships with both his patrons and many of his peers. He lived quietly, never marrying or fathering children. Some speculate that he was gay. He never amassed a large personal fortune. He didn't have a wide circle of friends. When he died, his passing wasn't mourned by many -- certainly not by Rome's elite, who found him difficult and argumentative, inflexible and quick to take offense. Even in a city used to dealing with temperamental artists, Borromini was an anomaly.

Yet when he invited death, at the last moment he rebuffed it. When it came, he found he was not ready. He would die as he had lived and worked: on his own terms and for his own convoluted and very personal reasons.

The few souls who did mourn his death -- his servants, his workers, a handful of friends -- were bewildered and grief-stricken by the self-destructive compulsions of the cavaliere. But for Borromini, there was a lucid, even poetic aspect to his suicide, just as there always was in his architecture -- though not everyone saw it or understood it.

The place where Borromini was burried, the church of Giovanni dei Fiorentini, is a traditional Roman neighborhood church. It is stately but not imposing, grave but not commanding, neither large nor magnificent in a city bursting with churches that are both. Commissioned in the sixteenth century by Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family, for the Florentines, who for generations lived in this neighborhood near the Tiber, San Giovanni stand near the north end of the Via Giulia, just where the river makes its lugubrious turn south. Begun in 1509 from a design by Jacopo Sansovino (before he left Rome for Venice) and built of traditional flat Roman brick (now gray with age and grime), San Giovanni is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. It sits in a part of Rome that by the nineteenth century had, in Émile Zola's words, "fallen into the silence, into the emptiness of abandonment, invaded by a kind of softness and clerical discretion."

Visiting the church, it's clear why it has been called "so large a church along so terrifying a river." It is wedged into a narrow sliver of land whose constricted dimensions must have demanded a good deal of resourcefulness from the builders: When it was built, its altar end jutted out over the Tiber's riverbed; the stone piers supporting it had to be sunk deep into the muddy shoreline. The result is a church that even now clings tenaciously to its place, like an old, nearly forgotten watchdog that knows he is no longer needed but nonetheless refuses to cede his place at the door.

San Giovanni's two noteworthy architectural details are its elongated, crownlike dome, designed much later by the preeminent architect in Rome at the time, Carlo Maderno, and early on nicknamed the confetto succhiato -- half-sucked sweet -- by residents of the neighborhood, and its curious lantern, a tall, cylindrical shaft of slender window that alternate with equally narrow stone buttresses coiled at their base like tightly wound ribbon. This unusual concoction was designed by a Lombard stonemason who worked as Maderno's assistant, a young man named Castelli, who soon began calling himself Francesco Borromini.

Borromini knew this church well. It was one of the earliest buildings he worked on with Maderno, and the church's grandiose Falconieri chapel -- its convex high altar, a fantasy in marmi mischi (precious materials of brick red travertine and gilding) that presses out onto the congregation -- celebrates John the Baptist. It was one of Borromini's last great commissions before he died.

For most of his life, Borromini lived in a house next to San Giovanni's high, unwelcoming walls; he was familiar with the fashionable Via Giulia, the boulevard created by Pope Julius II early in the sixteenth century, and the shadowy tangle of streets of small houses stuccoed in the traditional Mediterranean colors of ocher, umber, and dun that twist out from it like cracks in glass. He knew the sounds of shouting river workers and bickering shopkeepers, the lingering odors of fetid water and rotting garbage, just as he knew the traditions of rituals of San Giovanni, which included the annual Easter blessing of the lambs. His lonely figure -- always dressed in black, trunk makers, locksmiths, tailors, grocers, and booksellers who had shops throughout the area.

It was in this sestiere, in the house where he lived, soberly and alone, that Borromini died early on the morning of August 3, 1667.The Genius in the Design
Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome
. Copyright © by Jake Morrissey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome by Jake Morrissey
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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