Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy. Right now we're in Rome.
Not all Baroque churches go for glitter. On the corner of Strada Pia and Strada Felice there is a small, exquisite named San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane -
A more different building to the overwrought Santa Maria Vittoria or grandiose Saint Peters you could not imagine.
San Carlino is a small church – its entire footprint would fit into just one of the pillars that support the dome of St Peters Basilica on the other side of the city in the Vatican. Designed and built for a monastic order known as the Discalced (Shoeless) Trinitarians by an architect named Borromini, unimposing little San Carlino is dreamy.
Small, spare, streamlined and strong-boned, this small church would go on have more of an influence on European Architecture than all of the painted and gilded churches ever had.
A short history lesson:
The first big builders in this part of Italy, the Old Romans, appreciated proportion and measure – in society as well as stone, and built domes and arches and long square halls according to precise geometries: mathematical ratios that they considered to embody the order that they found so pleasing, pleasing both to the eye and to mathematical philosophy. When the Roman Empire split, and fell, balances and checks became wilder and less sure, and the architecture that grew up out of it – what we call today the style – was tall and soaring and aimed for the sky in a way that had absolutely no truck with reason or ratio. It was an architecture of mysticism to suit a feudal world – a world of personal politics and charismatic religion, rather than any wider, standardized sort of order.
Through the medieval period, continental economies grew and continental politics stabilized, and by the fourteenth century the Italian intelligentsia were giving up mysticism of the gothic and beginning to explore – a thousand years after the fact – the architecture and philosophy of ancient Rome.
These new philosophers lived in the ruins of the Roman Empire, and the formal study of their works was – well, the effect was much as if, today, we discovered the writings of ancient Atlantis – and the writings weren’t obscure, abstruse, wisdoms of ancient mystics and ambiguous provenance – they were real, and we could check what the ancients had written by walking down the street to a broken ruin and pulling out a measuring stick.
Renaissance Architecture is premised on the emulation of the architectural styles of Ancient Rome– and the presumption that the Romans did all of them perfectly. Rome’s fourteenth century disciples took the basilica, the dome, the column and the arch and built them to a standard of mathematical rigor that went beyond style into a way of measuring life itself. After the soaring drip-castle muddle of the Gothic, the modern world was a rational world – no chaos, no confusion, and mastery of the mysteries of the universe started at home, in the mastery of one’s house. Each space in a building must be separate and complete – outside and in. Volumes might be piled upon each other, or balanced against each other in geometrically pleasing harmony, but they must be discrete, unconnected, and pure in of themselves.
The results were beautiful, majestic, exquisitely balanced and pleasing to the eye and it was all exciting and terrific and for more than a hundred years, men congratulated each other on their mastery of the chaos of the cosmos, but times change, old men die, and young men grow up and grow bored and notice things that had formerly gone unremarked–
When each space and shape must be formally and separately contained, something is lost, or is never there. A space might be serene, but when serenity must never move or shift or change, the result is static –
A man named started the revolt; or he was, at least, the most visible face of the vanguard. Michelangelo was wildly talented and terrifically intelligent, and he wanted to do something that would make the whole world stand up and take notice. As an architect, he thought a great deal about theory, and no matter how hard he thought, he couldn’t see the logic of forcing related bits of building to be built separately – fourteenth Century lives didn’t necessarily fit into forms designed by a civilization a thousand years gone, and the effort of politely reconciling the two often had Michelangelo spitting nails – and when Michelangelo spit nails, the world knew it – the Pope tended to get huffy and the results tended to get built, and stand five or six stories tall and look damned authoritative.
But even a Michelangelo was constrained by popular expectation, and with one or two exceptions, he took things cautiously and worked more or less within the bounds of his patron’s cultural limitations. He did what he could, and then another generation grew up, and took stock of what Michelangelo had done, and the world changed.
We called that change the . In its own time it was understood simply as the overturning of the static and the foursquare. In Rome, the was in full swing – art and architecture were growing bold and brassy, full of splendid, optimistic vigor, and young men and women were eating sacred cows for breakfast every morning – and nobody – or nobody who mattered- was complaining. It was a fun time to be an artist. Amid all the pyrotechnics, two men were crystalizing two main approaches to the overturning of the sacred Roman cows. These men were Gian Lorenzo
Bernini was everyone’s darling –charming, sophisticated, a natural diplomat (or unbridled sycophant, depending who you asked) and courtier who could talk himself up without putting people off, a talented artist and set designer, and possessed an undeniable genius for . Borromini was likewise a genius – his sophisticated understanding of form and space matched Bernini’s understanding of stone, but unlike Bernini, Borromini was a depressive, petulant curmudgeon who didn’t get on with anybody and couldn’t not pick fights if he tried (and he never seemed to try).
Borromini worked under Bernini for a period of time early in his career. Together they did exciting things (including the in St Peters Basilica in the Vatican), Borromini lending the architectural punch necessary to back up Bernini’s theatrical flair, and Bernini walked away with all the credit for all of it. (In fairness to the people of Rome, if given a choice between two men like that, which would you lionize?) Borromini growled, sank deeper into depression, and went away to work on his own.
Bernini lent vibrancy and motion to static form with heavy lashings of theatrical drama. He designed simple, highly traditional spaces, and within them would set a stage - an altar, or a work of sculpture, and use every trick of set design at his disposal – color, rich and luxurious material, exciting theatrical lighting effects, altered scale and forced perspective – to bring the viewer up to and into the action, and to spread the action across the whole of the space of the church. Go to Santa Maria Vittoria and examine his setting –
Borromini, on the other hand, worked on a small, intimate scale, building with simple materials - brick and stone and travertine – a humble, workaday marble. For Borromini, the building itself was the sculpture –a sculpture in the round. He never used color; the interiors of all his churches are painted white, so that his manipulation of their forms may be more visible and striking.
In building San Carlino, Borromini merged two footprints much favored by ecclesiastical architecture, the circle and the Greek cross, and in merging the two, he turned them into something different to their canonical selves – something special. The lozenge-shaped church is neither cruciform nor circular, but flows around its inhabitants as a series of gently interlocking oval forms; there are no angles within the church, only a soft, endless undulation that works its way around and around the perimeter of the space.
Painted, very simply, in white, the undulations create a self-sufficiency of spirit - though not serenity, not by any means. It is a small space, and it holds coils of contained energy - the walls of the church rising up to the as a series of suspended circles and spheres, each the beginning and the continuation of another.
Borromini’s effects were entirely architectural – spaces flow into each other and around, walls warp and are cut apart, and the small scale of his works put the viewer into a position intimacy with a space that appears to move and flow all around him or her.
The effect is quieter than the Bernini’s bombastic trumpeting, but it an effect intrinsic and inherent to the space, not one that has been applied or shoehorned into it.
“One looks at Bernini’s buildings with the eyes; one feels Borromini’s with the whole body.”
- Anthony Blunt, Art historian, 1979
It was Borromini’s architectural approach to that endured. It was a type of design that did not depend on the presence of singular genius, but was a fundamental, systematic, and critically, imitable approach to the manipulation of mass and form. The gift that Borromini gave to western architecture was a clear and unequivocal demonstration of how forms could convey energy as well as strength. Taking up the embryonic union of form championed by Michelangelo, Borromini forced the static strength and serenity of the Renaissance into torsion and nervous equilibrium, and balanced ‘em perilously together on a high tension electrical wire.