Thursday, 18 June 2015

"Borromini at the Cappella dei Re Magi" Themed Tour

Another tour promoted by the Baroque in Rome exhibition, and another tour dedicated to the genius of Borromini, even if it was peculiarly tied with his archrival too, the joyful Bernini!
This time our destination was the Cappella dei Re Magi ("Chapel of the Three Kings") annexed to the building of Propaganda Fide, a cute little oratory usually closed to the public.
The first stop of our tour was Palazzo Bernini, the two buildings where Bernini had his study and residence.
A placque with a bust of an old Bernini scuplted by Ettore Ferrari (he's the same guy who made the statue of Giordano Bruno in Piazza Campo dè Fiori, to give you a clue) can be spotted on a corner.
The inscription says that "Popes, Princes and People kneeled down in front of his genius", but it was rather the opposite!
Bernini was extremely popular at his time expecially because he knew how to "sell himself" quite smartly-- On the opposite of Borromini, who had a terrible character and found it difficult to get his ideas through the commissioners.

Right in front of the residence is the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, where we had a chance to take another peek at the Angels of Ponte Sant'Angelo
There's Bernini but there's Borromini, too.
The Ticinese artist, in fact, redesigned the tambour of the dome, and added his bizarre campanile in 1653.
Here you can spot some of his "gothic details"-- The angels wrapped in their wings, the "spirals" moving in weird directions (look at the decorative motif on top of the bell tower: usually those curved elements reminding of "dolphin tails" tend to point to the outside, here they point to the inside)...

Before Borromini put his hands on the "family Church" of Bernini, though, the Neapolitan artist had to deal with another "outrage": the redesign of the little Cappella dei Re Magi.

But let's go in order.
Around the first years of the XVII century, a certain Monsignor Juan Bautista Vives, led by an anxious need to spread the word of Jesus around the world, started to imagine a congregation of missionaries sent around the known world to the evangelize heathen people, according to the message of Jesus to his apostles.
He started to look around for a decent place, and opted for the charming Palazzo Ferratini, originally belonging to Cardinal Bartolomeo Ferratini, but after his death placed on sale by his nephews, who were drowning in debt-- Vives got to buy it, but at the same time, the nephews of the Cardinal, trying to get more money, decided to sell the building to Marchioness Ruspoli too: the result was a neverending lawsuit.
Vives looked for the help of the Pope of the time, Gregory XV Ludovisi, who got righteously intrigued by the idea of Vives, seen as the triumph of the Roman Church-- On 1622 he enstablished the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide ("Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith ").
The future Pope Urban VIII, at the moment still Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was one of the members of the council, and when Gregory XV died, he kept the project up.
As Vives wanted to focus on the education of youths to make missionaries out of them, though, Urban VIII was more focused on the "head" of the project, so he wanted it to be led by a council of Cardinals devoted to the cause.
On 1624 Urban VIII closed the lawsuit in favor of Vives with his authority, but at the same time he forced Vives to donate the building to the church, after accepting his requests: he had to redevelop the area (that at the time was pretty much a sort of thicket-- That's what the "fratte" of the Church of Sant'Andrea referred to), build a fountain and place there also the central seminary for the future missionaries.
Urban VIII kept his promise, and this is why the Papal coat of the Barberini is still placed on the facade of Palazzo Ferratini, and the seminary is called Collegium Urbanum... This also how we got the Barcaccia right there!
After Palazzo Ferratini the other buildings of the lot were bought and merged in what is now the whole complex of Propaganda Fide, stretched along Propaganda street, next to Palazzo Bernini.
Because of his connection with the new pope, Bernini was commissioned with the design of the private chapel of the institution, dedicated to the Three Kings: they were chosen as an example of "heathens" converted to Christianism.
Bernini started his work on 1634, and we know that the chaper was littler than now, and oval-shaped-- Meanwhile the Pope changed again, it was now the turn of Innocent X Pamphilj to rule, and to punish Bernini for his connections with the previous pope, he dismissed him to favour his rival Borromini.
Bernini moved into his palace on 1641. Borromini was commissioned with the redesign of the southwest facade and the chapel on 1642-- It's said that Borromini took great pleasure in destroying the work of Bernini, making sure that his archenemy would hear everything from across the street!
What we see now is an elegant intermission between the rustic, original Palazzo Ferratini and the later modification of the part of the building facing the Church of Sant'Andrea-- This was simplified to get more space, as in the XVII century it hosted a typography, so that the congregation could print and share bibles and catechism in all the required foreign languages of the world.
On the original facade by Borromini, we still see the elegant decoration featuring palms and oak leaves, the originality of the columns turned of 45° and the fact that the chapel is merged inside the entrance.
It's a hidden, private little place, and to access it we have to enter the main gate of the building.
We're greeted by the coat of arms of the Chigi family, implying that during the work of Borromini another Pope rose to power, Alexander VII Chigi.
The concept of Borromini is elegant, simple, dignified.
Few lines at the right spots, lots of curves, symmetry and rhythm.
Look at the "fake windows" alternated to the real ones, the subtle and light colours.
Look at the amazing ceiling: we're used to see awe-inspiring frescoes all over them, Borromini picked a simpler yet more extravagant choice-- Lines, crossing and mixing up our heads like a frame of light.
Even the materials are cheap and simple: the only luxury is the beautiful black and red marbles used for the pedestals of the busts of the donors-- Among them we can see both Vives and Barberini.

On a strange summer night, Borromini woke up in the middle of the night with the memory of a dagger hidden somewhere in his study and the need to use it on himself.
It was 1667 and he didn't die immediately. He was afflicted by depression and a severe case of neurosis. --By looking at his works, could you imagine it?

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

"The Sapienza of Borromini" Themed Tour

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I decided to try some of those "themed tours" offered by the event Baroque in Rome.
The first of the list is "The Sapienza of Borromini", dedicated to the creation of the first university of Rome, La Sapienza ("The Wisdom").
The "University City" is now located in San Lorenzo quartiere, moved there on 1935 after the completion of its new seat.
Earlier the University's "headquarter" was placed in its historical location, the so called Palazzo della Sapienza, that included the Biblioteca Alessandrina and the chapel of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza.

We started our tour on a sunny day, following the steps of the good ol' Borromini and looking for the interpretation of the concept of "wisdom" that can be spotted during our walk.
The first stop was the amazing Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio da Loyola, a beautiful Jesuit Church, and one of the best example of Baroque architecture.

Here you can see a marvellous fresco "The Glory of Sant'Ignazio", where Andrea Pozzo presented us one of the most amazing perspective marvels of Rome: an imaginary "second church" sprouting on the "material" one, showing us the Jesuit friar reaching for Sanctity.
A great number of perspective and "scientific tricks" (an angel holding a mirror, so that the light of the Name of Jesus can surround the Saint, the tricky perspective of the "fake" dome) make of this the best beginning to flavour the scientific and religious mix that motivated the attention of Popes on La Sapienza during the Baroque period.

While staying in the square, we were also invited to take a peek to the fun organization of the buildings around:
They dates the XVIII century, a period called "Barocchetto" (anywhere else it is called Rococò, to give you a clue), that showed the revival of decorative, fun shapes of Baroque.
The lines of these buildings do remind of certain bits of French furniture, an impression that becomes obvious when taking a peek at the planimetry of the square, arranged as a theatrical stage of sort:
Our guide wanted to stress out how smart this late intervention was: the character of the baroque Rome was still there, even if 100 years later!

We kept our walk to reach another "wisdom themed" bit, the delightful Obelisk of Minerva by Bernini.
Our guide, the enthusiastic Irene, made us stop in front of the incription celebrating this huge animal, a symbol of wisdom as it's said that a strong, big body was needed to hold an extraordinary mind:
Speaking of which, Bernini dared to make fun of the Dominican friar who criticized his original design, forcing him to change it, and by so showing very little wisdom: the smart elephant is showing his butt to the entrance of the convent, as to say "Kiss my Ass!"!!!
I found quite fun how a monument dedicated to celebrate wisdom and knowlefge turned into something that made fun of the lack of such qualities, too!

Again a time travel bringing us 100 years ago: the fontanella dedicated to Sant'Eustachio rione, featuring references to the University and the Biblioteca Alessandrina:
This series of little fountains, each dedicated to a rione of Rome, were commissioned by the governor of the city, Filippo Cremonesi, to architect Pietro Lombardi on 1926.
This fountain features the stag of Saint Eustace (to honour the basilica that names the rione), the books of the Biblioteca Alessandrina and the Medici family (the "little balls" of their heraldry, do you remember?) because of the vicinity of Palazzo Madama, originally belonging to the Medici family.

Just a few steps ahead, we finally reached Palazzo della Sapienza; right now the whole complex is wrongly called Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, but that's the name of the little chapel that closes the monumental cloister of the building.

La Sapienza was founded in 1303 by Bonifacio VIII Caetani, and it was a series of buildings around the rione where teachers gave private lessons to the students.
The idea of merging all those different "classrooms" in a dedicated building belonged to Gregorio XIII Boncompagni: the Palazzo della Sapienza, with its breathtaking cloister and the proper classrooms dates 1577: the architect, Giacomo della Porta, was inspired by the look of the University of Pisa.
Later on, Alessandro VII Chigi provided the University with a huge library, the overly mentioned Biblioteca Alessandrina, and a botanical garden dedicated to the studies of farmacology and chemistry: the Palazzo della Sapienza, in fact, was famous for its faculties of Theology and Law, but later it would be also a famous location for the faculties of Medicine and Chemistry-- It hosted a good number of anatomical theatres in the lower floor for the purpose.

During the years many Popes provided to develop the university, as it was pretty much the center of "Catholic wisdom sponsored by the Papacy" in Europe-- Here I dare you to recognize all the symbols from the Papal Coats of Arms!

So, we finally entered the library!

It's always a pure delight to enter an ancient library, expecially one like this, attended by the richest and noblest scholars of European heritage, someplace where their discussed their very thesis in front of harsh teachers and Cardinals--!

The ceiling of the library is decorated by a fine fresco by Clemente Maioli, "The Triumph of Religion"-- The whole room is "guarded" by a monumental "bust" of Alexander VII-- Hilarity ensued when a fellow visitor pointed out that rather than a "bust" it looked like a "cowboy shot"!

To celebrate the Baroque exhibition and the themed tour, a special exhibition was set up in the library, "The Factory of the Sapienza", focused on the making of the buildings, the University life and other curiosities from some of the documents preserved in the collection!
We're immediately drugged with some documents related to Borromini and his whereabouts around the "construction site":

Above you can see a satyrical poem wrote by some fellow "Lombards" who made fun of Borromini's architecture because of his revolutionary concept of spaces-- He's said to make building where "only mice could live"-- The other document is a note by Borromini, showing his peculiar calligraphy! Remember the "upward spirals" 'cause we'll see them again soon..!

Lots of fun were the frontispieces of the thesis, little masterpieces on their own:

The last one belonged to a treaty of Architecture, and it was designed by Pietro da Cortona himself!

Following are the studies dedicated to the chapel of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, its "absurd" lantern and the curious plant--

When Borromini was commissioned by Urban VIII Barberini to build a chapel inside the University to grant some privacy to the students, he had to face a monstruous challenge: that of the lack of space.
But Borromini didn't give up, he conceived a little and precious architecture which focus was the "elevation" of the soul to the light of wisdom while at the same time it promoted the "descent" of the inspiration from the Holy Spirit on earth: he used a "spiral" to suggest this peculiar movement, a spiral that reminded of a rolled scroll, the path of the scholar.
But the funniest experiment is the plant of the Church: he played around with empty and full space, so that it would remind of a bee, a tribute to Urban VIII--- Can you spot the shape of the bee? Its head is the location of the altar, on the opposite is the stinger, around them its wings-- Borromini planned a pavement decorated by bees too, but, well, Urban VIII died and he had to change plans!
When Alexander VII saw the completed church on 1662 he couldn't help but to say "Mh, this Borromini guy is quite gothic"-- "Gothic" was obviously meant as a criticism, not different from the opinion of Borromini's fellow countrymen on their satyrical poem, but it must be noted than rather than an "insult" it was a way to remark the originality of Borromini, who was always ready to revolutionize the classic standards.

Finally, we were granted to "spy" the Church from the above by passing directly through the library, a spot usually closed to the public!
From there we could savour the optical suggestions of the pavement, and read the structure of the architecture at its best

Worth of attention is the altarpiece, another "threatrical painting" by Pietro da Cortona portraying Saint Ivo, protector of Lawyers-- The invention comes from the "double painting": the portrait of the Saint acting a lawyer for poor people is in fact is covered by a second painting presented as a curtain, showing Jesus blessing the patrons of the University; they are Saint Luke, Saint Hieronymous, Saint Leo the Great, Saint Alexander and Saint Fortunatus.

--And to close this post with a curiosity, did you remember my note on Borromini's calligraphy..? Look at the higher coil of the Corynthian capital:
Instead of facing downstairs-- It faces upstairs!