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?

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