European Architecture Series
Francesco Borromini

Biography of Italian Baroque Architect; Rival of Bernini.

Pin it

Church of St Ivo alla Sapienza (1640-60)

Francesco Borromini (1599-1667)


Borromini's Architecture
Buildings Designed by Francesco Borromini
Other 17th Century Baroque Architects

For a short guide to terminology
see: Architecture Glossary.

Borromini's Architecture

One of the greatest architects of the 17th century, and a lifelong rival of Bernini (1598-1680), Borromini's famous disputes with his colleague resulted primarily from reasons of personal temperament and artistic sensibility. Borromini achieved his success only with difficulty, and it never seemed definitive; in the end he committed suicide. The embodiment of the extravagant and dramatic style of Baroque architecture, his unconventional approach to building design is evident in his complex spatial compositions, featuring the use of ovals and triangles to suggest movement where surfaces were obviously static. Many of his interiors and exteriors combine geometric rationalism with an imaginative sense of drama. An early example of his extravagant design - a project that proved decisive in his affirmation - was the Church of St Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, with its revolutionary interior spatial solution. The Oratory of St Filippo Neri makes clear his break with Renaissance architecture in its revival of individual, structural and decorative elements. The masterpiece in this regard is the Church of St Ivo alla Sapienza, with its complex ground plan. His other important commissions include the renovation of St John Lateran, the Church of St Agnese in Piazza Navona, and the celebrated false-perspective colonnade in Palazzo Spada. With his fellow designers Bernini and Pietro da Cortona (1596-69) He remains one of the top three Baroque architects and an important contributor to the emergence of Roman Baroque art of the seventeenth century. (See also Vignola, 1507-73).


Born Francesco Castelli, the son of a stonemason, near Lake Lugano in Switzerland, he is better known by his adopted name, Borromini. He started out as a stone mason, but at the age of 20 moved to Rome, where he worked initially with his relative, the architect Carlo Maderno on St Peter's Basilica in Rome. While working on St Peter's and also at the Palazzo Barberini, he rubbed shoulders with Bernini. Following Maderno's death he and Pietro da Cortona continued working on the Palazzo, under the supervision of Bernini - an experience which contributes to his lifelong jealousy. As a young man he was a great admirer of the architecture of Michelangelo (1475-1564), as well as the forms of Roman architecture whose geometric principles he manipulated to create a unique, if unconventional, personal style.

In 1634, he was given his first major commission: the church, cloister and monastery of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. After this he was appointed architect for the dome and facade of the Palazzo Sapienza and Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza (1640-50). He was originally recommended for the latter project back in 1632, by none other than Bernini. Both these early commissions went well. Furthermore, good relations with Pope Innocent X (1644-55) led to a number of new papal projects, though not all ended successfully. Borromini, for instance, was one of several designers commissioned to build the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, in order to enhance the square overlooked by the pope's family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, but some of his ideas were altered by later architects and the net result is a mish-mash of different styles.

With the death of Innocent X in 1655, Borromini lost most of his Papal commissions and fell out of favour. Despite widespread recognition of his exceptional architectural gifts, his reserved and intense personality ruled him out of many major projects. His difficult life ended in suicide.

Buildings Designed by Francesco Borromini

Famous architectural designs by Borromini include the following. (Except for the Villa Falconieri, all were located in Rome.)

- Cappella del St Sacramento (1627)
- Palazzo Spada (1632)
- Oratory of St Phillip Neri (1637)
- Church of St Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1634-68)
- Church of St Ivo alla Sapienza (1640-60) Dome and Facade
- Maria dei Sette Dolori (1642-8)
- Palazzo Pamphili (1645-50)
- St Giovani in Laterano (1646-9)
- Villa Falconieri, Frascati (1648)
- Church of St Agnese in Agone (1653)
- Church of St Giovanni dei Fiorentini (c.1665)

Other 17th Century Baroque Architects

In addition to those mentioned above, the best known architects of the Baroque era included:

Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723)
Jakob Prandtauer (1660-1726)
Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach (1693-1742)

Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726)
Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)

Francois Mansart (1598-1666)
Louis Le Vau (1612-70)
Jules Hardouin Mansart (1646-1708)
See also: French Baroque Artists

Johann Dientzenhofer (1663-1726)
Andreas Schluter (1664-1714)
Balthasar Neumann (1687-1753)
Johann Caspar Bagnato (1696-1757)
Hans Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699-1753)
See also German Baroque Art (1550-1750) and German Baroque Artists

Alonso Cano (1601-1667)
Jose Benito de Churriguera (1665-1725)
Joaquin de Churriguera (1674-1724)
Alberto de Churriguera (1676-1750)
Pedro de Ribera (1681-1742)
See also: Spanish Baroque Art (1600-1700) and Spanish Baroque Artists

Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-1771)
Prince Dmitry Vasilyevich Ukhtomsky (1719–1774)
See also: Petrine Art under Tsar Peter the Great (1686-1725).


• For more about 17th century Italian Baroque architecture, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.