Shane Reiner-Roth

Bernini, Borromini, and the Foundation of Opposition

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“…In reality the crisis of architectural culture, which was coming to a head during the 1620’s, consisted in the collapse of the objective criteria of choice typical of recent tradition…[yet] the outcome of this crisis was not the formation of a new, common repertoire, as an alternative to the previous one, but the start of a debate for an indefinite period.”[1]

-Leonado Benevolo

Even without reference to their shared, unique historical setting, the conceptual strategies that both Bernini and Borromini pursued alone are ripe for comparative debate. But when one considers their backdrop, that being the Post-Renaissance, architecturally pluralist climate, the gravity of the debate becomes much more clear. Considering that the current architectural climate favors idiosyncrasy and that which inspires opposition, it is with this predilection that I will judge the two. Therefore, the question for me becomes: which of the two architects was more detached from the singularly-minded Renaissance, and which one developed more from this estrangement?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini

“Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.”

-Le Corbusier

In Bernini’s work, we see experimentation (and flawless execution, as seen in his use of light of the side chapels in the Sant’Andrea Al Quirinale), but we also see, as David Erdman writes, “a historical prelude to the pursuit of affect in architecture today.”[2] This pursuit requires the knowledge and mastery of the elements which predicate both the elements outside of the building’s limits and the coherent form of the building itself. In much of Bernini’s architecture, this aspiration lead to a break from ideal symmetry, geometry, and, what had been the goal of all Renaissance theory: visual ekphrasis. ­However, his background as a set designer reveals a neurosis not dissimilar from that of the stringent Renaissance standards preceding his. In this light, Bernini’s most celebrated accomplishments appear only as advancements to the school of Renaissance thought rather than references to its demise in place of another.

Francesco Borromini

“And if you think of Brick, for instance,

and you say to Brick,

‘What do you want Brick?’

And Brick says to you

‘I like an Arch.’

And if you say to Brick

‘Look, arches are expensive,

and I can use a concrete lentil over you.

What do you think of that?’


Brick says:

‘… I like an Arch’”

-Louis Kahn

Where we saw a set of coherent and unifying rules in Bernini’s architecture, in Borromini’s work we recognize a leniency and a preference towards forms and applications of ornament which had not yet previously been seen and could most politely at the time be called “experimental” (the façade of the Oratorio dei Filipini, beyond its deceitful architectonics, is jarringly asymmetrical, in keeping with the site and desired processional strategy). As Leland Roth wrote, “he manipulated space and the traditional Classical orders far more sculpturally than did Bernini.” Borromini’s work, in his own time, was received with little recognition and general opposition. By creating his own unique strategy of “bas[ing] the entire composition, both plan and in section…on a complex union of the symbolic equilagteral triangle and also on multiples of circles and ovals,”[3] his work got the immediate attention of visitors to Rome, and many even considered it incomparable in terms of “artistic merit,”[4] a common trait of the contemporary confrontationalist.

In reverence of a contemporary architectural preference, it is clear that while Borromini follows fewer rules and indeed produces stranger, much more idiosyncratic results, his work sparked what one could consider the first architectural visit, not based on respect of his times current state of architectural affairs, but his own in a confident and adamant opposition.


[1] Benevolo, Leonardo. Renaissance Architecture, pg. 320

[2] Erdman, David, Glow(ing), Log 17, pg. 50

[3] Roth, Leland. Understanding Architecture. 2007, pg. 411

[4] Ibid


Written by differance

October 27, 2010 at 8:32 PM

Posted in architecture

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