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Borromini’s Past and its Impacts on San Giovanni In Laterano

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 4225 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Throughout the semester we have delved into the finest moments in Francesco Borromini’s architectural career. We’ve seen masterpieces constructed, inspirations flourish, enemies made, all encapsulating who Borromini was and how his artistic achievements left such an impression on Rome then and now. A key moment in this timeline is undoubtedly Borromini’s work in San Giovanni in Laterano. The prolific study of ancient architecture in his youth, the constant inspirations drawn from architects of his past who encouraged many of his architectural ideas and finally, his inspirations, drawn from antiquity and evolving into a new type of architecture but discouraged by the broader culture of traditional mid-17th century Rome, were the triumvirate of factors contributing to Francesco Borromini’s work in San Giovanni in Laterano.

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 The restorations commenced in 1646 when Pope Innocent X endowed Borromini with the renovation of San Giovanni in Laterano. Unlike San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Borromini was restricted due to the limits the Pope established for this project. Nevertheless, this commission was the most expensive and salient in Borromini’s career.[1] Innocent X was firm in his instructions due to his desire to preserve the traces of the original ancient church. Joseph Connors highlights the tensions of restoration opinions in the following passage:

“From the account of the commission written in 1655 by Borromini’s friend Fiorvante Martinelli, shortly after Innocent X’s death, that from the outset two opposing philosophies for the restoration were in conflict. Neither is associated with an individual by name, but the protagonists are easy to identify from Martinelli’s account. ‘Some people’ wanted to demolish the whole building down to the footprint of Constantine’s basilica and build a completely new church. This idea was supported by the people who were confident that Rome could furnish an architect ‘endowed by nature with an infinite prodigality of invention, deepened with study and experience in the Vitruvian profession’. The second part was the preservationists. They recalled the piety of the Lateran’s founder, the emperor Constantine, of the early Christians who has built the church, and of Pope Sylvester who consecrated it… This was also the opinion of Innocent X and his supporters among the Oratorians. Since his youth, the Pope had been steeped in a culture of early Christian antiquity when he had studied with the Oratorians and the followers of Baronius.”[2]

Rudolf Wittkower states in his book Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 that, Borromini’s challenge was difficult considering Innocent X’s non-negotiable demands on ‘preserving the venerable basilica.’[3] Wittkower continues to explain that Borromini ‘solved’[4] this dilemma:

“encasing two consecutive columns of the old church inside one broad pillar, by framing each pillar with a colossal order of pilasters throughout the whole height of the nave, and by placing a tabernacle niche of coloured marble for statuary into the face of each pillar where originally an opening between two columns have been. The alternation of pillars and open arches created a basic rhythm well known since Bramante’s and even Alberti’s days.”[5]

This passage by Wittkower covers a key aspect of this paper when he mentioned the rhythm which was used by Bramante and Alberti. It shows Borromini’s views of the past revealing itself in his late architecture of San Giovanni in Laterano. Additionally, Anthony Blunt (in his book Borromini) draws connections from Borromini’s past as major influences for the work completed on San Giovanni in Laterano. Blunt starts with the dilemma imposed on Borromini when Pope Innocent X was demanding the wooden ceiling to not be touched. This presented a massive restriction for Borromini because, it did not resonate and represent the way in which the architect used to link the walls to the ceiling, as seen with his previous work on San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.[6] Borromini’s plans for S. Giovanni were twofold: primarily his goal was to avoid the bay being incessantly repeated[7] and secondly to “avoid the use of giant pilasters rising straight from the ground, thereby avoiding the awkward relation between bases and arches.”[8] Blunt continues to direct the reader’s attention to the connections with the past by stating, “In the use of giant pilasters, he was following the example of Bramante at St. Peters, but the idea of planning the whole arcade as a centralized unit was a considerable break with tradition.”[9] Again the mention of Bramante and St.Peter’s is a testament towards the inspirations Borromini gained from a master of architecture and from Borromini’s own time spent working under Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini at St. Peter’s, where many of the work that was completed there is reflected in Borromini’s later architecture at S. Giovanni.

 Carlo Maderno is a salient character when analyzing themes from Borromini’s past which inspired his later work, especially at S. Giovanni in Laterano. Meeting in 1619 when Borromini moved to Rome, Maderno was working on the biggest architectural project in Rome at this time, he was the architect of St. Peter’s. Maderno hired Borromini as an assistant and together they worked on S. Andrea della Valle, where Maderno gave Borromini partial artistic license of designing part of the basilica. Gifting a young architect with the ability to assist designing such a massive project is not only a complete honour but also a testament to Borromini’s abilities as an architect. The dome of S. Andrea della Valle is the second largest in Rome after St. Peter’s[10] and as Wittkower states, it is “obviously derived from Michelangelo’s dome, it is of majestic simplicity.”[11] In the next passage Wittkower directs our attention back to the theme of this paper, how Borromini’s work in S. Gioavanni is framed by the view of the past:

“Long periods of his [Maderno’s] working life were spent in the service of St. Peter’s, where he was faced with the unenviable task of having to interfere with Michelangelo’s intentions. The design of the nave, which presented immense difficulties, proves the he planned with circumspection and tact, desirous to clash as little as was possible under the circumstances with the legacy of the great master.”[12]

This passage proves, Borromini’s beloved mentor Maderno, was challenged to work around a past legacy in order to erect his architecture around Michelangelo’s in a cohesive style. Borromini had to face the exact same challenges in his restorative work at S. Giovanni. Could Borromini have been reminded by Maderno’s challenges when working around Michelangelo’s past intentions? The way in which both Maderno and Borromini built their way around the past architecture was innovative as it was similar. Borromini was desperate to create a dome in S. Giovanni, alike the one in S. Andrea, but due to the preservation of the ancient wooden ceiling, he was unable to erect his inspirations learned from Maderno’s dome in S. Andrea. Maderno taught Borromini many things, and when comparing Maderno’s space planning in St. Peter’s and Borromini’s plan in S. Giovanni, it becomes clear (specifically the pilasters surrounding the apses) many of Borromini’s ideas of special planning stemmed from his past with Maderno.

Above: Maderno, S. Andrea della Valle; below: Borromini, S. Giovanni in Laterano

 From Maderno, Borromini learned the complex fundamentals of spatial planning. In order to restore S. Giovanni without disturbing the older Constantinian remains of the church, Borromini had to tap into this knowledge he gained from Maderno. It all started in 1625 with the planning of Palazzo Barberini where Maderno, who was at the time seventy years old[13], was commissioned to plan the space of the Palazzo. As Resnick notes,

“His [Maderno’s] failing health may have restricted the amount of time and energy he could devote to the project, and his assistants—most notably, Borromini—expectedly worked in his name. During nearly ten years of apprenticeship with Maderno, Borromini developed a great respect for him that was reflected in his decision to be buried by his side. He considered Maderno to be the most daring of the Lombard architects in Rome and valued his experimentation in three-dimensional space planning.”[14]

This passage highlights the spatial planning tactics in which Borromini was taught by Maderno, which would become crucial in his restorations on S. Giovanni, a space which is all encompassed by planning around what is there already and still making the entire church look as if it was one and made in the same style.

 Not only was Borromini transfixed by the works of Maderno, but also Michelangelo. In S. Giovanni Borromini made the bases of the pilasters a ‘light grey marble’[15] which reflected the ‘boldness he learned from Michelangelo combined with Baroque fluency.”[16] Blunt also draws attention to the connection between Borromini’s work at S. Giovanni with S. Ivo stating, “on the pilasters themselves the architect varied the width of the fluting as at S. Ivo, but less emphatically, so that the effect is gentler.”[17] This proves not only did Borromini use his past architectural successes from previous projects, such as S. Ivo to create another strong structure within S. Giovanni, but he improved his initial plan to create pilasters which were designed specifically to flow well with this project at S. Giovanni. Seemingly, S. Ivo did inspire Borromini in restoring the basilica at S. Giovanni, especially with the “palms and laurels surrounding the Apostles.”[18] Blunt states that these ‘palms and laurels’ are “carved with the same nervous crispness as those over the doors at S. Ivo.”[19]

 Another earlier project which inspired the challenge of restoring S. Giovanni was Borromini’s work completed at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. The papal tombs which reside S. Giovanni are a “complete expression of Borromini’s style.”[20] These tombs have incorporated an ‘oval cylinder’[21] just like ‘the aedicule of the façade of S. Carlino.’[22] Blunt again shows the intrigue of these tombs Borromini fashioned by focusing on the classic Borromini trick of ‘creating effects of false perspectives’ and in turn, making the tombs look like ‘they recede.’[23] Blunt states, “it is closer to the partial illusion created in the top windows of the loggia in the Palazzo Barberini or the half-domes in the chuch and refectory of S. Carlino.”[24] Again, Borromini learns from his past achievements at S. Carlino and applies them to the new project at S. Giovanni. Considering the fact that Innocent X was so stringent on conserving the original nave of S. Giovanni, this could be viewed as Borromini’s attempt to follow orders while still creating a church with his own recognizable style.

 The details of Borromini’s architecture was criticized by many in Rome. Patrons and critics preferred Bernini and the classical themes presented in his work. However, as Rudolf Wittkower points out, “Whatever their innovations, Bernini, Cortona, Rinaldi, Longhi and the rest never challenged the essence of the Renaissance tradition like Borromini did.”[25] Although well versed in classical architecture, Borromini challenged himself and society by introducing innovative and different methods towards Renaissance and classical architecture. To fully engage with the critiques and roadblocks Borromini had to face and how he persevered through these to create S. Giovanni while still keeping true to his stylistic patterns, it is essential to recognize what patrons were desiring when it came to the building of Baroque buildings in Rome. Paul Zucker states,

“The meaning of the term Baroque is twofold. Historically, the Baroque era stretches from about Michelangelo’s death in 1564 to the middle of the 18th century, when the period called either Neo-Classicism or Classical revival sets in. What is historically called Baroque divides aesthetically into two tendencies. On the one hand it is the Baroque derived from Michelangelo, exaggerating and contorting the more placid forms of the High Renaissance, accentuating individual parts within a whole, dramatizing and emphasizing volumes and masses. One the other hand, during the same centuries there exists the classicist approach, based on Palladio and the Vitruvian Academy, leaning heavily on ancient examples, regular, reticent in expression, sometimes of a certain dryness, which often leads to the reproach of “academicism.”[26]

This passage by Zucker contains key information which is essential when analyzing Borromini’s innovative, and often criticized, architecture. It’s well known that Palladio, the Vitruvian Academy and Michelangelo were all inspirations to Borromini in one form or another. As Zucker points out, Michelangelo is on the complete opposite side of Palladio and the Vitruvian Academy. However, what makes Borromini a complete genius of Baroque architecture was how he could combine both inspirations (which also inspired Baroque architecture as a whole) and create his own style to reflect both sides which represent the affluence that is, Baroque architecture. Due to the strong sides one would take, critics would either praise Michelangelo or praise Palladio, the Vitruvian Academy, and the traditional classic elements from architecture from the past. By Borromini being in the middle of the two, it was near impossible for many people to completely approve his work due to the stark sides of the twofold term of Baroque.

 The famous sculptor and fellow architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was a rival of Borromini’s and his most harsh critic. Robert Echols recites a conversation which quotes Bernini and assumedly Alexander VII stating, “that he [possibly Alexander VII] could not abide Borromini’s works because, as good as a draftsman and designer as he was, he strayed from the rules so recklessly that some of his works were in the Gothic, rather than the good “modern and antique,” style; to which Bernini agreed, adding that in his opinion is was better to be a bad Catholic than a good heretic.”[27] Additionally, Alexander VII disliked Borromini’s architectural style due to it being Gothic.[28]

 When looking for an architect to hire, Innocent X knew that the work of the San Giovanni basilica would have to be restored and designed by an architect who was not only artistically talented but had precedents of buildings which would withstand the wear of time.

 Borromini was hand-picked by Innocent X for this reason, but knowing Borromini would want to influence the traditional Constantinian style with his own stylistic flare, Innocent X hired Virgilio Spada to supervise.[29] The one person who did support Borromini was indeed, Virgillio Spada.

 The complaints and critiques of the Oratorians encompassed Borromini when working on the S. Giovanni restorations. In order to ease tensions, Spada came to Borromini’s defense against the Oratorians which is cited in Joseph Connors, “Virgilio Spada’s Defense of Borromini”:

“Architecture, Spada says, is a hard art to judge. It is a matter of taste, and unlike those things that have measure, number and weight, it cannot be reduced to simple quantities. Changes in style sweep through architecture like new fashions in dress, and trend-setters first draw ridicule on themselves, then acceptance, then praise and emulation. A century-and-a-half ago Gothic was the style that held sway. Then Michelangelo turned taste in the direction of a new architecture based on the antique, which was scorned at first but eventually accepted and is now celebrated by everyone… Happy is the architect who has friends in high places, since everything foes according to the recommendations of influential people. Everybody is attached to his own architect, just as to his own doctor. And as in medicine what counts in architecture is long experience, growing old in the profession. So, even though it is hard to weight the quality of an architect in the balance, there are still some touchstones that help a patron to make an informed choice.”[30]

With Spada being Borromini’s supervisor on the S. Giovanni restorations, it seems for the first time in Borromini’s life someone who was overseeing the Pope’s vision for a project was on his side. This undoubtedly inspired Borromini to go above and beyond to restore San Giovanni as one of the his most successful and impactful buildings thus far.

 The support and criticisms are both salient when analyzing how Borromini’s past framed his work in S. Giovanni. Used to working alone and in his own style, Borromini had the opposite experience when restoring the basilica. He was temperamental when being hired by a controlling patron who frowned upon his style so why was San Giovanni different? This could be because there was more support coming from Spada and others during this period in history. Even though Innocent X was heavily influenced by the harsh Oratorians, he still hired Borromini due to his past architectural successes. This is a complement in itself, especially for Borromini who was rarely in favour with Popes. With Borromini’s past success and the support of the Pope and Spada, his past unveils itself in the restored walls of S. Giovanni.

 S. Giovanni in Laterano was and will always be one of Borromini’s crowning architectural achievements. Regardless of critics, it is clear Borromini was the correct architect for the restorations made on the archaic and epic church. The walls of S. Giovanni are a true testament to Borromini’s past. The beginning, where he proliferated under the knowledgeable guidance of spatial planning from Carlo Maderno reflects in the challenging landscape of S. Giovanni and how Borromini masterfully worked his way around the older sections of the church to create a complete and unified whole. His earlier works such as S. Carlino, S. Ivo Sapienza, and Palazzo Barberini are all translated into the interior of S. Giovanni, a true master learning from his past successes and critically analyzing them to make the new project even better than the last. Lastly, his support of past mentors and friends such as Carlo Maderno, who’s guidance touched Borromini from beyond the grave and Virgilio Spada, who was a steadfast supporter when every patron, most architects and the Oratorians were strongly critical of Borromini. Spada made sure to remind many what it means to not only be a master of architecture, but why Borromini was and always will be Rome’s master architect. Considering this, an architect who can take his past, use it to inspire him, and make something never seen before is what makes Borromini’s work in San Giovanni in Laterano so magnificent.


  • Blunt, Anthony, Borromini (London: Allen Lane, 1979)
  • Connors, Joseph, ‘A new plan by Borromini for the Lateran Basilica, Rome’, The Burlington Magazine, 146.1217 (2004), 526-533 < https://www.jstor.org/stable/20073645> [accessed 21 April 2019]
  • Connors, Joseph, ‘Virgilio Spada’s Defence of Borromini’, The Burlington Magazine, 131:1031               (1989), pp. 76-90 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/883751> [accessed 27 April 2019]
  • Echols, Robert, ‘A Classical Barrel Vault for San Giovanni in Laterano in a Borromini Drawing’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 51:2 (1992), pp. 146-160 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/990711> [accessed 26 April 2019]
  • Resnick, Noah, ‘Thoughts on the Ellipse: Borromini’s Staircase at the Palazzo Barberini’, Thresholds, 28 (2005), pp. 47-57 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43876205> [accessed 24 April 2019]
  • Wittkower, Rudolf, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973)

[1] Joseph Connors, ‘A new plan by Borromini for the Lateran Basilica, Rome’, The Burlington Magazine, 146.1217 (2004), 526-533 (p. 526) < https://www.jstor.org/stable/20073645> [accessed 21 April 2019]

[2] Joseph Connors, ‘A new plan by Borromini for the Lateran Basilica, Rome’, The Burlington Magazine, 146.1217 (2004), 526-533 (p. 529) < https://www.jstor.org/stable/20073645> [accessed 21 April 2019]

[3] Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973), pg. 140.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anthony Blunt, Borromini, (London: Allen Lane, 1979), pg. 133-4.

[7] Anthony Blunt, Borromini, (London: Allen Lane, 1979), pg. 137.

[8] Anthony Blunt, Borromini, (London: Allen Lane, 1979), pg. 137.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973), pg. 70.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973), pg. 70.

[13] Noah Resnick, ‘Thoughts on the Ellipse: Borromini’s Staircase at the Palazzo Barberini’, Thresholds, 28 (2005), pp. 47-57 (pg. 51) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43876205> [accessed 24 April 2019]

[14] Ibid.

[15] Anthony Blunt, Borromini, (London: Allen Lane, 1979), pg. 142.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Anthony Blunt, Borromini, (London: Allen Lane, 1979), pg. 143-4.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Anthony Blunt, Borromini, (London: Allen Lane, 1979), pg. 150.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Anthony Blunt, Borromini, (London: Allen Lane, 1979), pg. 150.

[25] Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973), pg. 130.

[26] Paul Zucker, ‘Space and Movement in High Baroque City Planning’, Journal of the Society if Architectural Historians, 14:1 (1955), pp. 8-13 (pg. 8) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/987716 [accessed 23 April 2019]

[27] Robert Echols, ‘A Classical Barrel Vault for San Giovanni in Laterano in a Borromini Drawing’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 51:2 (1992), pp. 146-160 (pg. 146) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/990711> [accessed 26 April 2019]

[28] Ibid.

[29] Robert Echols, ‘A Classical Barrel Vault for San Giovanni in Laterano in a Borromini Drawing’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 51:2 (1992), pp. 146-160 (pg. 150) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/990711> [accessed 26 April 2019]

[30] Joseph Connors, ‘Virgilio Spada’s Defence of Borromini’, The Burlington Magazine, 131:1031 (1989), pp. 76-90 (pg. 82) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/883751> [accessed 27 April 2019]


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