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frank van den broeke
There is a lot of talking about the difference between Bernini and Borromini. An article of Eugenio Battisti (1) in the fifties of last century gave me the clue. Bernini’s art is one of personifications who have the purpose to create decoration. Totally different is Borromini who’s using symbolism and gives it a structural function. Never forget we are in the 17t
h century - Rome. The art of Bernini was less acceptable for the whole of Europe, divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Therefore, his art that focussed on the senses created for the protestants a proble
m of theological legitimacy since the Council of Trent a century earlier. Much easier for them was the art of Borromini, who’s art is referring to the intellect of the human being. Borromini is using almost exclusive abstract symbols or symbols of the Old Testament. In a certain way it was similar what Flemish painters did in those days. Maybe being born in 1599 in Bissone, Canton Ticino , an enclave in today Calvinist Swiss explains his art. Using metaphors and analogical paintings were also very much appreciated even in the Protestant world. (go to: Plato against Aristotle) From there, your mind is free to give it an appropriate interpretation, a.e. a circle within a triangle like in San Carlino alle Quattre Fontane.
But not everything came from Borromini himself. In those days there was in Rome for sure one of the strangest figures in of the 17th century: Anastasius Kirchner S.J. A jesuit, astrologer, scientist, and ... a fantast. He convinced even his world that he could read hieroglyphics. His thoughts had a lot of influence on Borromini, especially being his confessor for a period of time. But not he alone! All the upcoming religious orders of the Catholic Reformation who tried to go back to the origin of the Church were guiding and inspiring him: the Trinitan Fathers, the Franciscans and not at least the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri.
Symbolism can become an enigma, only for scholars or a select club. But not so for Borromini. His vocabulary of images and symbolism were well spread all over the Christian World in those days. He used a whole serial of different symbols: (a) sacred and profane emblems, (b) attributes, (c) heraldic motifs, (d) hieroglyphs (geometric or almost abstract images), (e) categorical symbols such as stars, crowns etc.), (f) pure geometrical figures as triangles, hexagons), (g) numbers ( three, six, eight, twelve) and (h) epigraphs. Excluded are personifications and sayings. The main reason is already mentioned before: The religious polemics between Roman Catholics against Protestants who were refusing the idolatry of the person. The iconoclasm in the Southern Netherlands was a violent reaction against the idolatry of Saints in the Catholic Church.
Everything depended from the public you want to reach. The personifications of Bernini were easy to understood and were open for a large public. He had no problem to sell his art. Contrary, Borromini’s art is more sophisticated, with a twist and sometimes puerile. He lived in seclusion and was often not understood by a larger public.
Extra: The “Cannocchiale Aristotelica, The Aristotelian Telescope” of Emanuele Tesauro of 1654 divides people between plebeians. populars and delicious. The first are ignorant, rude (even if they are nobles); The “delicious” are scholars, acute and ingenious (even from poor backgrounds); in the middle we have the populars.
Therefore, Bernini’s art can be easy understood by plebeians and populars, while the art of Borromini is more for populars and scholars. The art of Borromini is like rhetorics: his symbolism is like rhetorics: you can understand the words instantly, but for the refined scholar, there is always a second taught behind the appearance. Once he can decipher it, he will enjoy it too. Maybe here is the key to understand why Borromini does not use personification: to easy to understand. Instead, Borromini is using stars, the sun, the moon, fire, vegetation, mechanical tools and strange animals. His images are ambiguous: they are neither too easy or too smart.
In Borromini’s life and work it is important to understand the genius of those who commissioned his works such as Card. Vergilio Spada, Anastasio Kirchner S.j. (his confessor), Donna Olympia Pamphilij and many others who formed the intellectual elite of the 17th century Rome.
Reading the Revelation of St. John we find that the whole book is full of metaphorical and allegorical images. If this is allowed in the “arte di letteratura”, why shouldn’t it be in the “arte di pittura” and even in ... “arte di architettura”? Kenzo Tange says: “There is a powerful need for symbolism, and that means the architecture must have something that appeals to the human heart.” And the Catholic reform since the Council of Trent encouraged artists like Rubens and Borromini to the baroque art. Part of the Church’s reform effort was to educate its members, helping them to understand more about their faith. This was no easy task as most people were illi
terate during this time. The Council of Trent declared that art should be used to explain the profound dogmas of the faith to everyone, not just the educated. To accomplish this, religious art was to be direct, emotionally persuasive, and powerful-designed to fire the spiritual imagination and inspire the viewer to greater piety.
New denominations like the Calvinists believed that churches and church services should be simple, stripped-down affairs. But the Council argued that a God of greatness and power should be worshiped with the kinds of rituals, ceremonies, and churches befitting these divine qualities. This affirmation of the beauty and grandiosity of expressions of faith found its way into Baroque art.Some symbols are quite easy to understand: the crown as symbol of victory for martyrs, bay leafs for fame, the palms representing good works and deeds. Other symbols are more difficult to understand like a snake which bites its tale as we can find in the ceiling of the Palazzo Falconieri in Rome.
In the next chapters we will try to explain some of the architectonical symbolisms in Borromini’s work.