The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome

The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome

by Jake Morrissey


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The rivalry between the brilliant seventeenth-century Italian architects Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini is the stuff of legend. Enormously talented and ambitious artists, they met as contemporaries in the building yards of St. Peter's in Rome, became the greatest architects of their era by designing some of the most beautiful buildings in the world, and ended their lives as bitter enemies. Engrossing and impeccably researched, full of dramatic tension and breathtaking insight, The Genius in the Design is the remarkable tale of how two extraordinary visionaries schemed and maneuvered to get the better of each other and, in the process, created the spectacular Roman cityscape of today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060525347
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/28/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Jake Morrissey has studied and written about architecture for twenty years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and dozens of other publications and books. He is the author of the novel A Weekend at Blenheim and lives near New York City.

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The Genius in the Design
Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome


The Beginning and the End

Suicide is never an easy death, its details can be simple, its execution effortless, even graceful. But the pain that incites it in the first place, the anguish that breeds the longing for self-destruction, never fades. It stands out on the soul like a welt on tender skin, aching and raw. Even after the deed is done, the mark remains -- a last, terrible legacy of a life lived in torment.

The sad, strange suicide of Francesco Borromini was such a death, as complex and as peculiar as the man himself. At once abrupt and protracted, impulsive and deliberate, his death stunned his small circle of intimates by its curious mix of recklessness and calculation, just as the churches and palazzi he designed over his three decades as an architect startled Rome by the power of his demanding, idiosyncratic genius.

His passing marked the end of an extraordinary career, on ethat would have made him the undisputed architect of Rome and the founder of the era known as the Baroque had it not been his fortune -- or misfortune -- to have lived during the lifetime of an artist whose acknowledged talent, worldwide reputation, andenormouss success bedeviled Borromini to the very end: Gianlorenzo Bernini.

This is their story.

The two men could not have been more different. Unlike the subtle, gracious, diplomatic Bernini, who moved easily through the courts of popes and princes, Borromini found it difficult to sustain relationships with both his patrons and many of his peers. He lived quietly, never marrying or fathering children. Some speculate that he was gay. He never amassed a large personal fortune. He didn't have a wide circle of friends. When he died, his passing wasn't mourned by many -- certainly not by Rome's elite, who found him difficult and argumentative, inflexible and quick to take offense. Even in a city used to dealing with temperamental artists, Borromini was an anomaly.

Yet when he invited death, at the last moment he rebuffed it. When it came, he found he was not ready. He would die as he had lived and worked: on his own terms and for his own convoluted and very personal reasons.

The few souls who did mourn his death -- his servants, his workers, a handful of friends -- were bewildered and grief-stricken by the self-destructive compulsions of the cavaliere. But for Borromini, there was a lucid, even poetic aspect to his suicide, just as there always was in his architecture -- though not everyone saw it or understood it.

The place where Borromini was burried, the church of Giovanni dei Fiorentini, is a traditional Roman neighborhood church. It is stately but not imposing, grave but not commanding, neither large nor magnificent in a city bursting with churches that are both. Commissioned in the sixteenth century by Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family, for the Florentines, who for generations lived in this neighborhood near the Tiber, San Giovanni stand near the north end of the Via Giulia, just where the river makes its lugubrious turn south. Begun in 1509 from a design by Jacopo Sansovino (before he left Rome for Venice) and built of traditional flat Roman brick (now gray with age and grime), San Giovanni is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. It sits in a part of Rome that by the nineteenth century had, in Émile Zola's words, "fallen into the silence, into the emptiness of abandonment, invaded by a kind of softness and clerical discretion."

Visiting the church, it's clear why it has been called "so large a church along so terrifying a river." It is wedged into a narrow sliver of land whose constricted dimensions must have demanded a good deal of resourcefulness from the builders: When it was built, its altar end jutted out over the Tiber's riverbed; the stone piers supporting it had to be sunk deep into the muddy shoreline. The result is a church that even now clings tenaciously to its place, like an old, nearly forgotten watchdog that knows he is no longer needed but nonetheless refuses to cede his place at the door.

San Giovanni's two noteworthy architectural details are its elongated, crownlike dome, designed much later by the preeminent architect in Rome at the time, Carlo Maderno, and early on nicknamed the confetto succhiato -- half-sucked sweet -- by residents of the neighborhood, and its curious lantern, a tall, cylindrical shaft of slender window that alternate with equally narrow stone buttresses coiled at their base like tightly wound ribbon. This unusual concoction was designed by a Lombard stonemason who worked as Maderno's assistant, a young man named Castelli, who soon began calling himself Francesco Borromini.

Borromini knew this church well. It was one of the earliest buildings he worked on with Maderno, and the church's grandiose Falconieri chapel -- its convex high altar, a fantasy in marmi mischi (precious materials of brick red travertine and gilding) that presses out onto the congregation -- celebrates John the Baptist. It was one of Borromini's last great commissions before he died.

For most of his life, Borromini lived in a house next to San Giovanni's high, unwelcoming walls; he was familiar with the fashionable Via Giulia, the boulevard created by Pope Julius II early in the sixteenth century, and the shadowy tangle of streets of small houses stuccoed in the traditional Mediterranean colors of ocher, umber, and dun that twist out from it like cracks in glass. He knew the sounds of shouting river workers and bickering shopkeepers, the lingering odors of fetid water and rotting garbage, just as he knew the traditions of rituals of San Giovanni, which included the annual Easter blessing of the lambs. His lonely figure -- always dressed in black, trunk makers, locksmiths, tailors, grocers, and booksellers who had shops throughout the area.

It was in this sestiere, in the house where he lived, soberly and alone, that Borromini died early on the morning of August 3, 1667. The Genius in the Design
Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome
. Copyright © by Jake Morrissey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsxiii
1The Beginning and the End1
2Talent and Ambition12
3The Perpetual and the Beautiful42
4A Collaboration in Bronze63
5The Circle and the Triangle96
6"Ignorant Persons and Copyists"120
7An Ox and a Deer141
8Ecstasy and Wisdom165
9A Pope's Renovations183
10Water and Disappointment201
11Affection and Caprices225
12Training the Eye to See244
13No Greater Favor, No Sadder End257
14A Legacy in Stone268
Selected Bibliography299

What People are Saying About This

Iain Pears

“Fascinating . . . a scintillating introduction to the Baroque. It is a splendid read

Laurence Bergreen

“GENIUS IN THE DESIGN reveals the dark side of 17th Century Italy with sparkling anecdotes and you-are-there immediacy”

Ross King

“In clear prose and with splendid touches of drama, history and architecture are both brought wonderfully to life.

Matthew Pearl

“Engrossing . . . You’ll never look at an important building the same way again.”

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Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a delectable appetizer to two masters of the Italian baroque, Francesco Borromini, technically a Swiss whose face graced the previous 100 Swiss Francs note (the current 10 Swiss Francs note pictures another architect appropriated by another country), and Gianlorenzo Bernini.In order to sell more book, the book is set up as a collision of two minds. The author only partially succeeds as Bernini was primarily a sculptor and Borromini an architect-engineer. Bernini is one of the last artist-architects who designed buildings without a proper education. As the number of his structural mishaps shows the evolution of a distinct profession of architect was a sound practice. Borromini, while trained as a stone mason, was an architect foremost, a specialist of constrained spaces and corrector of botched attempts of other architects. Their collision was often a controversial if fruitful collaboration.I wish the author had expanded the dirty parts. Bernini had a long affair with the wife of one of his employees. She also was involved with Bernini's brother. The raging betrayed betrayer Bernini nearly killed his brother. Not to be outdone in villainy, the brother later on sodomized a boy in the Vatican. Borromini meanwhile ordered a thiefing youth beaten, which the youth did not survive. Both Bernini and Borromini were absolved for their crimes by a lenient pope.This book is a good introduction, although one could easily switch to the heavily quoted individual biographies by Anthony Blunt (Borromini, even in the paperback edition not included in the bibliography) and Charles Avery (Bernini, concentrating on sculpture; this lavishly illustrated work is highly recommended).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent read on the art and architecture of Baroque masters Bernini and Borromini. If you are the least bit interested in the amazing personalities and technical marvels of the time, you will enjoy this book. If you need pictures, read Dr. Seuss.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'd give it less than one if I could. A book about 2 of the most important architects in history and they couldn't be bothered to put any pictures it the ebook edition. The print edition has just 4. What a rip off.