An Architect’s Delightful Capriccio

Three years ago, Kerry Downes published a compilation of at least thirty years of organization, analysis, and interpretation: Borromini’s Book. The first merit of Professor Downes’s book is his English translation of Borromini’s Opus Architectonicum, subtitled in English, The Oratory and Roman House of the Congregation of the Oratory of S. Philip Neri. The candid account by Francesco Borromini and Virgilio Spada of vissicitude and success is essential reading for paradigmatic architects and readers interested in Catholic churches. Downes’s clear translation greatly extends access to this fascinating account of Borromini’s twelve-year involvement in design and building for the Oratorians from 1637 to 1649.

The thirty-eight year old Francesco Borromini was asked to devise a holistic monastic complex in Rome to the west of San Filippo Neri’s Santa Maria in Vallicella, a church completed in 1606. The Oratorian priest, Virgilio Spada, was unaware of Borromini initially, but soon became an invaluable patron. Spada’s politically and socially astute sophistication about architecture helped Borromini achieve a rich and complex structure, despite incremental construction. Spada’s diplomacy within his religious community also kept the temperamental architect working—due to his ability to explain the plans and pacify his brothers.

In 1647 Spada, ever modest and prudent, became an unacknowledged co-author for Borromini’s account of planning and construction. In the Opus, he also helped provide passionate descriptions of an architect’s job creating unity from a multitude of requirements. Although the autograph text and illustrations were not published until 1725, in the long run this proved beneficial. Despite the almost sixty-year delay after Borromini’s death, the type-set text and large-scale engravings illustrating the Oratorians’ house in great detail, rekindled enthusiasm for complexity and curvilinear form in ecclesiastical architecture. A generation of architects born in the 1680s in Rome, Piedmont, Germany, and Bohemia, reanimated the lively and meaningful ideas of Borromini and his contemporaries. The 1725 monograph provided an opulent and precise presentation of Borromini’s words and images that took advantage of new typographical developments. The Opus provides the most extensively detailed account and visual documentation of Borromini’s many buildings.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Oratorian complex was taken by the national government; only a few areas were retained by the Oratorians. Despite this takeover, the Oratorian structures remain essentially unaltered, thanks to the appreciation and decorum of generations of Italians. When in Rome, I suggest polite requests to see as much as possible via Borromini’s portal between the Church and Oratory façade, although many areas are closed to visitors.

Downes follows his translation with crisp reproductions of the 1725 publication. Images are arranged at different scales to help comprehension of its many components. Plates 61 through 64, for example, show plans, section/elevations, and perspective details of the relationship between the ground-level Refectory and the Recreation Room above it. These are followed by a sumptuous engraving of the beautiful marble fireplace in the Recreation Room. The mantel is surmounted by a fluted tent-like funnel that conveys the flue to the chimney. Of mid-seventeenth century Roman architects, only Borromini would have exercised such a provocative concept. Below a curvaceous horizontal cornice, his sculptors carved a hanging valence of alternating rectangles and squares, separated by voids for hanging ropes finished with knots and tassels. These are rectilinear versions of the bronze pelmets Borromini designed with Bernini for the baldachino at Saint Peter’s in 1630. The whole composition alludes to a type of campaign tent devised by the Ottomans and emulated by their European foes.

Fireplace at the Sala di Recreazione. Photo: Paolo Portoghesi’s Francesco Borromini, Milan: Electa Editrice, 1967 & 1984.

Two factors made this imaginative undertaking possible for the still-new confraternity who desired modesty and fiduciary responsibility. First, while the carving was expensive, the material was gratis. A huge hunk of white marble was discovered during excavations for foundations on the site. This block of stone had been transported but not used in ancient Roman times. Second, Borromini complains in the Opus about Oratorian restrictions on ornament in general, “And if in anything I exceeded a little bit the rule prescribed to me I heard grumbling for some time.” In the Ricreazione mantel, Borromini, perhaps with Spada’s diplomacy, was allowed to leverage the fortuitous stone into a delightful capriccio by carving in relief symbols dear to San Filippo on the square flaps: florid lilies, many-pointed stars, and flaming hearts. Hanging from a tent, these flaps would move with the winds, but in an architectural pun, the solid flaps mimic the canonical sequence of triglyphs on a Doric frieze, just as we see them on that paragon of stability, the Parthenon.

Borromini explains in the same section on ornament that, “among the rules prescribed to me by the Fathers was one that required frugality…relaxing the rein somewhat only in matters pertaining to divine worship…to the point that in dealing with the façade of their House they did not want it to be made with a facing of cut bricks…or bands of travertine… They aimed above all things at moderation.” In his penetrating study, Borromini and the Roman Oratory, Joseph Connors found wide latitude in congregational opinions on what constitutes moderation. Nevertheless, many secular areas are composed in remarkable Borrominian forms executed with simple materials. Because the Oratorians allowed the sacred functions to be visually-elevated, the south façade representing the Oratory is extremely sophisticated. The mass is appreciably smaller than the travertine church and it is built primarily of brick. Borromini extended the datum line of the Corinthian columns and entablature of the church westward. This device created basic unity between the buildings. His imaginative simplification of Corinthian details on the Oratory conveys the inferiority of the Oratory-to-Church hierarchy, however, only in theory. I would compare this architectural achievement to the stimulating infusion the Oratorians gave to European music by introducing sacred oratories, developed from San Filippo’s liturgical practices, into highly effective compositions. These new forms of melodious proselytizing were the functions that required superb acoustics for preaching and sung sacred dramas.

Kerry Downes’s massive work follows the pioneering publications on Borromini by Paolo Portoghesi, Christian Norberg-Schulz, and Joseph Connors. Downes’s book is 536 pages long and has a practical ingenuity. The English translation takes about forty pages; opposite each page is an unusual, but handy, forty pages of footnotes proximate to the text. Many of these pages display vignette diagrams of related building parts and precedents.

The rest of the book illustrates Borromini’s known sources. These include, for example, the juxtaposition of hand-drawn Michelangelo and Borromini profiles on page 387 and an important set of photographs of Palazzo Mattei by Borromini’s mentor, Carlo Maderno, on pages 394-395. Many photographs in the color “Prequel” and the black-and-white “Sequel” to the translation of the Opus are blurred and discolored. Accepting this, one appreciates the devotion of a specialist of the eighteenth-century English Baroque who has been fascinated by Oratorian culture and charism since childhood. Since Borromini’s book and his buildings have had perennial impact on Catholic architecture and music, Professor Downes has bestowed a great gift.

I am delighted that a magnificent new book focuses on the works and text of an incomparable architect who has been a hero to me for decades and whose buildings I recommend as paradigms for students of classical architecture.

Thomas Gordon Smith, AIA, is principal of the firm Thomas Gordon Smith Architects and is professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His design work at a Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma, a seminary in Nebraska and other ecclesiastical and civic projects can be seen at www.tgsarchitect.com