Architectural Unity and Rhetoric: The Patronage of Carlo Borromeo

As in the period that followed the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563), the Catholic Church has redefined herself following the Second Vatican Council. In both the sixteenth and twentieth centuries changes in church architecture accompanied reforms to the liturgy, and today we are still trying to come to terms with attempts to redefine our sacred space. One way to evaluate contemporary churches is to understand the model that so many of them react against, which had been developed after Trent. However historians still debate the significance of that historical architecture; indeed, they disagree about its very qualities. Some clarity may result from examining the buildings commissioned by Carlo Borromeo (1538 - 1584), the reforming archbishop of Milan. In addition to his colleges, seminaries and clerical residences, he commissioned the new construction or renovation of hundreds of churches throughout his vast archdiocese (fig. 1). Borromeo defined sacred space for the Catholic Church by developing a model that he realized in built form, and by communicating that model in written norms for churches and their furnishings. Many of his norms resulted from practical considerations, but Borromeo understood that architecture could contribute to worship. Surprisingly, the architecture of his churches ran the gamut from simple and functional to elaborate designs executed in the finest materials. This article will examine Borromeo’s thoughts on architecture to the extent that we can know them from his intellectual formation, his commissions, and his writings.

Borromeo was very much a child of the late Italian Renaissance. He was born into a cultural context in which the arts took inspiration from the achievements of ancient Rome, and patronage was a responsibility of the nobility. The comprehensive revival of ancient Roman art and learning in the fifteenth and earlier sixteenth centuries led architects to design “all’antica” architecture, or to utilize the classical principles and forms of Republican and Imperial Rome. Architecture looked different because of this cultural transformation, and it also meant something different: it became a vehicle for expressing the nature of the human condition. For religious buildings, the typologies, forms and motifs of the ancient architecture could form Christian churches that communicated something about humanity’s relationship with God and the structure of His Church.

Shown at prayer, Borromeo is surrounded by views of buildings for institutions that he either founded or supported. Photo Copyright Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan


With the exception of a few outstanding yet unfinished medieval buildings, it was a foregone conclusion that important buildings would have designs inspired by antiquity. However, there were differing modes of that architectural language that were current in Borromeo’s day. For example, many of the villas of Andrea Palladio (1508 - 1580) were rather simple yet well proportioned, and they respected the principles of all’antica architecture. The publication of Giacomo Vignola (1507 - 1573), Le Regole delle Cinque Ordini (Rome, 1562), precisely defined proportions and form for each architectural Order, and thereby fostered a strict approach to design. Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475 - 1564), on the other hand, creatively misused the Orders in the attempt to create something new; today such designs are often termed Manneristic. Although these modes elicited strong reactions from sixteenth century architects, they were options for both designers and patrons.

Born into a noble Lombard family and raised in Milan, Borromeo learned to view architectural patronage as one of his responsibilities. Northwestern Italy had been devastated by wars in the early sixteenth century, but Milan began to rebuild under the peace afforded by Hapsburg victory and rule. Although his family commissioned little during this period, Borromeo witnessed the architectural transformation of the city and the construction of several noteworthy monuments. Some of the most creative designs came from the drafting table of Galeazzo Alessi (1512 - 1572), an architect who had achieved fame designing sumptuous villas for the Genoese nobility. In Milan, buildings like the church of Ss. Paolo e Barnaba (fig. 2) and the Palazzo Marino demonstrated his skills in innovative planning and Mannerist design. Alessi introduced a different mode of all’antica architecture into Milan, and Borromeo surely took note.

Borromeo studied at the University of Pavia and immediately after his graduation he was called to Rome by his uncle, the recently elected Pope Pius IV (reigned 1559 - 1565). Although young and relatively inexperienced, Borromeo received important offices, high honors and enormous income from the new pontiff. Too young to be actually consecrated bishop (indeed, he had not yet been ordained a priest), Borromeo was named the administrator of the archdiocese of Milan. He also assumed a role in the secular government of the Papal States that approximates a modern secretary of state. Under Pius’ careful tutelage, Borromeo developed administrative capabilities and successfully handled tremendous amounts of work. He took on added responsibility as Pius reconvened the Council of Trent in 1561 and shepherded it to conclusion.

Facade of SS. Paolo e Barnaba. The layers of wall plane, and contrasting amount of decoration on different levels, typify Mannerist qualities in Alessi’s architecture. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto


While serious about reform, Pius sought to unite it with a revival of letters and arts. This set him apart from some other Catholic reformers of the era who eschewed intellectual or artistic endeavors in favor of enforcing ecclesiastical discipline or propagating devotional practices. Pius called many intellectuals to Rome to work in the Curia, participate in the publication of theological texts, and teach in the Roman university. Borromeo gathered some of those men into a symposium that he founded, the Noctes Vaticanae. The meetings consisted of orations or debates for the intellectual benefit of the participants, and they contain important concepts for the study of Borromeo’s patronage.

If we allow various, sometimes unconnected ideas to form a synthetic whole (as many scholars did during the Renaissance), then we can see how these orations inspired Borromeo. Some of the orators considered sight to be the most important sense or means of perception. They considered it to be the most spiritual of all the senses, suggesting that it informed the soul. For its part, the soul instinctively appreciated beauty. Admiring a beautiful object would lead to the contemplation of higher things: beauty was “a divine hook that entices a human being to draw him or her from earth to heaven, from the physical senses to intellectual ideas, from temporal existence to eternity.” The viewer would contemplate not physical but spiritual beauty, and then the source of all beauty.

Beauty could also lead one to virtuous action: “who, seeing the beauty of an angel on earth, would not follow him? Who would not decide to serve him, rather than be the leader of all humanity?” This was an effect not restricted to God’s Creation: “consider painting, sculpture, architecture, the movement of the stars and of the heavens, and of human beings; the world has such variety, and it is all judged by the eyes.” Architecture, then, was capable of affecting the soul, leading the viewer to contemplate the divine and conduct him- or herself in a consonant manner. This explained that fundamental concept that inspired all Renaissance architecture, a belief in its rhetorical capacity, or its ability to move the viewer to engage in virtuous actions. In reality, very little in the orations of the Noctes Vaticanae was entirely new; most of the ideas and themes originated in ancient Greek or Roman philosophy, and had been reiterated by Renaissance scholars and artists. Nevertheless, through the meetings of the symposium Borromeo became familiar with the ideas that provided the theoretical underpinnings of Renaissance architecture.

Perhaps more important than the theory was the example of the Pope’s patronage. Pius enthusiastically promoted building projects, continuing work on the most important papal commissions, overseeing the urban expansion of the city, embellishing existing buildings and endowing Rome with some of its most beautiful structures. He was known for selecting from among different designs for a project and personally scaling scaffolding on construction sites, giving evidence of his passion for architecture. Pius engaged the most renowned designers of his day, enjoying the prestige of employing great architects and commissioning great buildings. However, different architects designed in differing modes of all’antica architecture, and the Pope willingly allowed such variation. For Pius, patronage meant establishing a strong program, commissioning the work from a great architect, participating in the design process and allowing the designer’s creativity to achieve a noteworthy building.

Among the earliest parts of the building, the intricate tracery is characteristic of the florid Gothic architecture of the Milan Cathedral. Photo by John Alexander


Pius set an important example for Borromeo, and not surprisingly the young prelate followed a similar pattern of patronage in one of his earliest endeavors. As the administrator and future archbishop of Milan, Borromeo was technically in charge of the on-going construction and furnishing of the cathedral (fig. 3). Construction was effectively directed by a multi-tiered commission of cathedral canons and building professionals known as the fabbrica. The archbishop was not involved in all decisions, but the fabbrica sought Borromeo’s direction for selecting an artist to produce painted doors for the organ cabinets. Borromeo responded: “I would prefer . . . that the only considerations be for the usefulness and greater embellishment of the cathedral. In the selection of artists, you shouldn’t have any other criteria than their skill and capability.” Like architecture, contemporary painting had a variety of emphases and genres: Emilian sweetness or Venetian light and color, naturalistic or Manneristic. Borromeo did not favor any one particular mode, but rather—like Pius—he selected the best artist.

When Borromeo undertook his first large architectural commission, Pius actively participated in the process. Borromeo founded the Collegio Borromeo, a new educational institution affiliated with the University of Pavia, in October of 1561. Property was purchased, the building was designed (and then enlarged), and construction was underway all by the spring of 1565 (fig. 4). Borromeo had never commissioned a large project before, and not surprisingly his uncle, patron and mentor provided guidance. The documentation on the building demonstrates that Pope Pius approved the initial design and then called for the building’s enlargement.

Façade of the Collegio Borromeo, Pavia. The intricate pattern of the ground floor, and the complicated relationship between parts of the façade, indicate the Mannerist nature of Tibaldi’s architecture. Photo by John Alexander


Recent scholarship has also revealed that Pius selected Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527 - 1596) as the architect of the Collegio. The son of a Lombard mason, Tibaldi trained as a painter and then perfected his craft in the Mannerist workshops of Rome. He admired Michelangelo greatly, imitating his design process and promoting himself as a follower of that master. He pursued a painting career but soon began to undertake architectural and engineering projects. He designed and oversaw the construction of the Collegio from 1563 until the year following Borromeo’s death, when he left Milan to execute a fresco cycle in the library of the Escorial, outside Madrid. The finishing touches on the building were put in place before the end of 1589, by another architect.

The Pope might have considered a whole range of things when choosing the architect of his nephew’s building, but foremost among them must have been Tibaldi’s credentials and accomplishments. Pius commissioned work from Michelangelo, and he may have wanted the self-styled follower of that master to design buildings for his nephew. Both Pius and Borromeo had the opportunity to see some of Tibaldi’s work, and his evident skills promised even greater things. It seems unlikely that Pius would select an architect in order to promote any particular mode of all’antica architecture. Rather, Pius trusted Tibaldi to produce noteworthy designs that would attract attention in Milan and garner esteem for both Borromeo and the institution housed in the building.

One of Tibaldi’s most famous designs, San Fedele in Milan, built for the Jesuits, combined a creative interior spatial enclosure with a strong expression of the architectural Orders. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto


The Collegio Borromeo was unprecedented in scale for a college building, and an outstanding example of Mannerist design. Borromeo obviously valued Tibaldi’s capabilities; indeed, he continued to request work from him for the rest of his life. He appointed Tibaldi to be the capo maestro of the fabbrica for Milan’s cathedral and gave him responsibility for a number of projects including renovation of the archiepiscopal palace, design and construction of the cathedral’s canonry, and a wide variety of responsibilities for numerous churches in the archdiocese of Milan. Tibaldi became renowned as an architect of churches: he designed the church of S. Fedele (fig. 5) for the Jesuits, and for the civic government he designed S. Sebastiano, a votive church offered in thanksgiving for the end of the plague. Tibaldi operated in a variety of architectural modes that were all based upon ancient Roman architecture. Some of his designs were classical in their expression (albeit with a light, airy structure of the architectural Orders) and some were more Manneristic in their creative misuse of the details. Yet Borromeo did not employ Tibaldi to propagate Mannerism; neither Pius’ example, Borromeo’s stated criteria nor the variety of Tibaldi’s design modes allow us to believe that Borromeo tied his patronage to an architectural language. Rather, he sought to honor the group or institution housed in the building, or its purpose, with an appropriate richness of material and quality of design.

Borromeo was never a lax Catholic or a libertine. However, he held some typical Renaissance views about the noble status of the ecclesiastical hierarchy: he lived as a Prince of the Church and used his wealth and status to promote his family. Unfortunate events in his own life, consideration of the reforms discussed at Trent, and the influence of truly holy men led Borromeo to reevaluate his life. He arrived at a new understanding of his vocation and sought ordination and consecration as archbishop of Milan in 1563. He dedicated himself to reforming the Church and hoped to enact changes through pastoral roles. But he had become indispensable to the Pope and had to continue in his administrative posts in Rome. Only after Pius’ death could Borromeo return to Milan definitively in order to serve as the resident archbishop. His fulfillment of that office was guided by the Tridentine decrees that confirmed specific responsibilities of the episcopal office, including care for church buildings, their furnishings and the artwork contained therein. Many churches in and around Milan were in deplorable states of neglect, and Borromeo undertook a program of visiting each church in his vast archdiocese. Depending on the conditions of the building—the soundness of its structure, its ability to withstand the elements, the organization of the interior and its furnishings—he made a series of demands for renovations or additions. Since the amount of work was great, Borromeo (ever the administrator…) established one commission of priests to conduct the evaluative visits, and another to oversee the architectural changes.

First and foremost, Borromeo had very practical concerns. He wanted the churches to be solid and weatherproof; he wanted the interior spaces to house adequately the sacred rites, and to permit an unimpeded view of the main altar. However, as he continued with the visitations and the alterations to the buildings, Borromeo gained experience. This process had two important outcomes. First of all, the churches began to conform to a standard model in their configuration and furnishing. Side chapels and the baptismal font had discrete settings, but the interior would focus on the main altar—adequately sized and in an appropriate space that was carefully delineated from the rest of the church—which was the setting for the tabernacle. Prior to Borromeo’s efforts, there were various forms and settings for the eucharistic repository, but placing it on the main altar was not a universal practice. The young archbishop apparently considered the options in light of Catholic dogma and piety and decided that the main altar was the only appropriate place to reserve the consecrated host.

Façade of San Raffaele, Milan. Although the upper level was completed later, the design of the lower level constitutes one of Tibaldi’s most creative designs for church façades. Photo by Mario Marinoni


Historically, worship occurred in any one of a number of spatial configurations in which architectural features, and didactic or devotional artwork designated the sacred purpose of the interior. Borromeo assumed that the tradition would continue, but he further developed it by adapting it to the theology about the Eucharist, clearly defining a single model. Borromeo made the tabernacle the devotional center of a church, or that which gave the building its particular sanctity. The standard setting for the tabernacle—on the central axis of the space, elevated on the main altar, located in an ample chancel delineated by steps and an enclosing railing (later substituted by the communion rail), identified and accompanied by a lit sanctuary lamp and sacred images—became sacred space. A church was sacred not only because it was consecrated and housed holy acts, but also because it was the setting in which the Divine resided. Over time, Borromeo’s church interior came to serve as an architectural sign for the presence of the divine.

Detail from the façade of San Raffaele, Milan


The architectural language of Borromeo’s churches varied, both in quality and in genre. In general, church buildings required the best possible design, materials and craftsmanship because they housed the sacred rites and were offerings to God. However, the status of the church and the resources available affected the architecture greatly. The cathedral in Milan was clearly at the apex of the hierarchy, and so it deserved the very best. Urban churches such as San Raffaele (the facade of which Tibaldi designed for the archdiocese; figs. 6 and 7) were also important and deserving of lavish materials and outstanding design. However, the parishes in small towns or rural locations might not warrant (and often could not afford) sumptuous churches. Many of then received rather basic but sound, weatherproof and well-ordered buildings. Adding to that variety, the historical context demanded all’antica architecture for almost all buildings (and certainly for all new buildings), but the mode of classicism could vary. Despite divergent architectural expressions, Borromeo’s churches changed the context by providing a new model for sacred space.

The second important outcome of this process was a published set of norms for church architecture, the Instructionum Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae (Milan, 1577). Divided into two sections, the first part addressed the building and its furnishings (while the second listed the necessary vestments, texts and vessels). Borromeo and his administrators wrote the book to communicate the new standard for sacred space. It codified what Borromeo had come to understand through observation and practical experience. It communicated specific, detailed requirements for the building, itself, as well as for a number of features such as baptismal fonts, pulpits and confessionals. Borromeo devoted great attention to the setting of the Mass, down to the niche that held the cruets and basin. It should be in the wall to one side of the altar, and

“...when possible, it should be lined in marble or some other durable stone. It should be two “cubits” above the pavement, with a width of sixteen “ounces” and a height of twenty-four [“ounces”]. Furthermore it should be divided in two, transversely, by a shelf of marble or stone. The lower part will serve for disposing of the water used for washing the hands of the priest who celebrates the Mass. That part, therefore, should have a small drain through which the water can flow into a small cistern created below. The upper part will serve for placing the cruets and the basin during the Mass.”


Borromeo carefully defined features or aspects of the church interior, such as the steps distinguishing the chancel or side chapel from the nave, the minimum space required to either side of an altar, the location of windows, etc.

Choir of the cathedral in Milan. By mentally removing the recently added ambo and cathedra (and the semicircular platforms on which they stand), and by moving the altar back to the base of the baldacchino that covers the tabernacle, one can imagine Borromeo’s definition of sacred space. Photo Copyright Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano, Milan


Borromeo’s text demonstrates an obvious attention to practical concerns, but he invented little to nothing in his specific demands for spaces, configurations or furnishings. He knew the traditional options from personal experience or investigation. He evaluated them, perfected the form of some furnishings, insisted upon decent spatial settings for each liturgical function, and established a standard set of components. Borromeo’s particular contribution was in organizing those selected elements into a new standard, producing extremely detailed norms for churches and their furnishings, utilizing the printing press to disseminate his achievements, and insisting consistently upon their realization.

The text suggests that architectural unity was a concern. When there was to be a distinct building for the baptistery, Borromeo demanded a building “of noteworthy structure and in a style coherent with that of the church itself.” Similarly, the belfry should be in a form that “follows the criteria of the construction of the church and the characteristics of the surroundings.” In terms of architectural language, Borromeo made many of the typical assumptions of his day. He noted the need for the services of a competent architect on a number of architectural matters, and such an architect would—in sixteenth-century Italy—have certainly designed in one of the classical modes. In addition, Borromeo looked back to the first centuries of the faith, drawing upon the writings of the Fathers of the Early Church as well as the example of ancient basilicas. Although they lacked the structural complexity or spatial magnificence of great imperial buildings of the second or third centuries, the ancient churches did have porticoes and nave colonnades constructed with the architectural Orders. Developing upon those architectural models presumed that the new churches would also be built in an all’antica language.

However, Borromeo’s explicit promotion of classical architecture was rather weak: “It is not prohibited, however, for the greater stability of the building (if architectural criteria suggest it), [to include] some structure with the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, or some other Order.” Indeed, Borromeo intentionally avoided discussion of many architectural issues: “We wanted to avoid any discussion of the multiple forms of construction of church buildings . . . that . . . are rarely used or that necessarily require the judgment and counsel of people [who are] highly competent in architectural knowledge.” He allowed architects to make many decisions. After noting that the Instructionum would only treat the design of furnishings necessary for celebrating the sacraments and their settings, he stated that “the other topics are wisely explained in an exhaustive and useful manner by architectural theorists.” It appears that Borromeo had read a few treatises, and was obviously well schooled in architectural matters. While certainly a child of the Renaissance, he did not make a program of uniting architectural language to his reforming endeavors.

Implementing such clear goals might appear to be a straightforward process, but two important examples demonstrate just how complex it actually was. The cathedral in Milan was still under construction throughout Borromeo’s life, with the piers and vaulting of the nave continuing to be built in the Gothic idiom defined by the preexisting work. However, Borromeo had Tibaldi completely redefine the choir in the cathedral’s apse. The result was a complex configuration of a crypt and new, elevated choir in which was located the altar and tabernacle, all enclosed by choir stalls, organ lofts and paired pulpits (fig. 8). The architectural language for these furnishings—as for most of the non-structural interior work—was Tibaldi’s Mannerism, which seems odd when one considers Borromeo’s call for stylistic unity in the Instructionum. Whatever the architectural language of the church building, a different language was obviously permissible for the furnishings. Borromeo may have appreciated the ability of Mannerism to gather the attention of the viewer, impress him or her and thereby achieve the goals of church architecture.

Like the cathedral, Borromeo’s first commission from Tibaldi—the Collegio Borromeo—was also under construction throughout his episcopacy. In the early 1570s, as demanded by the progress of construction, Tibaldi devised a detailed design for the chapel that included four freestanding columns in the nave. That would have been a lavish display of ornament, as appropriate for the space’s purpose. However, the design was altered slightly and the columns were not erected in the space (figs. 9 and 10). Neither patron nor architect recorded the reason for their omission, but the freestanding columns would have impeded the visibility of the altar, which was a crucial criterion for the patron. For Borromeo, practical concerns could sometimes trump architectural considerations.

The variety among the examples and apparent contradictions between the Instructionum and the built works may make it difficult to see any consistency in Borromeo’s endeavors. However there were a few goals that took precedence over all others. Borromeo desired church buildings that i) had an adequate volume and distribution of space to house the sacred functions, ii) presented an adequate offering to God and iii) engaged the viewer and inspired him or her to devotion and fidelity. The idea that a beautiful building with lavish furnishings was an offering that was pleasing to God, or that such was required to adequately house the sacred rites, had a long tradition. The degree of enrichment, or perhaps the understanding of what was appropriately lavish, had been challenged in the past, most notably by the early Cistercians who preferred an unadorned yet wonderfully designed and proportioned interior. The basic concepts behind the traditional notion came under attack during the sixteenth century, and Catholic apologists had to defend the practice against the criticism of Protestant reformers. Catholics insisted upon the antiquity of the tradition, as did Borromeo in passing references in his Instructionum. Borromeo also inherently agreed that architecture could be an offering to God. In the introduction, addressed to the clergy and laity in his ecclesiastical province, Borromeo assured them that by following the example of ancient patrons of beautiful churches (and by applying his norms), “you . . . will receive from the Lord, who is generous and attentive to good people, a most pleasing and eternal reward.”

The beauty of a church would stand out in the context, drawing attention to itself and its purpose. Since architectural beauty could function as a “divine hook,” leading the viewer to contemplate higher things, then the architecture of a church, in particular, could have a rhetorical purpose. It could bring the viewer to recognize the significance of the sacred rites housed in the structure, and inspire him or her to greater piety. Likewise, the standard form that one would have encountered upon entering one of Borromeo’s churches—the visually open, well-ordered interior that focused attention upon the tabernacle—became recognizable as sacred space. The viewer would have been encouraged to think and act accordingly, leaving behind his or her daily concerns, acting with reverence for the Real Presence housed in the tabernacle, and fulfilling religious duties.

Chapel of the Collegio Borromeo, Pavia. Although richly ornamented with the architectural Orders, the space lacks the complexity which free-standing columns would have added to the chapel. Photo Permission of the Collegio Borromeo


The Renaissance, in general, pursued development by returning to authoritative sources, and many theologians and reformers sought to improve the Church by drawing inspiration from the earliest days of the Christian era. Yet for all the renewed interest in the ancient sources, the New Testament and the first century of the Christian era offered little in the way of architectural models for churches. However, the churches dating from the fourth and fifth centuries—most notably the Roman basilicas—were known and studied, and they could justify traditional practices. Borromeo was a precocious proponent of studying the Early Church for contemporary solutions; for example, he drew inspiration from the seating in ancient basilicas for the design of Milan cathedral’s choir as early as 1564. Not surprisingly, in his Instructionum he looked back nostalgically to the “ancient piety and religion of the faithful” that manifested itself in the construction of beautiful churches. Those venerable basilicas could inspire a longitudinal plan in contemporary churches, with an atrium or a portico. And since those ancient churches were built using the architectural Orders, it seems inevitable that Borromeo’s churches would, as well. However, Borromeo did not make a program of joining the design of churches to an architectural language. This is not to say that he was unaware of the expressive potential of all’antica architecture. However, he sought to address a pressing need, prioritizing the religious goals without strictly defining the architectural language.

Borromeo’s text responded to contemporary needs, and was in many ways a product of his times. Nevertheless, the underlying principles are timeless and therefore may continue to direct architectural design today. Borromeo knew that the architecture of churches should fulfill a practical purpose, create recognizable sacred space, and inspire people to devotion and fidelity. These principles present a challenge to architects in the twenty-first century. An interior that not only houses acts of worship but also serves as a setting for the Divine requires some shared understanding about what is sacred, and the way that architectural features can serve as a metaphor for holy things. During the last forty years, efforts to emphasize the communal aspects of the Eucharist have often been achieved at the expense of recognition for the Divine Presence in the consecrated host. Priests and building committees sometimes lost sight of what created the community of believers in the first place—a shared but personal experience of epiphany. Their architects avoided the traditional definition of sacred space and provided assembly halls instead. Far too often church design reflected a twentieth-century iconoclasm that left older generations yearning for what was lost, and younger generations searching for the sacred.

The very idea that visual perception can inspire is complicated today because we are over stimulated visually from the television, the internet and movies. This condition can mitigate the awe instilled by any perception of beautiful architecture and decoration. Specifically for architecture, the lack of a unified cultural context renders communicating by means of forms or motifs difficult. An architect can not assume that a language will be understandable to all viewers, much less bear the intended meaning, and that makes it more difficult to “reach” a broad audience. Furthermore, many of the modern and post-modern architectural options of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries can impress, bedazzle or pique the curiosity, but can they inspire? With nihilistically inspired juxtapositions of curves, angles and jagged edges, one wonders about the efficacy of many contemporary modes of design to create spaces for Catholic worship.

Chapel of the Collegio Borromeo, Pavia. Photo by John Alexander, published with permission of the Collegio Borromeo


These are certainly challenging times, requiring both great patrons and great architects. We need informed patrons who will—as Borromeo did centuries ago—evaluate the options and establish recognizable models for sacred space that take into consideration the eternal truths of the faith and contemporary objectives. Yet Borromeo left many decisions up to the informed judgment of the architect. We need capable architects to give form to those models in a way that will inspire people. It is the architect, working with the clear program of the patron, who must respond to the current challenges and give form to sacred space.

John Alexander is an architectural historian (Ph.D., University of Virginia, 2001) who concentrates on the architectural patronage of Carlo Borromeo, and the architecture of the post-Tridentine Catholic Church.  Fellowships and teaching positions afforded him several years in Rome, and his research takes him back to Milan and northern Italy regularly; since 2006 he has been on the faculty in the Department of Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio.