Introvert and bad-tempered, Switzerland-born Francesco Borromini was a true genius architect. Never shying away from challenges, even seeking them himself, quintessentially eccentric and brilliant, one of the most fascinating experiences in the city is to track and visit the unique masterpieces of Borromini in Rome. While not as ubiquitous as his eternal rival and peer artist Bernini, you can still find his original touch and imprint all around the city.
Holding dear the alternation of concave and convex that conveys a sense of movement and less austerity to the forms of buildings and facades, the style of Borromini in Rome is in large part unmistakable and unique.
In this article, you will discover what are his most famous masterpieces and also some less famous buildings and artwork that still make for a fascinating inclusion on your sightseeing bucket list.
Make sure you read our article on the best things to see and do in Rome.
Francesco Borromini, an underrated genius
Born in Bissone, today’s Canton Ticino in Switzerland, in 1599, very young he headed to Milan to work in the Fabbrica del Duomo with his uncle and in 1619 he had already landed in Rome called by Carlo Maderno, a far relative, to work in the Fabbrica di San Pietro in the Vatican.
The arrival of Borromini in Rome was welcomed with his introduction to the most important works going on in the city, including the project of Palazzo Barberini commissioned by Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII. But when Maderno died and Bernini was put in charge of the works, the rivalry between the two became more and more bitter and it seems that Bernini didn’t even pay Borromini for his work in Saint Peter.
According to 17th-century historian Filippo Baldinucci, author of the most important biography of Borromini, the architect was a sober, serious person with noble principles. He cherished his art and was very jealous of it. He considered his drawings and projects his own siblings and before dying he burned them all to avoid them to fall in the hands of his enemies who could wrongfully embezzle them.
Even though he did have several friends, including important names such as Pope Innocent X Pamphilj, his big fan and protector, Borromini in Rome was known as a painfully shy and surly at times.
The rivalry between Bernini and Borromini became so well-known that apart from the true events, many were the rumours that started circulating but that they have been systematically debunked by historians. While Bernini was an all-round artist, great sculptor, painter and architect, Borromini was a genius architect that always proved brilliant, especially when the works and project were particularly challenging.
Borromini died in August 1667 by suicide and one of his most famous masterpieces in Rome, the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, was completed by his nephew Bernardo three years later in 1670. Even though Borromini’s project, the small chapel in the local crypt that was reserved for him remained empty because the Spanish Trinitarians who originally commissioned the church, never accepted to house the body of someone who committed suicide.
Even though he had killed himself, Borromini was still buried in a sacred place, namely the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. This was due to the fact that since he didn’t die immediately, he had the time to regret his action and accepted to be administered the sacraments.
Where to See the Masterpieces of Borromini in Rome
Sant’Agnese in Agone
A truly spectacular church by Borromini in Rome, Sant’Agnese in Agone is located in Piazza Navona facing the monumental Four Rivers Fountain by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. As a matter of fact, Piazza Navona is one of the places in Rome where we can see the rivalry between Bernini and Borromini, two legendary artists in a perpetual, mutual one-upmanship. A rivalry, to rephrase Jake Morrissey, that shaped Rome.
The gorgeous church of Sant’Agnese in Agone goes sometimes unnoticed because tourists are more focused on the three fountains of this famous Rome square. If you are visiting Piazza Navona, do yourself a favor and climb the small staircase that leads to Sant’Agnese in Agone, the sight that will unfold before your eyes will be worth the time you’ll carve out of your sightseeing, even if you have limited time in Rome.
Built on the site of a more ancient church, during its restoration several architects and artists followed, mainly due to arguments and rivalries as well as the succession of popes and their relative art patronage. While the initial project by Borromini for the facade was modified by Carlo Rainaldi, who finished the work, the interior sacristy was made following a project by Borromini. Inside the church are the tombs of Pope Innocent X, Teresa Orsini Doria Pamphilj, as well as the head of Saint Agnes preserved in the San Filippo Neri Chapel.
- Where: Piazza Navona.
- When: Every day 9 am-1 pm and 3-7 pm (Saturday and Sunday until 8 pm). Monday closed.
Make sure you don’t miss our article on where to see the work of Bernini in Rome.
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
Not far from Piazza Navona, along Corso Rinascimento is another one of the most famous works of Borromini in Rome, the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. Many art historians agree that this is one of those revolutionary masterpieces that shaped the future of both sacred and secular architectural styles. There are also many who spot influences from other Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern buildings such as the funerary monuments in Baalbek in Lebanon and the Sassanid palaces of Bishapur in Iran, both built by ancient Romans so creating a fascinating cycle of connections between cultures and Continents.
The church is located inside the courtyard of Palazzo della Sapienza, Rome’s old university operative between the 15th to the 20th centuries. Borromini was nominated leading architect of the Sapienza by Pope Urban VIII Barberini and was put in charge of completing the project of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza church started by Giacomo della Porta.
To the already existent facade, Borromini added the upper part decorated with the coat of arms of the Chigi family as a tribute to Pope Alexander VII nominated in 1655 after Innocent X Pamphilj. The church was built between 1642 and 1660. One of the most beautiful Baroque churches in Europe, this is often considered Borromini’s highest masterpiece.
- Where: Corso del Rinascimento 40.
- When: Visits inside the church are temporarily suspended, so you can only enter the courtyard to see the facade and the exterior. Check the official website for updates.
Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
Another masterpiece of Borromini in Rome is the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane on the Quirinale hill. Probably because slightly far from the very historic center packed with artwork and overshadowed by the more famous nearby Quirinale Palace seat of the Italian President, San “Carlino” alle Quattro Fontane church, how it’s called in Rome because of its small size, is undeservingly underrated. If you are in the area, I totally recommend ducking into this sinuous building because truly stunning and an important piece of art within the Roman history and heritage.
After an initial phase between 1638 and 1642, and taking the project back into his hands right before his death in 1667, this church includes both early and late work by Borromini in Rome. In fact, while the oval-shaped interior is one of Borromini’s first projects in Rome, the exterior facade is his very latest. This part, the facade, completely reflects Borromini’s style with a fascinating interplay of concave and convex movements that continue in the bell tower with the large statue of San Carlo Borromeo by Antonio Raggi in its center.
- Where: Via del Quirinale 23.
- When: Every day 10 am-1 pm. Sunday closed.
Basilica di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte
Located in the very heart of the historic center between the Spanish Steps, Piazza Barberini and Fontana di Trevi, I have never seen the beautiful Sant’Andrea delle Fratte Basilica teeming with tourists. This important Catholic church is also called Madonna del Miracolo Sanctuary because in 1842 the Jewish lawyer Alfonso Ratisbonne saw the Virgin Mary and converted to Christianity.
Managed by the Order of the Minims since 1585, the works for a total restoration of the original, crumbling structure started in 1604 and Borromini took over between 1653 and 1655. The dome and the bell tower bear the unmistakable imprint of Borromini in the sinuous curvy movements and alternation of concave and convex that he liked so much.
Consisting of four overlapping parts supported by a squared base and a round-shaped belfry that reminds of the pagan round temples of Ancient Rome, this bell tower is considered a real pearl of Borromini’s architectural style. On the sides of the main altar are the two statues of angels carved by Bernini for Ponte Sant’Angelo but considered too beautiful to be exposed to the weather and preserved in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte Basilica instead.
- Where: Via di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte 1.
- When: Every day 7.30 am-1 pm and 4-7 pm (Sunday until 8 pm)
Oval Staircase of Palazzo Barberini
Palazzo Barberini, the notable residence of the powerful Barberini family today turned into Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica, is famous for the artwork it houses but also for its one-of-a-kind structure thanks to the collaboration of the leading architects of the time, Carlo Maderno, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and our own Francesco Borromini.
Some of the most memorable features are the two staircases of the palace, Bernini’s squared one and Borromini’s fantastic helicoidal masterpiece, complimentary to the former one. Located in the southern wing and leading to Cardinal Francesco Barberini’s rooms, this staircase was intended for a more private use than the other one and with the usual serpentine style, it’s believed to be one of the works of Borromini in Rome.
Each turn features 12 Doric columns topped by a capital decorated with the bees, the heraldic symbol of the crest of the Barberini family. When you visit Palazzo Barberini, you will see Bernini’s stairs at the beginning of your tour while you will exit the palace from Borromini’s helicoidal staircase.
- Where: Via delle Quattro Fontane 13.
- When: Tuesday to Sunday 10 am-6 pm. Closed on Monday.
Palazzo dei Filippini
Consisting of the cloister (convent) and the oratory, the complex of Palazzo dei Filippini is centrally located between Piazza della Chiesa Nuova, Via dei Filippini, Piazza dell’Orologio, and Via del Governo Vecchio right next to the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella.
The convent is characterized by more austere features and lines only interrupted by the clock tower, while the oratory, overlooking Piazza della Chiesa Nuova, shows more sinuous lines. With a facade decorated with half pilasters and Corinthian-style capitals, it is considered a masterpiece of the Baroque period.
- Where: Piazza della Chiesa Nuova.
- When: The library is open to visitors either with their own certified guide or with a local guide. All visits must be previously arranged by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Palazzo di Propaganda Fide
The Palace of the Propagation of Faith is very centrally located between the Spanish Steps and Piazza Barberini. Started by Bernini, Palazzo di Propaganda Fide was completed by Borromini in 1665 and is one of the highest examples of Baroque art in Rome.
The seat of the congregation for the evangelisation of the people founded in 1622 and led by the Jesuits, the palace shows a more austere style of Borromini’s previous work, even though clearly Borromini style with movements and two floors with seven large windows. Borromini worked also inside the palace and in 1666 he built the Oratory of the Magi Kings after demolishing the elliptical church of Bernini.
- Where: Via di Propaganda 1.
- When: Visits are temporarily suspended due to restoration works.
Located inside one of Rome’s most beautiful buildings, 16th-century Palazzo Capodiferro, Galleria Spada is famous for hosting a rich collection of Baroque paintings and for the wonderful optical illusion of the Colonnade, another one of the eccentric works of Borromini in Rome built in 1653.
Known as the “Perspective”, the Colonnade was commissioned by Cardinal Bernardino Spada and is considered one of the highest examples of Baroque optical illusion. This is in fact a small tunnel but you will feel like being staring in front of a long portico. Originally ending with a painting, in the 19th century it was added the statue of a warrior that even though it seems a giant against its painted background, it’s actually pretty small.
- Where: Piazza Capo di Ferro 13.
- When: Every day 8.30 am-7.30 pm (last entrance 7 pm). Closed on Tuesday.
Make sure you read our article about the most impressive and famous buildings in Rome.
Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle
Even though the entire project of this central basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle is not a work of Borromini in Rome, it’s believed that the famous architect was involved and employed as part of team for some of the decorations.
Summoned a few years earlier to Rome by his uncle Carlo Maderno, probably the main architect in Rome at the time, Borromini here carved the elegant capitals decorating the beautiful dome built by the same Maderno. The sophisticated capitals feature angels forming a spiral with their wings. One of Borromini’s earlier works in Rome that start giving the idea of his originality and thriving imagination.
- Where: Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.
- When: Every day 7 am-12.30 pm and 4-8 pm.
Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini
The natural and most meaningful end to your Borromini-themed tour of Rome should necessarily be at San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini church, not only because it houses some of his work but also because it’s here that you’ll see his final resting place.
Even though not one of the most famous churches in Rome, the construction of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini, the worship place in Rome devoted to the saint patron of Florence, saw a collaboration of some of the main artists of the time including Giacomo della Porta and Carlo Maderno, also buried here. In this church, Borromini designed and completed the majestic altar that enshrines the large sculptural group by Antonio Raggi and designed the oval-shaped chapel of the Falconieri family.
- Where: Via Acciaioli 2.
- When: Every day 7 am-12 pm and 5-6 pm (in summer until 7 pm).
Other Works by Borromini in Rome
Apart from the buildings and constructions that unequivocally carry the name of Francesco Borromini, this genius architect took part and collaborated in many other projects around Rome. Many of these projects are remembered only by the name of their main artist but it’s good to know that they are there for us to admire also thanks to the precious contribution of this introvert master architect.
- St. Peter’s Basilica. Borromini’s arrival in Rome was prompted by his uncle Carlo Maderno who called him to participate in the works of the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican so many of the works here have enjoyed his ability and architectural skills. One of the masterpieces we know for sure he took part in is the famous bronze canopy known as St. Peter’s Baldachin and which carries the name of Bernini as the main artist. Borromini was part of the team led by Bernini and it seems that he was the architect who fixed a structural problem overseen by Bernini that could have potentially been catastrophic.
- Palazzo Barberini. A bit the same goes for Palazzo Barberini. While we all know that the oval staircase is Borromini’s work, we shouldn’t forget that he was part of the construction team led also by his uncle Maderno so his contribution is all over the place here, too.
- San Giovanni in Laterano Basilica. The name of Borromini in Rome is also linked to a thorough restoration of the Basilica of Saint John in Lateran.
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