Santa Maria della Pace (Pietro da Cortona ) and the S. Ivo alla Sapienza (Borromini)
At the end of this short street you will see the Santa Maria della Pace. The original church was built by Pontelli for Sixtus IV in 1480. The church was built as a token of gratitude for the peace with Florence, hence the name pace (peace). In the mid-16th century, Pope Alexander VII wanted to radically renovate this section of the district that was difficult to negotiate for horses and carriages. Three narrow streets (Vicolo della Volpe, Arco della Pace and the Via della Pace) converged where Pontelli had built the church, with two of them leading to the busy Piazza Navona.
|Vicolo della Volpe|
Pietro da Cortona was commissioned to address the situation. The first thing this architect did was demolish some of the houses, as can still be seen on this old drawing by Cortona. This created the space he needed to build a square that would offer carriages an opportunity to make a turn or comfortably drive past the church.
Pope Alexander VII
Cortona deliberately marked out the square and made the portico project deeply into it. To a visitor entering the square, it would appear they were already inside the church. The unity of square and church is also emphasized by the fact that the facades of the houses in the square match the façade of the church. The houses all have two floors with a final low third floor, the attic. The cornice and parapet of this attic floor along the houses continue at the wings and are repeated in the concave rear wall of the church. The curved ‘walls’ that ‘belong’ to the houses are also articulated by the pilasters that can be seen on the top floor of the church. So the church is a separate entity but also forms part of the square.
|Santa Maria della Pace
map of the church
| Santa Maria della Pace
Façade and adjoining buildings
|Tempietto and the portico of the Santa Maria della Pace
The curved lines that Borromini used for some of his facades give the impression that they embrace the urban space. In reality, this is hardly ever the case with the exception of the arms of St Peter’s and the façade of Cortona’s Santa Maria della Pace. This façade, which forms the backdrop to the square, as if it were a theatre, consists of several elements. The top of the façade is almost an exact copy of Cortona’s SS. Luca e Martina: a church that Cortona had built earlier. And then there is the projecting portico, a reference to Bramante’s Tempietto.
Bear in mind that the inner courtyard (left of the Santa Maria della Pace) was also designed by Bramante. Here, his little round temple has become a half temple compressed into an ellipse. Just like Bramante’s Tempietto, it was built in a location that is always in shadow. It represents everything that this façade does not want to be, namely an isolated building in an inner courtyard. And yet, the enclosure formed by the inner courtyard is crucial to Bramante’s little temple, and this also goes for the portico of the Santa Maria della Pace. Cortona’s temple, however, is not isolated in this space: it is directly affected by and connected to the facades in the square.
So something strange is happening here as a result of the combination of a classical Bramante Tempietto with – at the time – modern Baroque. Pietro Cortono places Baroque and Classical language in direct opposition, and this, of all places, in the classically oriented city of Rome.
If you look to the left and right of the church, you will see two passages in the walls to two narrow streets leading to the Piazza Navona. After discussing the façade and the square, we will enter the church. We will look at a famous fresco by Raphael that can be seen above the first chapel on the right. There is another extraordinary painting of the Virgin Mary here by an unknown artist. This painting used to hang in an old chapel that was here before the church was built. A drunken soldier pierced the painting with his sword, exactly through the Virgin Mary’s heart. Immediately a thick jet of blood squirted out of the Madonna’s chest. Such a painting naturally was given a prominent place in this church, right above the main altar. Lastly, we will take a look at the courtyard of Bramante’s monastery.
Inner courtyard Santa Maria della Pace
We pass under the passage to the immediate right of the church and enter a narrow street with on the right an originally Dutch church: de Santa dell’Anima (clic here for a map). The Dutch Pope Adrian VI lies buried here in a tomb designed by Peruzzi.
This church was built in 1386 and, among other purposes, used to provide a bed to poor Dutch pilgrims. The church is now shared with the Germans and Austrians. For more information on this church see Wikipedia. We enter the Piazza Navona and turn left into the Corsia Agonale and immediately turn right into the Corso del Rinascimento, where we will find an old university with a famous church.
Palazzo della Sapienza and the S. Ivo alla Sapienza
entrance Palazzo della Sapienza
The entrance of the Palazzo della Sapienza with the famous church Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza lies to the east, for tourists that is. On our way there, we will look at a beautiful little fountain designed by Borromini. You can tell by the books that this is a university.
This church is a revolutionary design, just like the San Carlino. Borromini’s architecture was not appreciated by most of his contemporaries. Bernini used the word chimera for his rival’s work, a figment of the imagination. The word stems from the name of a mythical monster, that has the body of a man, but the head of a bird. This was a very serious reproach considering that ever since the ancient Greeks architecture had been based on the human form, and that proportions were determined by the width of the column. Even after the Renaissance, the modular system for achieving symmetry (Vitruvius) was used as a starting point in architecture, but you were already told this in class. Borromini’s architecture was based on the classics and contemporary Baroque, but not on Vitruvius. There is one crucial point at which he deviates from a time-honoured tradition. Borromini broke away from the anthropomorphic approac (click here if you want to know more about this approach) to architecture. In designing a building such as the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, he used, as we have seen in the San Carlino, geometric patterns that slide into each other in order to derive new shapes from the old ones. For instance, the shape of the dome of the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza was determined by a geometric design.
|interior Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza|
|Lantern and dome|
pictures: Robert Baldwin
There are also essential differences between the architecture of Borromini and Bernini. Bernini sometimes used a basic shape such as the oval in the Sant Andrea Quirinale, but did not embroider on it to arrive at a completely new lay out, or to determine the shape of other parts of the building. Bernini fits in with the classics and a long tradition in the history of architecture. The niche above the door of the San Carlino is a good example of another difference between Borromini and Bernini. Borromini used herms that take the form of cherubs whose wings form a sort of triumphal arch around the statue of St Borromeo. Here, sculpture is completely in the service of architecture. Quite something different from the statue of St Andrew that tells its own story in coherence with the painting above the main altar. The statue of this saint is no way connected to the architecture. Here you can see the niche above the door of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane with a statue of the holy Charles Borromeo by Antonio Raggi. This means that the old classical calculations of the column’s diameter and the golden section that you saw at the Pantheon were thrown overboard. This also explains why not only the contemporaries of this self-willed architect strongly criticised his work, but later generations also. There was always admiration as well, but often as part of diatribes against all kinds of elements in his architecture that were considered wrong. Borromini’s work wasn’t really appreciated until after World War II.
|Borromini got his inspiration from two important sources:
1. Classical architecture
2. Michelangelo Buonarroti
Classical architecture has long been identified with Vitruvius’ rather strict and conservative ideas. And yet, there have been many buildings and architects in Rome, including Hadrian and his villa in Tivoli (see day 2, or under menu) who used fantastic and exuberant elements and constructions. In the day of August and Flavius capitals and plinths were used that deviated strongly from the Greek rules, as you have already seen in the capitals that Augustus used for his imperial forum.
Santa Maria Maggiore
This chapel was revolutionary and exerted great influence on the Baroque and more specifically on Borromini. Michelangelo’s design deviates fundamentally from Renaissance architecture on three basic principles. Renaissance architecture assumed that each room was a separate space in its own right. If you look at the diagram (number three) on the floor plan, you will see the rooms are not clearly defined. On the contrary, some of these rooms merge into one another. This can be seen quite clearly in the two rooms where the altars have been placed opposite each other. The space under the central dome was not clearly defined as separate from the two rooms to its left and right. In the space under the dome two piercing columns suggest a demarcation, but do not clearly mark it out.
Another construction principle is the placement of the pairs of columns facing the central domed room. These columns were placed under a 135-degree angle relative to the central axis, which makes them pierce the space like dangerous thorns. And finally, Michelangelo deviates from the classical cruciform layout. The central unit, the domed room, is no longer situated in the middle, but has been moved to the entrance, allowing Buonarroti to achieve a nearly impossible combination of a Greek cross and a central design.
As we enter the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, we will see that Borromini was inspired by Michelangelo’s Sforza Chapel. First we are going to take a look at the inner courtyard of this university named Sapienza, which is now being used as an office space. Architects Pirro Ligorio and Giacomo della Porta built this university in the 16th century. In 1632, when the building had no yet been completed, Borromini is commissioned to finish it. The eastern façade (where we entered), the library and the church still had to be built. Borromini rejected the church his predecessors had designed because he felt it resembled a fortress and was too dull. Borromini wanted to change the western façade (see below), but could not make it happen. It would have costed too much money to demolish the recently constructed façade. Borromini’s design has survived. He wanted two entrances instead of the one central entrance we see today, because it would have presented the visitor with a beautiful vista along the colonnade of the inner courtyard, an idea that Borromini was able to realise for the eastern facade. You can see three pages with excellent images of the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza on the Bluffton University site.
Design of the western facade
|Giovanni Battista Falda
Palazzo della Sapienza gravure 1665
The church is located at the end of the inner courtyard. When you enter the university (originally always from the western side) you will immediately notice the concave inner façade.
|Inner courtyard: ground floor and first floor
pictures: promich and Eye light
|concave facade of the S. Ivo alla Sapienze
|Palazzo della Sapienza and the facade of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza|
picture: Viplav Nigam
Just like Bernini faced strong limitations when he built the Scala Regia, Borromini faced restrictions in building this church. The Courtyard was already there and the concave shape had also already been decided by Giacomo della Porta. Also, the nearly square plot was rather small for a church (the floor plan of the Sapienza with the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and the floor plan of the church). Despite all these limitations, Borromini succeed in building a unique and imaginative church based on a central design. This form was being strongly propagated by the church ever since the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent was a meeting of church leaders at which they decided to reorganise the church to counter the growing support for Luther and Calvin. During the Council’s many meetings, rules were also drawn up for art, rules that would profoundly affect the Baroque. The Sapienza was a university where theology took a front seat. In addition to preaching and the reading of psalms, fierce theological debates were held. A small church where students could sit in a circle was the perfect space for preaching or debate.
Borromini used the experience he had gained building the San Carlino and the oratory to design a basic geometric pattern that would define the whole church. As always, he started from simple shapes that he elaborated into a complex pattern. Just like with the San Carlino, he started with two equilateral triangles, which this time were not superimposed, but slid into each other. He next drew circles at various points that changed the six vertices into convex and concave tips, creating a hexagon with three niches and three bays that keep alternating between convex and concave planes with six axes. The floor plan thus obtained also defined the vertical elevation of the walls and the dome. If you look at the cornice just below the dome and turn on your axis it seems like your eyes are continuously being dragged along by a merry-go-round. We know from several sources, including drawings by Borromini himself, that a special meaning was attributed to the floor plan. The basic pattern represents the three bees that feature prominently in the Barberinis’ (Pope Urban VIII) coat of arms.
|two sides of the interior
The bee’s head and body with its six legs correspond with the six bays. It is also possible that Borromini had the six-pointed Star of David in mind. This star can also be found in the decorations of the dome and represented wisdom, an obvious symbol in a university church. The big difference with the San Carlino you visit in programme 2 is that the shape of the walls is now also fully dictated by the floor plan. This was not the case in the San Carlino.
Borromini introduced some subtle variations. The three half circles pointing outward are just a little bigger than half a circle. As a result, the corner pilasters project more sharply into the space than was the case in Michelangelo’s Sforza Chapel. The part of the dome that connects to the section of the wall that consists of straight elements with a concave wall in between is not what it seems to be. It seems like the section that connects to the dome follows the pattern of the lower part of the wall: straight, concave and then straight again. A lot of light comes in through the big windows built into this part of the dome, making it impossible to see that the middle section is not curved, but straight. Above the windows this part of the vault does change its shape from straight to concave, allowing all six parts of the dome to converge at the top as a round ring, upon which the round lantern was placed.
Dome and the lantern
The decorations in the church’s interior have much to do with the patron, Alexander VII, who was a Chigi. The Chigi coat of arms consists of three ‘mountains’ with a star above them and oak leaves. You can see that the inner ring of the lantern is decorated with oak leaves, if you have brought your binoculars, that is. (see image below). The capitals of the pilasters are decorated with acorns. The Chigi star has been depicted on the straight sections of the dome, albeit alternated with the six-pointed Star of David. A sketch drawn by Borromini shows that he initially intended to place seven columns behind the main altar, probably as a reference to the seven wisdoms quoted in the Old Testament. The floor is quite surprising. It does not have a pattern based on a hexagon. The pattern of diamond-shaped white and grey marble tiles forms an octagon. The effect is less than aesthetically pleasing. Borromini tried to soften this by a straight rim of black tiles running along the niches like a neat line, but it still looks contrived. The explanation for this dissonant in the design is probably quite banal. If the floor had been laid in six parts – from an aesthetic point of view the logical thing to do – the tiles would have had to be cut in 30 and 150 degree angles, something the marble workers had never done before and did not have the tools for.
The floor detail of the centre and the whole floor
The interior was restored in the 19th century, seriously violating Borromini’s design. The white plaster walls were painted over as faux marble. The main altar’s niche was radically altered, as was the gallery. Straight edges were rounded off at the top, essentially violating the whole design. A window in the eastern façade which admitted much-needed light was even bricked up. The interior was as much as possible returned to its former state in the 1960s. This of course had everything to do with the newly found appreciation for Borromini’s work that I mentioned earlier. The bright light that enters the church today was probably originally a bit more tempered. The strips of lead between the panes were originally much wider.
The dome and the lantern
picture: Daniele Muscetta
The exterior of this church is definitely also worth looking at. We go outside and take a seat on the western side of the inner courtyard. You definitely need a good pair of binoculars to be able to see the dome and the lantern well. The dome’s exterior is as extraordinary as its interior. The first thing you notice are the circles of bricks around the tholobate. These rings are intended to counteract the lateral thrust of the dome. In contrast with the Pantheon, these rings are emphasised. The space available to Borromini for the construction of his church was so limited there was hardly any room for buttresses. At least nothing bigger than the buttresses that run across the rings and end in a scroll with a ball on top. These scrolls are a quote from the Michelangelo’s Porta Pia that Borromini admired so much.
The tholobate is not real. This exterior construction that does not match the interior was an absolute necessity. The dome’s lateral thrust is better counteracted by a hefty mass of bricks on the outside than by any tholobate. This is also the reason why the undulation of this fake tholobate does not follow the shape of the interior.
During its construction, there was a lot of criticism from fellow architects who thought the construction was not strong enough. Apparently Borromini had some misgivings as well, because a note written has survived in which he guarantees his church for just 15 years. Just as well that we are back in the inner courtyard.
The most fantastic element of the church’s exterior is the lantern, which, unfortunately, you cannot see without binoculars. The lantern is reminiscent of the classical temple of Baalbek that also features six concave niches between paired columns. Borromini’s lantern was probably inspired by the work of Giovanni Battista Montano who made many reconstruction drawings of classical monuments.
pictures: Robert Baldwin
Borromini let his imagination run free with the top of the lantern. Around the cone-shaped tip, a ledge spirals upwards. The tip is crowned by a globe with a cross on top. Borromini was probably familiar with the drawings and engravings of the Dutch painter Maarten van Heemskerck. One of his paintings depicts the tower of Babel as an oriental ziggurat (temple tower). The tower of Babel is a symbol of human folly. For strange and incomprehensible reasons, the spiral-shaped tower later became a symbol of wisdom. Maarten van Heemskerck used his ziggurat as a luminous symbol.
Just like the interior, the exterior was also adorned with numerous symbols based on Cesare Ripa’s Iconologica that was published in 1593. This book quickly became a reference work for artists. A second edition was published eight years later, this time including engravings. Borromini gratefully availed himself of this book, for instanced the burning torches around the lantern’s base, which Ripa describes as the desire for wisdom and knowledge. The heraldic symbols of the Chigi’s are also found on the building’s exterior. The cornice just below the dome features an interesting egg-and-dart moulding that includes cherub’s heads.
Some drawings by Borromini were discovered after the major restoration of 1970 in which he had designed all kinds of details, such as the library’s book shelves. Details that you saw at the cute little fountain with the books on the outside of the Sapienza.
We now return to the Piazza Navona to see the Sant’Agnese in Agone.