Palazzo Spada, Palazzo Falconieri and the Palazzo Farnese

We walk towards the Palazzo Spada where we will examine one of Borromini’s hallways.

Palazzo Spada           Detail of the facade
Palazzo Spada facade Rome

As we arrive and enter the Palazzo Spada, we ask the custodian to open the courtyard door for us. It is possible to view the hallway from behind a glass door, but actually being there is that much nicer.

Entrance  Palazzo Spada large size
Entrance Palazzo Spada Rome

Website Galleria Spada
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Borromini was in close contact with the Virgilio brothers and Bernardino Spada. Virgilio himself wrote the’Opus Architectonicum‘ in close collaboration with Borromini. The work had engravings. The ‘Opus’ expressly refers to Michelangelo as an inspiration for Borromini, but to the classics, too. Virgilio was the prior of the oratorio we just visited. Borromini owes various assignments to Virgilio. His brother, Bernardino, was a cardinal. Both had a profound love for architecture.

Bernardino Spada large size      Detail
Guido Reni 'Portret van Bernardino Spada' 227 x 147 cm. olieverf doek, ca. 1631 Galleria Spada, Palazzo Spada

Guido Reni ‘Portrait of Bernardino Spada’ 227 x 147 cm. oil om canvas, c. 1631 Galleria Spada, Palazzo Spada

The brothers had this quirky habit of having all kinds of architectonic designs reviewed by famous architects. Without these architects knowing about it, these were usually the designs of their equally famous peers. The brothers were very amused by discussing the architects mutual commentary. Around circa 1652, Borromini is commissioned by Bernardino and Virgilio to construct a colonnade towards the end of a small courtyard.

The Spada family owned a family chapel in the S. Paolo Maggiore in Bologna. The altar (model) in this chapel was designed by Bernini. The tabernacle depicts a similar hallway, albeit in miniature. The man who completed this miniature hallway for the Spadas in Bologna was Padre Giovanni Maria Bitonti. It was this same Bitonti who collaborated in the completion of Borromini’s colonnade (the layout of the colonnade in the Palazzo Spada). Read more about Bitonti and Borromini: Giuseppe Amoruso ‘Characteristics of Baroque Solid Space in the Perspectival Tabernacle of Bitonti and Borromini in Bologna’ download pdf.

Borromini didn’t have a lot of space for his hallway; limited to just 9 metres. Unfortunately, the current hallway has been ‘restored’ and of the original three openings in the vault to let through the light, two have been mortared shut. This adds to the effect of a long, dark tunnel with a view of a garden statue that is bathing in light. Hopefully we are allowed inside the colonnade.

Colonnade of Borromini and a trompe l’oeil    Sculpture size
Video Empire of the Eye: The Magica of Illusion 

The effect of this kind of hallway will take you by surprise. Because the garden and the statue are not at all what they appear to be. Another thing to look out for is one of the many Roman stray cats using this place as a lounge spot. That could take us by surprise as well. In our second schedule you will see how Bernini made gracious use of this hallway.

We head along the Palazzo Farnese to take a left and a straight right, to then stand in the Via Giulia. The first thing we see is the facade of a macabre little church.

S. Maria dell’Orazione e Morte interior     Via Giulia (painting)
Tempesta; Prospectus (detail) map of the area  about 1645
S. Maria dell’Orazione e Morte facade Rome

Photo: Wikipedia     G. Vasi (printmaker: G.D. Campiglia) ‘Chiesa della Morte c. 1739

This is the S. Maria dell’Orazione e Morte. As the name implies, and the skulls on the facade would indicate, this church has seen its fair share of death. Since 1551, the friars of this church have collected the unindentified dead to at least give them a Christian funeral. If you ever come back here at another time of day and the church is open, be sure to look inside. You will see a crucifix, a lampChapel and other strange objects crafted from human skulls.

The arch Brotherhood of the Oration and Death aimed to bury the dead who had been found in the countryside or drowned in the Tiber, without identity or who could not receive a dignified burial in any case.

G. Vasi ‘Chiesa dell’Orazione e  Morte’ detail large 
Giuseppe Vasi (Printmaker: Campiglia, Giovanni Domenico) 'Chiesa dell'Orazione e  Morte'  c. 1739

Next to the church, an oratory and a large cemetery were also built, partly underground and partly on the banks of the Tiber, a cemetery that was almost completely destroyed in 1886 with the construction of the Tiber walls.

Giuseppe Vasi (Printmaker: Campiglia, Giovanni Domenico) ‘Chiesa dell’Orazione e  Morte’ whole c. 1739

S. Maria dell’Orazione e Morte and skull              Entrance detail large size
S. Maria dell'Orazione e Morte entrance detail
S. Maria dell’Orazione e Morte letter box
S. Maria dell'Orazione e Morte letter box

photo:  Réka Bernáth

There used to be two special letter boxes for passers-by to leave contributions. You will also see an altar with a skull crucifix. It looks similar to what you will see in our second schedule in the crypt of the: Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappunccini.

 S. Maria dell’Orazione e Morte letter boxes
letter boxes of the S. Maria dell'Orazione e Morte Rome
Via Giulia  in the direction of the Palazzo Falconieri
Via Giulia richting Palazzo Falconieri

picture: Aleksandra Piechorowska

Next to this church, you will a palace that Borromini has worked on: the Palazzo Falconieri. In 1645, Orazio Falconieri purchased a lot that bordered his palace. Orazio commissioned Borromini to renovate and expand his palace one year later. The old palace had seven bay at the Via Giulia and the expansion would add four more. Borromini did add a second door to it for balance.

Falconieri pilaster   Cornice falcon
Palazzo Falconieri falcon pilaster capital Borromini
Falconieri large size
Palazzo Falconieri falcon pilaster capital Borromini

The corners of the facade end with very remarkable pilasters. They don’t just get wider vertically, but they are also given a unique capital, a falcon head. An allusion to the name of the family, falconer. If you stand back a bit, you will see that the falcons are looking at each other.

Palazzo Falconieri facade   Entrance    Sandrart facade c. 1679
Palazzo Falconieri facade Via Giulia

Unfortunately, this palace too was ‘restored’ heavily in the 19th century which removed quite a bit of Borromini’s work.

We will walk around the corner to look at the south-wing of this palace. The Falconieri’s had a spectacular view of the Tiber from here. Close-by lies the Palazzo Farnese, our next location. The architect Giacomo della Porta, whose designs include the loggia at the back of the Farnese, wanted desperately to trump Borromini. Friends and foes agree, he succeeded.

Borromini’s loggia makes for the perfect addition to the entire construction.

Palazzo Falconieri loggia  study Borromini garden front 1667
youtube (14.01 minutes)


Palazzo Falconieri loggia and the other side
Palazzo Falconieri loggia

picture: Riccardo Bonelli

Balcony belvedere loggia    Staircase balcony
Palazzo Falconieri balcony belvedere loggia

His loggia towers out above anything else, as opposed to the one of Della Porta. The loggia of the Farnese is kept at an equal height to the adjacent part of the building with a heavy cornice of Michelangelo.

Palazzo Farnese large size      Detail loggia
Palazzo Farnese Rome

picture: gthirionet

The four Janus-herms at the Falconieri loggia above the columns and between the balustrade contrast sharply against the sky and are an excellent finishing touch. Looking at the corners of the loggia, you will see how Borromini opted to not cut them off in a straight line but give them a concave profile instead. After what we’ve already seen of Borromini, I’m sure this no longer surprises you.

In his final years, Borromini was given less and less assignments while watching his rival Bernini be Rome’s uncrowned artist. Borromini was so fed up with this that he moved back to his birth town in Lombardy. He eventually returned to Rome. According to his biographer, Lione Pascoli, the artist died miserably in his home. Borromini had become manic. He neglected himself, and walked around dazed, confused and with blood-shot eyes. His cousin Bernardo called for a doctor. The doctor’s advice was simple: stay with him, or he will kill himself. On August 2nd, 1667, Borromini finally attempted suicide, but it would take another few hours for him to die. The confessor who was summoned for aid still managed to note down the following last words: his aid did not allow him to leave a light on while working. Borromini made spectacular designs in these last days. In the middle of the nigh, Borromini wakes up and lights his oil lamp. Francesco Massari, the name of his aid, forces him to put it out again and in a rage Borromini grabs his sword and impales himself with it. Massari, drawn to the screams, was quick to arrive and pulled out the sword. Borromini also asked to be buried next to Maderno in the S. Giovanni dei Fiorentino. He left his aid some five-hundred ducats. Click here for Borromini’s account of his suicide attempt (he died one day later).

We head back and walk towards a large palace that is now the French embassy, some two-hundred metres away.

Via Dei Baullari large size
Palazzo Farnese Rome

When Alessandro Farnese becomes Pope in 1534 (Paul III), he intends to expand the family palace that was already under construction for 19 years. The original layout was by Antonio da Sangallo (the layout of Farnese), but by 1534 this palace was to become even bigger than the Vatican palace. When Sangallo dies in 1546, the pope turns to Michelangelo to complete the assignment.

Titian ‘Paul III with cousins’
To the left cardinal Alessando and to the right Ottavia Farnese
Titian Paul III with cousins to the left cardinal Alessando and to the right Ottavia Farnese

Michelangelo and Sangallo could not possibly contrast more in terms of architectural styles. When Michelangelo is commissioned to complete the new St. Peter, he first deconstructs the part built by Sangallo. But for this palace, Michelangelo has to think of something else. Construction had advanced too far. Vasari, who left Rome just before Antonio’s death, was afraid the palace would never be completed. Moreover, he feared that the product of two architects with differing opinions could never turn into one harmonious whole. The writer and artist would be proven wrong on both accounts.

Michelangelo, who was not really known for his collaboration skills, only made a few alterations with the cornice and windows. Still, Michelangelo’s additions have had a crucially large impact on the design of his predecessor. Sangallo’s approach of the facade is based on a neutral, flat plane with the doors and windows being placed against it like a relief. You could almost just peel the aediculas off from the facade without damaging it. This approach traces back to Bramante and Raphaël. In addition, the window was used as a module. It is very simple to expand the building horizontally or vertically by simply sticking another window (module) to it. Sangallo also only drew the slightly deviating entrance system and one set of windows For masons and sculptors, this was sufficient. The bay for the windows could just be multiplied. A completely different manner of approach than Michelangelo, like you would have seen and heard at his facades for the Palazzi at the Campidoglio.

When Michelangelo takes over after Antonio’s death, the third floor up to the cornice is finished. Michelangelo decides to first complete the facade, followed by the side walls and finally the courtyard. Michelangelo made three changes to the facade:
1. a different cornice
2. the top floor was raised
3. a different window above the entrances

Palazzo Farnese large   Panini ‘The Piazza Farnese Decorated for a Celebration in Honor of the Marriage of the Dauphin’ 1745
Palazzo Farnese Rome

Giovanni Paolo Panini (or Pannini) ‘The Piazza Farnese Decorated for a Celebration in Honor of the Marriage of the Dauphin’ Oil on canvas, 166.4 x 237.5 cm, 1745 Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, USA

Palazzo Farnese large size           Facades of the front and the courtyard     Upper cornice
Palazzo Farnese facade Rome

Giorgio Vasari talks about Michelangelo’s cornice as follows:

Pope Paul III had caused San Gallo, while he was alive, to carry forward the Palace of the Farnese family, but the great upper cornice, to finish the roof on the outer side, had still to be constructed, and his Holiness desired that  Michelangelo should execute it from his own designs and directions. Michelangelo, not being able to refuse the Pope, who so esteemed and favoured him, caused a model of wood to be made, six braccia in length, and of the size that it was to be; and this he placed on one of the corners of the Palace, so that it might show what effect the finished work would have. It pleased his Holiness and all Rome, and that part of it has since been carried to completion which is now to be seen, proving to be the most varied and the most beautiful of all that have ever been known, whether ancient or modern. On this account, after San Gallo was dead, the Pope desired that Michelangolo should have charge of the whole fabric as well; and there he made the great marble window with the beautiful columns of variegated marble, which is over the principal door of the Palace, with a large escutcheon of great beauty and variety, in marble, of Pope Paul III, the founder of that Palace. Within the Palace he continued, above the first range of the court, the two other ranges, with the most varied, graceful, and beautiful windows, ornaments and upper cornice that have ever been seen, so that, through the labours and the genius of that man that court has now become the most handsome in Europe. He widened and enlarged the Great Hall, and set in order the front vestibule, and caused the vaulting of that vestibule to be constructed in a new variety of curve, in the form of a half oval.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives, p. 279.

Palazzo Farnese large size       Lievin Cruyl ‘Eighteen Views of Rome: The Piazza Farnese’ 1664      Piranesi  


Alessandro Specchi ‘Palazzo Farnese loggia’ 1700-1724  large size
Alessandro Specchi Palazzo Farnese loggia
  1. Via Giulia
  2. Arch and entrance
  3. Fontane del Mascherone
  4. Loggia Palazzo Falconieri

Michelangelo also raised the last floor. This was to make better use of the space between the pediments of the windows and the heavy cornice. Such a move went against a long-standing tradition. It was custom to keep each subsequent floor slightly lower. Proponents of Sangallo complained about what they considered to be a very ugly cornice and the raised last floor. Vitruvius would turn in his grave at beholding such an appalling cornice. It was too heavy. Too large. Besides, it was a hotchpotch of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian elements. In short, an insult to classic canon. Still, it is this very violation of Vitruvian rules that makes this cornice so powerful. The massive cornice stands testimony to the building’s weight. What’s more, Michelangelo alleviates the cornice’s heaviness, or at least visually. He incorporates all kinds of decorations that capture sunlight. They work as focal points for the light, while surrounded by strong shadows.

The window above the entrance by Sangallo was also subject to radical change by Buonarroti. Michelangelo removed the pediment and turned the entablement into an architrave, with above it a high sculpture with the coat of arms of the Farnese family.

Palazzo Farnese and the  entrance large size
Coat of arms of the Farnese family Farnese Michelangelo’s design
Palazzo Farnese ingang detail facade entrance Rome
Windows above the entrance
Coat of arms of Farnese Michelangelo’s design    Entrance
windows above the entrance Palazzo Farnese MIchelangelo Rome
Entrance to the courtyard
 entrance to the courtyard Palazzo Farnese MIchelangelo

The covered hallway leading to the courtyard is a colonnade based on a basilisk. The courtyard is often seen as one of the most impressive courtyards of the Renaissance.

Palazzo Farnese courtyard     Upper floor  Michelangelo
Palazzo Farnese courtyard Rome


Sangallo Palazzo Farnese courtyard
Sangallo Palazzo Farnese courtyard Rome

It is a perfect cube, where the horizontal and vertical elements are in complete harmony as opposed to the exterior. Strangely enough, this balanced whole is the result of a chaotic history. The bottom two floors are by Sangallo. Michelangelo and Vignola did give the piano nobile (the beautiful first floor) different windows. Furthermore, Michelangelo added as a finishing touch a fantasy-rich frieze for this floor. The final floor at the courtyard is by Michelangelo’s hands. Sangallo’s design for the courtyard gave Michelangelo much more to work with than the facade. Michelangelo was now able to find a balance between the horizontal and vertical elements as opposed to in the facade. Sangallo’s design was much more based on the load-bearing structure of he building. The pillars with Tuscan columns took the brunt of the pressure. But his facade was no more than a simple screen or wall. The orders used by Sangallo are based on the theatre Marcellus. The bottom floor uses the Tuscan order at the courtyard, followed by the Ionic and then the Corinthian.

The small, but essential changes applied by Vignola and Michelangelo to the piano nobile, appear as just minor corrections to the original design, but they are much more profound than you would suspect. It uses different windows, of a more playful nature. The frieze is decorated with garlands that alternate with masks. The balustrade is also changed. These alterations turn this floor in a kind of intermediary. It allowed Michelangelo to design the final floor to his own vision and still have it in line with the other floors. The two upper floors of the Palazzo Farnese courtyard. Buonarroti clearly makes ‘his floor’ higher than Sangallo’s. Between the second and third floor lies hidden another low intermediate floor: a mezzanino. The arches of the arcade on the ground floor and around the windows at the piano nobile are not seen again in Michelangelo’s floor. The limited space for the pilasters that must still connect to the columns beneath is solved as Michelangelo places two semi ‘shadow pilasters’ on both sides. We have seen this before with the facade of the Il Gesù. If you look closely at the facade, similar to the two palazzi at the Campidoglio, Michelangelo again achieves equilibrium between the vertical and horizontal facade elements. Very different from the facade at the front of the palace. The details used by Michelangelo for the cornice around the courtyard are strange variations to classic decorations. If you stand on the ground floor, all you will see is interplay between shadow and light at the cornice. What is most striking are the aediculas around the windows. Architects in those days saw them as an insult. One could suspect that Michelangelo intentionally tried to provoke or shock architects like Bramante or Sangallo.

Farnese courtyard third floor window bay Michelangelo
Farnese courtyard third floor window bay Michelangelo

If you look at the side frames, they almost look like strips of fabric that hang downwards from beneath two lion heads and continue past the windowsills. This goes against all (vitruvian) logic. These frames should at least suggest that they support the entablement. The entablature is also out of place. It looks as if Michelangelo was mocking the classics and his contemporaries. The pediment is discoupled from the architrave without any support, making it float. It is this unique approach of architecture that appealed to Borromini so much. Ironically, these motifs would appear regularly in the Baroque era.

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