Battle of the Artists – Bernini vs Borromini

the colosseum extended

Over the centuries Rome has been defined not just by popes and emperors, but also by artists and architects. Go for a walk in the Eternal City and you’ll find works by the Baroque. Geniuses Bernini and Borromini are just about everywhere, from the Vatican to Piazza Navona. To gain a deeper appreciation of these astonishingly talented Italian artists, we need to look beyond the marble to discover a thrilling story of innovation and ego.

Who were the Italian artists Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (self-portrait)
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (self-portrait)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was indisputably one of the giants of Italian art. Born in Naples, he made a career for himself in Rome as a sculptor, architect and city planner. He’s widely believed to be the creator of Baroque sculpture, an innovative and prolific talent who designed everything from churches to piazzas. His best-known works include St Peter’s Square and the sculpture Apollo and Daphne in the Borghese Gallery.

Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) was one of the leading Baroque architects, a highly talented but volatile character. He was born near the Swiss-Italian border and moved to Rome as a young man where he established his architectural career, working primarily on churches. His major works include San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Sant’Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona.

Baroque battle: the rivalry between Bernini and Borromini

It’s not surprising that two talented men working on similar architectural projects at the same time, and in the same city, should have clashed so dramatically. The Bernini-Borromini rivalry is legendary, and one of the most interesting stories in Italian art.

Francesco Borromini
Francesco Borromini

There’s no doubt that Borromini felt overshadowed by Bernini. Both worked on important churches, but it was Bernini, not Borromini, who was commissioned to work on St Peter’s Basilica. When the bell towers caused the facade of the basilica to crack, Borromini pointed the finger at Bernini, and predicted the ruin of the whole basilica. No matter that later investigations revealed the culprit to be the foundations (designed by Carlo Maderno).

The symbol of their rivalry is Piazza Navona. Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers is directly opposite the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone (designed by Borromini). According to the legend, two of the statues on the fountain are shielding their eyes from the awful sight of Borromini’s church. If the story sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is – the statues on the fountain pre-date the church!

A more factual example of Bernini’s rivalry with Borromini is the architects’ fight over the Palace of the Propagation of the Faith in Piazza di Spagna. After the death of Pope Urban VIII, the commission was given to Borromini instead of Bernini. To add salt to the wound, Borromini carved a pair of donkey’s ears on one of the walls of the building. Bernini lived right next to the palace, so he responded by having a phallus sculpted on the side of his house, directed towards Borromini.

Piazza Navona: Bernini's fountain of the four rivers in the center, Borromini St. Agnes' facade on the left
Piazza Navona: Bernini’s fountain of the four rivers in the center, Borromini St. Agnes’ facade on the left

The rivalry died with Borromini, who committed suicide at the age of 67. Bernini continued to work on numerous artistic and architectural projects until he died in his eighties. The critical opinion of Baroque art and architecture has fluctuated over the centuries. Borromini would no doubt be deeply disappointed to know that overall, Bernini has been remembered as the greater talent.

A Bernini tour of Rome

Want to know where to see works by Bernini in Rome? The full list would probably be longer than this article, but these are some of the must-see masterpieces:

  • The sculptures Apollo and Daphne, David, the Rape of Proserpine and Aeneas, Anchises & Ascanius in the Borghese Gallery
  • The elephant obelisk in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
  • The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in San Francesco a Ripa
  • Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria
  • Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona
  • The piazza, fountain and colonnades of St Peter’s Square
  • The baldachin inside St Peter’s Basilica

You should also keep an eye out for the plaque and bust outside Bernini’s house on Via della Mercede (a 5-minute walk from the Trevi Fountain). Bernini’s tomb can be found in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

A Borromini tour of Rome

Don’t miss these works by Borromini!

  • San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
  • Oratory of St Phillip Neri
  • Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
  • Sant’Agnese in Agone
  • Palazzo Spada
  • San Giovanni in Laterano (interior)
  • The oval staircase of Palazzo Barberini (the square staircase is by Bernini!)
Galleria Spada by Borromini
Galleria Spada by Borromini

Borromini was buried in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, the church he had been working on shortly before his death.

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Read more: A tour of Bernini’s Masterpieces in Rome (Culture Trip)