Francesco Borromini (b. 1599–d. 1667), born Francesco Castelli, was one of a triumvirate of artistic personalities that dominated the middle decades of the Roman Baroque. Unlike the sculptor-architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the painter-architect Pietro da Cortona, he devoted himself exclusively to the practice of architecture, producing some of the most innovative creations of the 17th century in Europe. His educational background and early technical experience endowed him with a commanding expertise in the profession of architecture that distinguished him from these competitors. Vilified by critics for violating the rules of classical proportion and corrupting other architects, he was later influential in Germanic- and Slavic-speaking regions of central and eastern Europe, and his ideas reached even to Latin America. Although successful in gaining prestigious commissions after the death of Pope Urban VIII and the temporary disgrace of Bernini, his relations with powerful patrons were often fraught with difficulty because of his tenacious insistence on the artistic volition of the designer. Yet this same conception of his professional role makes him the prototype of the modern architect. Pursued by Bernini’s ubiquitous specter to the hapless end of his life, he sought to secure his reputation by disseminating idealized versions of his designs through publication—an enterprise that came to partial fruition only after his death. The premium he placed on originality and expression, combined with his willingness to risk previously unseen formal novelties, made him the standard-bearer of Michelangelo’s architectural legacy and attractive to patrons and supporters with avant-garde inclinations. In a series of major publications starting in the 1960s, the Italian architect and architectural historian Paolo Portoghesi championed Borromini as a designer of contemporary as well as historical interest. Borromini’s difficult personality and his eventual suicide, however, have generated interpretations of his life and work that connect the two more directly than with other artists of the period. The eccentricities of one seemed to explain the radical character of the other. His zealous quest for novelty and his asocial behavior have occasionally spawned extreme interpretations of his work in modern scholarship, particularly in iconographic analyses and philosophical speculations. With the publications of Joseph Connors, beginning in the early 1980s, this view has been challenged and, especially since the conference proceedings, exhibition catalogues, and edited anthologies published in 1999–2000 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Borromini’s birth, it has been countered by a turn to look at the architect more in the context of the social, economic, and scientific culture of his time.
Carboneri 1971 provided one of the earliest encyclopedia-length biographical entries on the architect, but it focuses more on the life than the works. Connors 1982 and Stein 1996 emphasize the analysis and interpretation of the works. Connors 1999–2000 and Kahn-Rossi 1999 give the up-to-date view of the vita based on research accomplished at the time of the 400th anniversary exhibition and symposium in Rome and the exhibition on Borromini’s early years held in Lugano.
Carboneri, Nino. “Borromini, Francesco.” In Dizionario biografico degli Italiani. Vol. 13. Edited by Alberto M. Ghisalberti, 90–97. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1971.
Biographical entry with chronological assessment of the works based on state of research up to the time of publication. Balanced view of the issue of personality. Full bibliography to 1970.
Connors, Joseph. “Francesco Borromini.” In Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects. Vol. 1. Edited by Adolf K. Placzek, 248–260. New York: Macmillan, 1982.
Lucid analysis of all the works. Authored by the scholar who has led a transformation of Borromini studies.
Connors, Joseph. “Francesco Borromini: La vita (1599–1667).” In Borromini e l’universo barocco. Edited by Richard Bösel and Christoph Luitpold Frommel, 7–21. Milan: Electa, 1999–2000.
Lively, moving, and updated biography. Includes a useful assessment of Borromini’s supporters and patrons. English translation available online.
Kahn-Rossi, Manuela. “Note biografiche.” In Il giovane Borromini: Dagli esordi a San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Edited by Manuela Kahn-Rossi and Marco Franciolli, 513–518. Milan: Skira, 1999.
A biographical and professional curriculum vitae in narrative form incorporating new information from archival research.
Stein, Peter. “Borromini, Francesco.” In The Dictionary of Art. Vol. 4. Edited by Jane Turner, 427–437. New York: Grove, 1996.
Accessible summary of Borromini’s life and works, with analysis of the individual projects. Available online with subscription.
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