Clash of the Titans

Who was the greater Baroque artist, Bernini or Borromini? The question remains very much alive in Rome's Piazza Navona.

Rome is a city that takes its art—and the artists who created it—very seriously. I learned this one day in the Piazza Navona, the city's most beautiful public space, when I overheard a couple arguing over the work of the two men who created the piazza more than three centuries ago.

"Bernini? He's a show-off," the young man said to his companion. "He's all clouds and curlicues. Borromini—now, he is a true genius."

His friend shivered. "I can't bear Borromini," she said. "He has no grace, no delicacy. He hits you—boom, boom—over the head. He never lets you rest."

"Yes, but you shouldn't want to," the man said, laughing and taking her arm.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini were two lions of Italian art who spent their professional lives locked in a complex, sometimes acrimonious rivalry. The differences between them—in their work and in their personalities—were profound, and nowhere is this more evident than in the piazza, where Bernini and Borromini clashed over the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi—the Fountain of the Four Rivers—one of the greatest works of Baroque art.

The fight over the fountain began in 1644, when Cardinal Giovanni Battista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X. His idea was to transform this narrow, oval-shaped plaza into a place worthy of Rome's most important family—his. The Palazzo Pamphili (now the Brazilian Embassy) and the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone (which the Pamphili considered its family chapel) would both be built on the piazza. But the Piazza Navona required a focus, a hub.

Innocent decided that what the piazza needed was an Egyptian obelisk, which would be moved from elsewhere in the city and stand over a new fountain. The water would be redirected from the Acqua Vergine, and Innocent chose his preferred architect at the time, Borromini, to extend the aqueduct.

Trained as a stonemason in Milan, the self-made artist had come to the notice of his great-uncle Carlo Maderno, the architect completing St. Peter's. It didn't take Maderno long to recognize Borromini's talent and ambition and to make the young stonecutter his main assistant.

It was Borromini who suggested that the fountain commemorate four great rivers representing continents of the world: the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe), the Ganges (Asia), and the Plata (the Americas). The Pope was intrigued, and he asked Borromini and several others to submit designs for the new fountain.

He did not ask Bernini, an astonishing slight. At the time Bernini was the most successful artist in Europe, due largely to the patronage of Urban VIII, whom Innocent succeeded. Bernini had met Urban when he was a young sculptor, and the two became friends. When Urban was elected Pope in 1623, Bernini had in his court the most powerful patron in Europe. He was 24.

Urban had big plans for his protégé. He gave Bernini the plum job of designing the bronze canopy for the main altar at St. Peter's, the Baldacchino, which Bernini did with help from Borromini. Then, when Maderno died in 1629, Urban elevated Bernini to architect of St. Peter's.

Borromini was outraged. He deserved the job; he was more talented than that coddled pet of the Pope. Yet he agreed to stay on as Bernini's assistant. It was, to put it mildly, a doomed collaboration.

Borromini possessed none of Bernini's charm. His prickly personality made it hard for him to make friends; he never married or had children. Agreeable-looking if not particularly handsome, Borromini dressed formally in black and was, one observer noted, "always dignified." Today he might have been classified as chronically depressed, but at the time he was thought to be moody, difficult, and suffering from melancholy.

Bernini, by contrast, was a man of the world. His portraits depict a man with intelligent deep-set eyes, a high forehead, and an expressive mouth. Charming and witty, he was at ease among Rome's rich and powerful. Everything he touched—architecture, sculpture, painting—seemed sure to please. Borromini felt overshadowed; he bitterly resented Bernini's taking credit for the projects they designed together. "I do not mind that he has the money, but I do mind that he enjoys the honor of my labors," Borromini said, according to Filippo Baldinucci, one of his biographers. In 1632 the two quarreled over kickbacks Bernini took from a trading partnership that Borromini had helped found, and Borromini left his rival's employment forever.

While Borromini searched for other work in Rome, Bernini's career flourished. Then Urban died. Innocent was elected Pope. Suddenly Bernini was vanquished.

Innocent hated everything associated with his predecessor, including Bernini. He refused to offer Bernini a single commission (though he did keep him on as architect of St. Peter's). So when he ordered a fountain to crown the Piazza Navona, there was no question the commission would go to Borromini. By now his star was rising; his tiny church, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, on Rome's Quirinale hill, was greatly admired. And after all, the fountain was Borromini's idea. But to the shock of Rome—most of all to Borromini—the commission was awarded to the artist he'd previously spurned, Bernini.

As related by Bernini's son Domenico, it was Prince Nicolò Ludovisi who engineered this about-face. Ludovisi, a friend of Bernini, had recently married the Pope's niece. He persuaded Bernini to build a model for the fountain, which Ludovisi took to the Palazzo Pamphili. One evening when Innocent was dining there, Ludovisi "deliberately placed the model on a little table in a room through which the Pope had to pass after his meal." Innocent walked into the room and his gaze fell upon the model. He was, Domenico reported, transfixed. "This design cannot be by any other than Bernini," he exclaimed. Bernini had returned to papal favor.

When Borromini heard that the commission had been awarded to Bernini, he was furious. In retaliation against the Pope, he stalked off the work site at Rome's cathedral, San Giovanni in Laterano.

It took Bernini four years to complete the fountain, and the result was magnificent. He placed the graceful granite obelisk (topped by a dove holding an olive branch in its beak—the Pamphili family symbol) on a massive piece of stone carved to look like a grotto. At the four corners sit figures representing great rivers of the world. At the southwest corner is Europe's Danube, which gestures towards India's Ganges; northeast is Africa's Nile, its head covered by a shroud of stone (symbolizing that the river's source was still unknown), and in the northwest is South America's Plata, leaning back on one arm, the other raised as if to ward off a blow.

When the Pope arrived for an inspection tour a few days before the official unveiling on June 14, 1651, he pored over the fountain's myriad details. Bernini and his assistants had carved, in addition to the huge figures of the four rivers, a galloping horse, a bag of gold coins, a palm tree, even an armadillo. All were larger than life but executed with such exacting realism that they remain marvels today. Just as he was about to leave, the Pope asked Bernini when he might see the water flow. According to the biographer Baldinucci, the artist "replied that he could not say on such short notice, since some time was required to put everything in order."

Nonetheless the Pope blessed the artist and his workers. Then Bernini, who had anticipated the Pope's request all along, immediately gave the signal to turn on the water. Innocent heard the rush and turned to see water "gush forth on all sides in great abundance." He was enchanted. "In giving us this unexpected joy," he told Bernini, "you have added ten years to our life."

The story of Bernini vs. Borromini does not end here. In 1652 Innocent hired the father-son team of Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi to design Sant'Agnese in Agone, just a few steps west of the fountain. Almost immediately problems arose, and the Pope asked Borromini to take over. Borromini did not hesitate; he tore down much of what had been built and designed a facade of complicated curves that, while not completed exactly to his plans, produced what is unquestionably the most beautiful building in the piazza.

For the rest of their lives the men remained rivals, their paths crisscrossing throughout Rome on project after project. Borromini no doubt took considerable delight in demolishing and rebuilding the Capella dei Re Magi at the Collegio di Propaganda Fide near the Piazza di Spagna, which Bernini had originally designed. And Bernini must have relished creating the church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, perhaps his most perfect building—a commission first offered to Borromini, who turned it down.

In a fit of personal and professional despair, Borromini committed suicide in 1667 by throwing himself on a ceremonial sword; he lingered in excruciating pain for 24 hours before dying. Thirteen years later Bernini suffered what was most likely a stroke, which left his right arm useless. He died in 1680. Between them these two men had remade Rome, from the immensity of Bernini's colonnade at St. Peter's to the geometric precision of Borromini's church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. The architect Frank Gehry has called the latter the greatest building ever designed saying: "It's got all the moves in it that I've made. I have done nothing new since then."

Despite their best intentions, the two men created in the Piazza Navona a matchless architectural harmony. A contemporary wrote, "Although they quarreled bitterly. . . Bernini said . . . many years ago that Borromini alone understood this profession, but that he was never satisfied." In the end, it is impossible to say which artist triumphed. To that couple arguing before the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, I should have suggested that they call it a draw.


1598 Gian Lorenzo Bernini is born in Naples.

1599 Francesco Castelli is born in Bissone, Lombardy.

ca. 1605 Bernini family moves to Rome.

1619 Castelli moves to Rome; changes name to Borromini.

1623 Urban VIII becomes Pope.

1624 Bernini and Borromini begin work on St. Peter's Baldacchino.

1629 Bernini named architect of St. Peter's, with Borromini as assistant

1632 After a feud, Borromini leaves Bernini's employment.

1638 Borromini begins work on San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.

1644 Urban dies. Pope Innocent X elected; Borromini awarded San Giovanni in Laterano project.

1647 Borromini proposes Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. Bernini wins commission.

1651 Fountain completed.

1653 Borromini takes over Sant' Agnese in Agone.

1667 Borromini commits suicide.

1670 Bernini finishes Sant'A0ndrea al Quirinale.

1680 Bernini dies.