Art History 101: Baroque and Why It Doesn’t Need Fixing

By Austin Bowes


When we think of Rome’s glory days, we think of Antiquity – the Colosseum, statues of Augustus, and Roman frescos. Rome was again the center of the cultural universe for a different art movement. And it’s closer in time to us than we think.

About four centuries ago, the Baroque period of art blossomed into being, stylized by drama and motion and intense attention to detail. The movement birthed two of its greatest artists, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini.

From my observations, most people pay attention solely to Bernini’s works and although they are immaculate, I think Borromini’s calculation matches Bernini’s creative originality. I’m not trying to prove anything here. The art world loves and appreciates both artists. However, if we want to look at Baroque art, I think it’s appropriate to look at both of them to fully take in all that it has to offer.

Bernini was a star at a young age. His father, Pietro, was commissioned by Pope Paul V to carve a large relief sculpture in a chapel of St. Peter’s Church (a big deal). He let his eight-year-old son work with him. The Pope learned of this and asked Gianlorenzo to draw a head in his presence. Young Bernini, instead of instinctually drawing a head, asked him what kind of head he wanted – man or woman, passionate or unmoved? He drew the head of Saint Paul. The Pope is recorded saying, “This child will be the Michelangelo of his age.”

Bernini grew with an intense and close relationship to Popes, most notably Pope Urban VIII who pushed Bernini to work his talents on the Baldacchino for St. Peter’s tomb. Later, after his mentor Carlo Maderno died in 1629, Bernini replaced him and worked on the reconstruction of St. Peter’s as a whole. For those who do not know, St. Peter’s cathedral is one of the oldest and most important cathedrals in the world, and desperately needed reconstruction after many years of neglect. It took over a century to do so, with artistic masters such as Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, and Maderno heading its reconstruction before Bernini took over.

Though the Basilica took up much of his time, it was not his life’s only work. One of the most recognized sculptures of the Baroque period is his “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” in the Cornaro Chapel. It depicts St. Teresa’s account of an angel piercing her heart with a golden spear tipped with the flame of the love for God. Bernini himself claimed, “This is the least bad work that I have done.”

Bernini worked on many more architectural endeavors that encapsulate Rome as a city today, such as St. Peter’s Square and the Fountain of the Four Rivers at the Piazza Navona. After his death in 1680, the crowds at his funeral were reportedly so large that they had to postpone the time for the interment of the body.

Francesco Borromini, on the other hand, was not so loved. His father was a master stonesman and trained him, just as Pietro did with Bernini. Borromini later went on to an apprenticeship in Milan. However he secretly left for Rome and stayed with relatives who were related to Carlo Maderno. Borromini was trained as Maderno’s apprentice. Without this experience, he would have lacked the training to become the architect that he was and he would have been unnoticed were it not for the fame of Maderno.

After Maderno’s death, Borromini collaborated with Bernini on the Baldacchino. Borromini contributed a considerable amount to the design, even though the credit is attributed solely to Bernini. Since St. Peter’s was under Bernini’s control (and not Borromini’s, as he thought), he moved on to other projects, such as the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.

The San Carlo was owned by a small community of friars known as Trinitarians. He offered his patronage for free in return for free reign in his designs. It is noted to have intricate detailing with designs incorporating geometry and emotion. The design of the room is a mix of ovals and triangles while the dome incorporates crosses, hexagons, and octagons. The very center of the ceiling is an oval illuminated by sunlight and holds a dove within a triangle.

Another church of great importance was the Sant’Ivo, which Borromini designed similar to the Star of David. The interior of the Sant’Ivo is shaped like an upside-down triangle transposed upon a right side up triangle, with the concave and convex feature that are the staples of Borromini architecture.

Borromini continued to get commissions, which, like those of Bernini, seemed to be unavoidable when walking the streets of Rome. However in the summer of 1667, Borromini submitted to his deep depression and committed suicide. His funeral, unlike Bernini’s, was very short, with few people attending.

These two artists – who were friends, contemporaries, and rivals – are the true masters of the Baroque period. They made much of Rome look as we know it today. Rome and the world are indebted to Bernini and Borromini for their contributions. There is no better artist between the two – just the fantastic and breathtaking work they have left behind.

Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at


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