I had a perfect hot day in Rome last week. (On a hot day in Rome, perfection includes getting back to an air conditioned room by 3:00 and spending the hottest part of the day resting one’s feet.)
Loyal readers (that’s you, Mom and Paul) already know of my fondness for Gianlorenzo Bernini, the sculptor and architect whose work decorates Rome and — please don’t think me shallow for mentioning this — starred in the Dan Brown book and Tom Hanks movie “Angels and Demons.” Visiting Bernini’s masterpieces is a perfect way for people like me who aren’t naturally drawn to museums to appreciate art. It also turns out to be a fine way to spend a day in Rome — see “My Roman Holiday” for one such day earlier this year.
On my walk through Rome last week, I branched out beyond Bernini … and liked it very much.
I started the day with a good look at the magnificent facade of a Borromini church near my hotel. Sant’ Ivo is inside the walls of the old Rome University, and it’s only open to the public a few hours a week. This morning, drinking in the beauty of the facade was enough for me.
Poor Francesco Borromini — he was so overshadowded by Bernini, his contemporary and eventual rival. It sounds like he was a tortured guy. The guidebook I was using interpreted his use of convex and concave curves as an expression of his internal conflict. Whatever. All I know is they sure are cool.
Trying to beat the heat, I hustled across the river and up the Janiculum Hill to see Il Tempietto, a glorious little dome-on-the-ground, the Renaissance masterpiece of Donato Bramante, a predecessor of Bernini and Borromini. Il Tempietto was closed the last time I tried to visit it, so my enjoyment was laced with the self-satisfaction of having conquered the sometimes-bewildering schedule for visiting churches in Rome.
Bernini and Borromini in the same block!
My next stop was a two-fer: a small and incredibly rich Bernini church (Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale) a few steps away from a small and striking Borromini church (San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, aka San Carlino). It was amazing to see one right after the other and compare the different ways these contemporaries created majestic places in such small places. Both are oval … but that’s about where the similarities end.
I was especially eager to spend some time in Sant’ Andrea, and not just because my last visit was cut short by the bare-shoulder police. (My friend Carol and I had forgotten to take something to wear over our sleeveless tops and the caretaker or usher scowled at us until we left.) I read that Bernini himself was particularly fond of this church and that in his later years he would spend time inside, just admiring it. If it’s good enough for Bernini, it’s good enough for me. I would have relished my time there under any circumstances, but the idea that I was doing what he had done himself was particularly moving.
Borromini’s comparable masterpiece is on the corner no more than a block away from the Sant’ Andrea, and I’m glad I had my Michelin’s guide with me. It calls this church, his first full-scale work, the one that “probably shows his genius at its best.” More important, though, the guide pointed out the ingenuity, beauty and importance of the facade, which is hard to appreciate because it is so close to the street. Without that prompt, I would have missed one of the best parts of this gem simply by failing to cross the street and look back.
So while I still love Bernini, Borromini is #1 on my list of “Socially challenged Swiss Italian architects of the Roman Baroque that I would most like to have with me if I were stranded on a desert island.” (Um, I’m not the only one that keeps that list, am I?)