We walk towards the Palazzo Spada (Wikipedia) where we will examine one of Borromini’s hallways.
As we arrive and enter the Palazzo Spada, we ask the custodian to open the courtyard door for us. It is possible to view the hallway from behind a glass door, but actually being there is that much nicer.
Borromini was in close contact with the Virgilio brothers and Bernardino Spada. Virgilio himself wrote the ‘Opus Architectonicum‘ in close collaboration with Borromini. The work had engravings. The ‘Opus’ expressly refers to Michelangelo as an inspiration for Borromini, but to the classics, too. Virgilio was the prior of the oratorio we just visited. Borromini owes various assignments to Virgilio. His brother, Bernardino, was a cardinal. Both had a profound love for architecture.
The brothers had this quirky habit of having all kinds of architectonic designs reviewed by famous architects. Without these architects knowing about it, these were usually the designs of their equally famous peers. The brothers were very amused by discussing the architects mutual commentary. Around circa 1652, Borromini is commissioned by Bernardino and Virgilio to construct a colonnade towards the end of a small courtyard.
The Spada family owned a family chapel in the S. Paolo Maggiore in Bologna. The altar (model) in this chapel was designed by Bernini. The tabernacle depicts a similar hallway, albeit in miniature. The man who completed this miniature hallway for the Spadas in Bologna was Padre Giovanni Maria Bitonti. It was this same Bitonti who collaborated in the completion of Borromini’s colonnade.
Borromini didn’t have a lot of space for his hallway; limited to just 9 metres. Unfortunately, the current hallway has been ‘restored’ and of the original three openings in the vault to let through the light, two have been mortared shut. This adds to the effect of a long, dark tunnel with a view of a garden statue that is bathing in light. Hopefully we are allowed inside the colonnade.
The effect of this kind of hallway will take you by surprise. Because the garden and the statue are not at all what they appear to be. Another thing to look out for is one of the many Roman stray cats using this place as a lounge spot. That could take us by surprise as well. In our second schedule you will see how Bernini made gracious use of this hallway. Aside from this hallway, Borromini designed another two ‘illusions’, but in the direct vicinity that connects to the Palazzo Spada and the Piazza Capo di Ferro (1639 Map of Rome tempeste).
“Apart from designing different internal solutions for the building [Palazzo Spada], Borromini decided to change the external reality around the building by using different “illusions”. The first illusion was obtained by painting on a [side] wall of Palazzo Ossoli, the one in front of the Spada palace, a fake façade made of travertine blocks, perfectly integrated with the real façade of the palazzo; this magnificent painting, hidden for centuries by layers of glue and varnish, was restored in the early 1990s (Mario Lolli Ghetti). In the centre of the painted facade, Borromini created a real niche in which he placed a real fountain.” Source: Marco Gradozzi
Across from Palazzo Spada in Piazza Capo di Ferro is the Mammelle fountain (fountain of breasts), in a niche in the wall. The original fountain disappeared in the 18th century, but was later reconstructed. The original Herme (late 17th-century print) did get replaced by a monochrome painted life-sized new Herme, a woman made of wood. The water no longer gushed from her breasts, though the painted streams do still imply it. The water now runs from a lion’s head, which pours it into an oval sarcophagus. Two lion heads then guide the water to a basin below.
“After restyling the square, Borromini dedicated himself to the second “illusion”, obtained by perfectly aligning the secondary entrance of the building on Via Giulia with the fountain in Piazza Capodiferro [Capo di Ferro]. The final result is incredible […] from the entrance on the Via Giulia, the fountain appears to be inside the building rather than outside.” Source: Marco Gradozzi
We head along the Palazzo Farnese to take a left and a straight right, to then stand in the Via Giulia. The first thing we see is the facade of a macabre little church.
This is the S. Maria dell’Orazione e Morte. As the name implies, and the skulls on the facade would indicate, this church has seen its fair share of death. Since 1551, the friars of this church have collected the unindentified dead to at least give them a Christian funeral. If you ever come back here at another time of day and the church is open, be sure to look inside. You will see a crucifix, a lamp, chapel and other strange objects crafted from human skulls.
There used to be two special letter boxes for passers-by to leave contributions. You will also see an altar with a skull crucifix. It looks similar to what you will see in our second schedule in the crypt of the: Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.
“The arch Brotherhood of the Oration and Death aimed to bury the dead who had been found in the countryside or drowned in the Tiber, without identity or who could not receive a dignified burial in any case The Brotherhood of Death and Prayer was tasked with burying the dead that were found in the countryside or had drowned in the river Tiber. The identities of these dead could not be established and therefore they were not entitled to a proper burial. In addition to the church, an oratory and a large cemetery were built, partly underground and partly on the banks of the Tiber. The was almost completely destroyed in 1886 with the construction of the Tiber walls.” Map (1639 Map of Rome tempesta).
Next to this church, you will a palace that Borromini has worked on: the Palazzo Falconieri. In 1645, Orazio Falconieri purchased a lot that bordered his palace. Orazio commissioned Borromini to renovate and expand his palace one year later. The old palace had seven bay at the Via Giulia and the expansion would add four more. Borromini did add a second door to it for balance.
The corners of the facade end with very remarkable pilasters. They don’t just get wider vertically, but they are also given a unique capital, a falcon head. An allusion to the name of the family, falconer. If you stand back a bit, you will see that the falcons are looking at each other.
Unfortunately, this palace too was ‘restored’ heavily in the 19th century which removed quite a bit of Borromini’s work.
We will walk around the corner to look at the south-wing of this palace. The Falconieri’s had a spectacular view of the Tiber from here. Close-by lies the Palazzo Farnese, our next location.
We walk around the corner and then look at the south wing of this palace. Here the Falconieris had a beautiful view of the Tiber. Nearby is the Palazzo Farnese where we will go next. The architect Giacomo della Porta, who had designed, among other things, the loggia at the rear of the Farnese, naturally Borromini wanted to surpass the loggia of della Porta. According to friend and foe, Borromini also succeeded in this. Its loggia really stands out above everything in contrast to that of Della Porta. The Farnese loggia is kept level with the adjacent part of the building by a heavy cornice by Michelangelo.
Looking at the corners of the loggia, you will see how Borromini opted to not cut them off in a straight line but give them a concave profile instead. After what we’ve already seen of Borromini, I’m sure this no longer surprises you.
In his final years, Borromini was given less and less assignments while watching his rival Bernini be Rome’s uncrowned artist. Borromini was so fed up with this that he moved back to his birth town in Lombardy. He eventually returned to Rome. According to his biographer, Lione Pascoli, the artist died miserably in his home. Borromini had become manic. He neglected himself, and walked around dazed, confused and with blood-shot eyes. His cousin Bernardo called for a doctor. The doctor’s advice was simple: stay with him, or he will kill himself. On August 2nd, 1667, Borromini finally attempted suicide, but it would take another few hours for him to die. The confessor who was summoned for aid still managed to note down the following last words: his aid did not allow him to leave a light on while working. Borromini made spectacular designs in these last days. In the middle of the night, Borromini wakes up and lights his oil lamp. Francesco Massari, the name of his aid, forces him to put it out again and in a rage Borromini grabs his sword and impales himself with it. Massari, drawn to the screams, was quick to arrive and pulled out the sword. Borromini also asked to be buried next to Maderno in the S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini. He left his aid some five-hundred ducats. Click here for Lione Pascoli’s account of Borromini’s suicide attempt (he died one day later).
We head back and walk towards a large palace that is now the French embassy, some two-hundred metres away.