Palazzo di Propaganda Fide

Palazzo di Propaganda Fide Rome
photo: Georges Jansoone

You will visit one of his churches, the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Day 4: The San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane), in programme four, this has to do with the route that we follow. It would take too much time to include that church in this programme. Before us, we see the first façade that Bernini built for the Collegio di Propaganda Fide in the Piazza di Spagna.

Alessandro Specchi ‘Collegio Propaganda Fide’ detail facade 1699
Specchi ‘Collegio Propaganda’ in its entirety       Current facade North front and Wikipedia

Guercino ‘Pope Gregory XV’ 1622 – 1623

The Collegio Propaganda Fide is an institute for the training of missionaries that was founded by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. The Jesuits were at the pinnacle of their power at the time. They wanted a central building from which to coordinate their activities. They already owned a substantial plot (Borromini study ‘Streets‘) near the Piazza di Spagna, de Via di Capo le Case and the Via dei Due Macelli.

Pope Gregory XV
J. Paul Getty Museum

Falda ‘Falda ‘Collegio de Propaganda’ 1665       Engraving facade      Borromini’s facade

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Borromini Facade Palazzo Collegio Propaganda di Fide

Borromini Facade Palazzo Collegio Propaganda di Fide
Falda ‘Collegio de Propaganda Fide’      Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The façade we just walked past in the Piazza di Spagna was designed by Bernini, who also built a church in this large complex. This church, that was built before the Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, also had an oval layout. Borromini provoked the ire of Bernini when he had it torn down (Bernini’s façade design of the Cappella dei Re Magi). He replaced with an extraordinary chapel, which is unfortunately closed to the public. We enter the Via di Propaganda where we can see Borromini’s facade.

Borromini put only one door in this entire façade, which strongly resembles the facade of a palace. This door was put right next to the chapel and provides entrance to not just the chapel (floor plan, Albertina) but also to the inner courtyard and via flights of stairs to the upper floors. You will see that this is a very special façade. In the centre you can see seven eye-catching bays and on both sides two wings that are not emphasised at all. The lower section of the façade is notably quiet compared to the first floor.


It is not just the central bay that was emphasised, but the central bay of the three adjoining ones was also given a strong accent. The question I will ask you when we are there is where exactly this accent by the architect can be found. Together we will try to find out why many of these details violate the Vitruvian Canon.

The windows of the seven bays seems like a fugue (a piece for two or multiple voices, in which each voice repeats the main theme, but two or more bars later). The main theme is defined by the pediment of the central window near the piano nobile (first floor) and the door underneath.

Borromini Facade Palazzo Collegio Propaganda di Fide
photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

If you look at the windows’ pediments, you’ll see that from left to right the first bay is repeated in the third, fifth and seventh. These pediments are all four variations on the one over the door. The pediment above the second bay from the right and the sixth on the left are variations on the pediment above the window over the door in the middle. Notable is that the undulating pediment of the central window reconciles these two movements with each other.

Middle Window         Door detail       Window detail
Borromini sketch middle window        Albertina, Vienna

Borromini Facade Palazzo Collegio Propaganda di Fide detail: Window
photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

There is something strange going on with the colossal pilasters as well. They have all been placed differently on the wall plane, half of the pilasters were placed flush against the wall, while the other half are all turned to one side. This arrangement can also be read as a rhythm, just like the pediments above the windows on the piano nobile (turned pilaster  = / or \, pilaster placed flush against the wall = I), read from left to right as follows: \  I  I  /   \  I  I  /.

This façade is unique in history and has neither a predecessor nor a successor.

Continuation Rome day 6: Sant’Ignazio and the piazza