Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza

Entrance of the Palazzo and Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza

Entrance  Palazzo and Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza
photo: Teggelaar

Fontana dei Libri      Zoom in

The entrance of the Palazzo della Sapienza with the famous church Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza lies to the east, for tourists that is. On our way there, we will look at a beautiful little fountain designed by Borromini. You can tell by the books that this is a university.

Palazzo della Sapienza: Fontana dei Libri
photos: Daniele.Brundu and zoom: Rodney
Portrait Francesco Borromini

Francesco Borromini

This church is a revolutionary design, just like the San Carlino. Borromini’s architecture was not appreciated by most of his contemporaries. Bernini used the word chimera for his rival’s work, a figment of the imagination. The word stems from the name of a mythical monster, that has the body of a man, but the head of a bird. This was a very serious reproach considering that ever since the ancient Greeks architecture had been based on the human form, and that proportions were determined by the width of the column. Even after the Renaissance, the modular system for achieving symmetry (Wikipedia Vitruvius) was used as a starting point in architecture, but you were already told this in class. Borromini’s architecture was based on the classics and contemporary Baroque, but not on Vitruvius. There is one crucial point at which he deviates from a time-honoured tradition. Borromini broke away from the anthropomorphic approach (click here if you want to know more about this approach)  to architecture. In designing a building such as the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, he used, as we have seen in the San Carlino, geometric patterns that slide into each other in order to derive new shapes from the old ones. For instance, the shape of the dome of the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza was determined by a geometric design.

Carlo Maratta ‘Giovanni Pietro Bellori’

Giovanni Bellori did not mention Borromini by name, but everyone knew he was speaking about this anarchistic architect when he wrote the following:
“[…]  everyone imagines in his head a new idea or phantom of architecture in his own manner […] so that they deform buildings, even towns and monuments. They use, almost deliriously, angles and broken and distorted lines, they tear apart bases, capitals and columns with crowded stucco decoration and trivial ornaments and with faulty proportions, in spite of the fact that Vitruvius condemns such novelties.” Cited from: Anthony Blunt, ‘Borromini’, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, Harvard University Press, 1979 p. 212.

Carlo Maratta 'Giovanni Pietro Bellori'

    Dome         Dom detail      Geometric pattern

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza: Dome and walls
photos: Architas and detail Lawrence OP
Portrait of Francesco Borromini
Francesco Borromini
Gian Lorenzo Bernini 'Self-portrait'
Gian Lorenzo Bernini

There are also essential differences between the architecture of Borromini and Bernini. Bernini sometimes used a basic shape such as the oval in the Sant Andrea Quirinale, but did not embroider on it to arrive at a completely new lay out, or to determine the shape of other parts of the building. Bernini fits in with the classics and a long tradition in the history of architecture. The niche above the door of the San Carlino is a good example of another difference between Borromini and Bernini. Borromini used herms that take the form of cherubs whose wings form a sort of triumphal arch around the statue of St Borromeo. Here, sculpture is completely in the service of architecture. Quite something different from the statue of St Andrew that tells its own story in coherence with the painting above the main altar. The statue of this saint is no way connected to the architecture. Here you can see the niche above the door of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane with a statue of the holy Charles Borromeo by Antonio Raggi. This means that the old classical calculations of the column’s diameter and the golden section that you saw at the Pantheon were thrown overboard. This also explains why not only the contemporaries of this self-willed architect strongly criticised his work, but later generations also. There was always admiration as well, but often as part of diatribes against all kinds of elements in his architecture that were considered wrong. Borromini’s work wasn’t really appreciated until after World War II.

Borromini got his inspiration from two important sources:
1. Classical architecture
2. Michelangelo Buonarroti

Leonardo da Vinci ‘Vitruvian Man’
Translation of Leonardo’s text

Classical architecture has long been identified with Vitruvius’ rather strict and conservative ideas. And yet, there have been many buildings and architects in Rome, including Hadrian and his Villa in Tivoli (see day 2, or under menu) who used fantastic and exuberant elements and constructions. In the day of August and Flavius capitals and plinths were used that deviated strongly from the Greek rules, as you have already seen in the capitals that Augustus used for his imperial forum.

Michelangelo Sforza chapel

The second source is Michelangelo’s architecture, as you have already seen in the Porta Pia (detail). Michelangelo designed the Sforza Chapel in the Santa Maria Maggiore not far from our hotel.

This chapel was revolutionary and exerted great influence on the Baroque and more specifically on Borromini. Michelangelo’s design deviates fundamentally from Renaissance architecture on three basic principles. Renaissance architecture assumed that each room was a separate space in its own right. If you look at the diagram the diagram (number three) on the floor plan, you will see the rooms are not clearly defined. On the contrary, some of these rooms merge into one another. This can be seen quite clearly in the two rooms where the altars have been placed opposite each other. The space under the central dome was not clearly defined as separate from the two rooms to its left and right. In the space under the dome two piercing columns suggest a demarcation, but do not clearly mark it out.

Michelangelo Sforza chapel
photo: Sailko

Another construction principle is the placement of the pairs of columns facing the central domed room. These columns were placed under a 135-degree angle relative to the central axis, which makes them pierce the space like dangerous thorns. And finally, Michelangelo deviates from the classical cruciform layout. The central unit, the domed room, is no longer situated in the middle, but has been moved to the entrance, allowing Buonarroti to achieve a nearly impossible combination of a Greek cross and a central design.

As we enter the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, we will see that Borromini was inspired by Michelangelo’s Sforza Chapel. First we are going to take a look at the inner courtyard of this university named Sapienza, which is now being used as an office space. Architects Pirro Ligorio and Giacomo della Porta built this university in the 16th century. In 1632, when the building had no yet been completed, Borromini is commissioned to finish it. The eastern façade (where we entered), the library and the church still had to be built.

Entrance west facade Palazzo della Sapienza and S. Ivo
photo: Teggelaar

Entrance west facade Palazzo della Sapienza and S. Ivo
Borromini’s Design of the western facade       Map
Lieven Cruyl ‘Piazza S. Eustachio’ and Palazzo della Sapienza 1664

Borromini rejected the church his predecessors had designed because he felt it resembled a fortress and was too dull. Borromini wanted to change the western façade, but could not make it happen. It would have costed too much money to demolish the recently constructed façade. Borromini’s design has survived. He wanted two entrances instead of the one central entrance we see today, because it would have presented the visitor with a beautiful vista along the colonnade of the inner courtyard, an idea that Borromini was able to realise for the eastern facade (G. B. Falda ‘Palazzo della Sapienza’ 1665). 


The church is located at the end of the inner courtyard. When you enter the university (originally always from the western side) you will immediately notice the concave inner façade.

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza courtyard

Facade of the S. Ivo alle Sapienza      Courtyard

Facade  S. Ivo alle Sapienza
photos: Pedro Valera and courtyard: Paris Orlando
Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza 
photo: Jensens

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza        Open work (engraving Borromini Opera)

Just like Bernini faced strong limitations when he built the Scala Regia, Borromini faced restrictions in building this church. The Courtyard was already there and the concave shape had also already been decided by Giacomo della Porta. Also, the nearly square plot was rather small for a church (the floor plan of the Sapienza with the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and the floor plan of the church). Despite all these limitations, Borromini succeed in building a unique and imaginative church based on a central design. This form was being strongly propagated by the church ever since the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent was a meeting of church leaders at which they decided to reorganise the church to counter the growing support for Luther and Calvin. During the Council’s many meetings, rules were also drawn up for art, rules that would profoundly affect the Baroque. The Sapienza was a university where theology took a front seat. In addition to preaching and the reading of psalms, fierce theological debates were held. A small church where students could sit in a circle was the perfect space for preaching or debate.

Bernini ‘Pope Urban VIII’       Dome and part of the walls

Borromini used the experience he had gained building the San Carlino and the oratory to design a basic geometric pattern that would define the whole church. As always, he started from simple shapes that he elaborated into a complex pattern. Just like with the San Carlino, he started with two equilateral triangles, which this time were not superimposed, but slid into each other. He next drew circles at various points that changed the six vertices into convex and concave tips, creating a hexagon with three niches and three bays that keep alternating between convex and concave planes with six axes. The floor plan thus obtained also defined the vertical elevation of the walls and the dome. If you look at the cornice just below the dome and turn on your axis it seems like your eyes are continuously being dragged along by a merry-go-round. We know from several sources, including drawings by Borromini himself, that a special meaning was attributed to the floor plan. The basic pattern represents the three bees that feature prominently in the Barberinis’ (Pope Urban VIII) coat of arms.

Bernini 'Pope Urban VIII'

The bee’s head and body with its six legs correspond with the six bays. It is also possible that Borromini had the six-pointed Star of David in mind. This star can also be found in the decorations of the dome and represented wisdom, an obvious symbol in a university church. The big difference with the San Carlino you visit in programme 2 is that the shape of the walls is now also fully dictated by the floor plan. This was not the case in the San Carlino.

The Dome

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza dome interior
photo: Jastrow
Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza  dome detail
photos: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta and Sailko

Above the window concave

Borromini introduced some subtle variations. The three half circles pointing outward are just a little bigger than half a circle. As a result, the corner pilasters project more sharply into the space than was the case in Michelangelo’s Sforza Chapel. The part of the dome that connects to the section of the wall that consists of straight elements with a concave wall in between is not what it seems to be. It seems like the section that connects to the dome follows the pattern of the lower part of the wall: straight, concave and then straight again. A lot of light comes in through the big windows built into this part of the dome, making it impossible to see that the middle section is not curved, but straight. Above the windows this part of the vault does change its shape from straight to concave, allowing all six parts of the dome to converge at the top as a round ring, upon which the round lantern was placed.

The decorations in the church’s interior have much to do with the patron, Alexander VII, who was a Chigi. The Chigi coat of arms consists of three ‘mountains’ with a star above them and oak leaves. You can see that the inner ring of the lantern is decorated with oak leaves, if you have brought your binoculars, that is. The capitals of the pilasters are decorated with acorns. The Chigi star has been depicted on the straight sections of the dome, albeit alternated with the six-pointed Star of David. A sketch drawn by Borromini shows that he initially intended to place seven columns behind the main altar, probably as a reference to the seven wisdoms quoted in the Old Testament.

The floor detail of the centre

The floor is quite surprising. It does not have a pattern based on a hexagon. The pattern of diamond-shaped white and grey marble tiles forms an octagon. The effect is less than aesthetically pleasing. Borromini tried to soften this by a straight rim of black tiles running along the niches like a neat line, but it still looks contrived. The explanation for this dissonant in the design is probably quite banal. If the floor had been laid in six parts – from an aesthetic point of view the logical thing to do – the tiles would have had to be cut in 30 and 150 degree angles, something the marble workers had never done before and did not have the tools for.

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza: centre floor tiles

The interior was restored in the 19th century, seriously violating Borromini’s design. The white plaster walls were painted over as faux marble. The main altar’s niche was radically altered, as was the gallery. Straight edges were rounded off at the top, essentially violating the whole design. A window in the eastern façade which admitted much-needed light was even bricked up. The interior was as much as possible returned to its former state in the 1960s. This of course had everything to do with the newly found appreciation for Borromini’s work that I mentioned earlier. The bright light that enters the church today was probably originally a bit more tempered. The strips of lead between the panes were originally much wider.

The Dome and the lantern

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza: dome lantern 

The exterior of this church is definitely also worth looking at. We go outside and take a seat on the western side of the inner courtyard. You definitely need a good pair of binoculars to be able to see the dome and the lantern well. The dome’s exterior is as extraordinary as its interior. The first thing you notice are the circles of bricks (coated with zinc). These rings are intended to counteract the lateral thrust of the dome. In contrast with the Pantheon, these rings are emphasised. The space available to Borromini for the construction of his church was so limited there was hardly any room for buttresses. At least nothing bigger than the buttresses that run across the rings and end in a scroll with a ball on top. These scrolls are a quote from the Michelangelo’s Porta Pia (detail) that Borromini admired so much.

Tholobate and lantern

The tholobate is not real. This exterior construction that does not match the interior was an absolute necessity. The dome’s lateral thrust is better counteracted by a hefty mass of bricks on the outside than by any tholobate. This is also the reason why the undulation of this fake tholobate does not follow the shape of the interior.

During its construction, there was a lot of criticism from fellow architects who thought the construction was not strong enough. Apparently Borromini had some misgivings as well, because a note written has survived in which he guarantees his church for just 15 years. Just as well that we are back in the inner courtyard.

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza: Tholobate and lantern 
Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza: lantern 
photos: Wolfgang Moroder

Tholobate and lantern       The top        The lantern
Borromini preliminary sketch       Albertina, Vienna

The most fantastic element of the church’s exterior is the lantern, which, unfortunately, you cannot see without binoculars. The lantern is reminiscent of the classical temple of Baalbek that also features six concave niches between paired columns. Borromini’s lantern was probably inspired by the work of Giovanni Battista Montano (Wikipedia) who made many reconstruction drawings of classical monuments.

Borromini let his imagination run free with the top of the lantern. Around the cone-shaped tip, a ledge spirals upwards. The tip is crowned by a globe with a cross on top.  Borromini was probably familiar with the drawings and engravings of the Dutch painter Maarten van Heemskerck. One of his paintings depicts the tower of Babel as an oriental ziggurat (temple tower). The tower of Babel is a symbol of human folly. For strange and incomprehensible reasons, the spiral-shaped tower (Borromini Study) later became a symbol of wisdom. Maarten van Heemskerck used his ziggurat as a luminous symbol.

The dragon and the garland

Just like the interior, the exterior was also adorned with numerous symbols based on Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (Wikipedia) that was published in 1593. This book quickly became a reference work for artists. A second edition was published eight years later, this time including engravings. Borromini gratefully availed himself of this book, for instanced the burning torches around the lantern’s base, which Ripa describes as the desire for wisdom and knowledge. The heraldic symbols of the Chigi’s are also found on the building’s exterior. The cornice just below the dome features an interesting egg-and-dart moulding that includes cherub’s heads.

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza: fountain 
photo: Maristela Possamai

Some drawings by Borromini were discovered after the major restoration of 1970 in which he had designed all kinds of details, such as the library’s book shelves. Details that you saw at the cute little fountain with the books on the outside of the Sapienza.
You can click here for 616 drawings of Borromini. Fill in Borromini by Suchbegriff (Albertina Vienna).

We now return to the Piazza Navona to see the Sant’Agnese in Agone.

Continuation Rome day 6: Sant Agnese in Agona and Pasquino