Baroque Wonder: Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza by Francesco Borromini.

It is a very quiet Thursday afternoon here in Rome, there is nothing special about it, if such a thing could be said about the Eternal City... sunny and cloudy weather alternate each other creating fascinating shadows on the ancient walls of the Roman palazzos. Near the Pantheon is the tiny Piazza of Sant’Eustachio, the quintessential charming Italian piazza. The square is dominated by an extravagant spire, its eccentric lines seems to revolve dynamically in a somehow chaotic manner - that’s the spire of another masterpiece by Francesco Borromini: Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza

The spire of Sant'Ivo as seen from the Piazza di Sant'Eustachio

In 1632 Francesco Borromini was nominated architect of Rome’s university La Sapienza. The complex needed a church, the architect imagined an unconventional building at the east end of the charming late Renaissance cloister designed by Giacomo della Porta. Borromini designed a church with a central plan, vaguely resembling a six pointed star. The building’s construction started in 1643, certainly after a long preparatory phase, but it was interrupted in 1655 only to start again in 1659 when the church was finished, it was consecrated a year later. The pre-existence of the cloister made the work for Borromini much harder, but in true Baroque fashion he actually got much freedom and invented a concave facade that isn’t at all squeezed in its context but actually takes the best out of it and dynamically throws itself in the air.

The cloister and Sant'Ivo

The church’s interior is divided by a series of pilasters and thin horizontal frames that underline the many angles, as in San Carlino the dome sits on a series of concave ribs and niches. Outside, the dome presents a tholobate supported by a series of convex ribs and curves, it is topped with a spiral crown and a tall lantern, it is very similar to the one of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte and it clearly has an ascensional feeling.

The inside of the church
The dome

The interior of the church is topped with a single covering, resembling in a totally different key the nearby Pantheon. The focus is on the center of the dome, decorated with a series of stars that become smaller and smaller as they reach the lantern where the Holy Spirit dove is found, the light that comes from the lantern and the lower windows with the effect given by the whitewashed walls render the whole experience of entering the church transcendental.

The dome

The eccentric high altar has an altarpiece by Pietro da Cortona, the great Baroque Master representing Sant’Ivo.

The high altar

The building is not still, it reacts vigorously, yet harmoniously in the space which also becomes an element of sculpture. Borromini’s symbology, in the dome for example, that covers the entire church is that it brings everything in the perfection of the circle - the lantern where God is found. Outside, the lantern represents the lighthouse of Alexandria, but in this case it guides the Christian people, and the sculpted flames that decorate it represent the journey. The trinity is found in the triangles, found in several details of the architecture and in a stylised way also in the coat of arms of the Barberini (the one with the three bees), Pope Urban VIII commissioned the church (Maffeo Barberini). In true Borromini’s fashion he mixed Roman Baroque with Gothic elements (such as the mystery and verticality his style has), he was from northern Italy. It is interesting how the inside and the outside of the church relate to each other, like in San Carlino they are very similar but also have different shapes (hexagonal inside, circular inside). An important point of the building is given by the helicoidal movement that it gives in a very light way and it symbolises the aspiration to the infinite. This is Borromini: subliminal transcendence. And you thought only Paleo-Christian mosaics had symbolism!

 The Holy Spirit in the dome's lantern

This masterpiece is definitely worth a visit, open on Sunday 9-11 and Wednesday at 2pm.


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