Walk down a street in the centro storico of Rome and you’ll see a fragment of an Ancient Roman statue. This is what remains of a medieval building, a Renaissance palazzo, and, without a doubt, a Baroque church. The centre of Rome is a fascinating blend of different eras and architectural styles, but in many parts of the city it’s the Baroque aesthetic that dominates – ornate marble facades, theatrical fountains, and spectacular statues.
In the 17th century, two men transformed Rome. Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini left a long-lasting architectural legacy, which can still be seen almost everywhere you look in the Eternal City. Take a walk through the Vatican or Piazza Navona, and you’re surrounded by the creations of these two visionary architects. But many visitors who admire the magnificent Baroque architecture of Bernini and Borromini are unaware that the men had a legendary rivalry. Bernini was a popular, prolific sculptor and architect who won innumerable commissions from the wealthiest and most powerful patrons in Rome. He is best known for masterly sculptures such as Apollo and Daphne and the Ecstasy of St Teresa, the baldachin in St Peter’s Basilica, his redesign of St Peter’s Square, and the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.
His rival Borromini was an eccentric yet innovative architect, who worked on important churches such as San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, and Sant’Agnese in Agone. However, despite his obvious talent, his idiosyncratic style and difficult personality hindered his success, and for most of his career he was overshadowed by Bernini. The competition between the two men became the stuff of popular legend. Piazza Navona was the symbol of their rivalry, as it was here that a Bernini creation (the Fountain of the Four Rivers) was opposite a work by Borromini (the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone). At the base of Bernini’s fountain are four allegorical statues, representing the major rivers of the world. According to legend, the figure symbolising the Rio de la Plata is raising his hands above his head to shield himself from the horrible sight of Borromini’s church, while the Nile protects himself by hiding beneath a veil. It’s a good story, though unfortunately it can’t be true, given that the statues were completed a few years before the church was built.
The artists also fought over the Palace of the Propagation of the Faith. Bernini had originally won the commission to enlarge the building, but after the death of Pope Urban VIII, the task was assigned to Borromini instead. As Bernini lived right next to the palace, Borromini couldn’t resist the temptation of mocking his rival, and had a pair of donkey’s ears carved on the side of the building. Bernini responded with equal wit and maturity by sculpting a phallus on the side of his house, pointing towards Borromini and his team. Although these sculptures are no longer visible – they were obviously considered indecent, and removed – this story appears to be based in fact.
This infamous Baroque rivalry ended with the death of Borromini in 1667. Tragically, the artist committed suicide by falling on his own sword. Bernini survived him by another decade, and continued working until two weeks before his death, at the age of 81. To learn more about the extraordinary lives and works of these two architects, join one of our walking tours of Rome, where you’ll visit Piazza Navona and see some of the most famous Baroque art and architecture. To learn more about the work of Bernini in Rome please also read our free guide to the Borghese Gallery.