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Borromini, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Francesco Borromini, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane ("Carlino"), Rome. Commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini in 1634 for the Holy Order of the Trinity; construction began in 1638 and the church was consecrated in 1646. Speakers: Frank Dabell, Dr. Beth Harris, and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(bouncy piano music) >> A few hundred yards after Sant'Andrea Al Quirinale, we've come to another busy intersection in Rome, and this is the church of San Carlo, St. Charles. Known as San Carlino, little St. Charles because it's a small church. Alle Quattro San Fontane The Church of St. Charles of the four fountains because we have at this intersection four fountains. Like Bernini's St. Andrews Church, Sant'Andrea Al Quirinale, this has a very limited space and the great architect, Borromini, Francesco Borromini, who was the exact contemporary of Bernini. A great friend, colleague and then rival built this basically for free. He was so grateful to this order of religion, the Trinitarians who were his first clients in Rome that he said I will waive my fee. Of course, he allowed himself full creative freedom as well. >> (laughs) Well, that's what you get when you work for free. >> When you work for free. Michaelangelo also worked for free when he was consulted architect of St. Peters, so he couldn't get sued either. The exterior, what strikes me first is it's a wave. It's this undulating surface. >> Yes, I think that's the key word for one of them anyway, for Borromini. Mathematics perhaps before everything, the pure science of mathematics, but then undulation, curving and in particular, a balance between convex and concave and this is a well-known feature of his architecture. This is a very pure example of his work. >> Let's go inside. For Borromini, more than Bernini, the science of mathematics. You have to read what Galileo wrote about this too. The idea of nature and geometry being inseparably connected and just pure light and shapes comes to the fore. What we have here is an oval shape, but it's an undulating oval. >> The basic concept doesn't really come from an oval, but from the main theme of the order of religion, that this church was owned by at this time and it still owns it, the Trinitarians, that is the followers of the Holy Trinity. Now the Trinity is a triad, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If you think of it as a triangle and make two triangles, draw them on a piece of paper, put them side by side, that is one of the flat sides against one of the other flat sides and you have a diamond shape or a lozenge shape. If you then inscribe around that, it becomes an oval. If you inscribe within each triangle a circle and then start to draw lines from one point to another, those are the lines of the architecture of this church. From the minute we walk in, we see one series of circles intersected by the beginning of a line at what appears to be a right angle. Then we realize that this is not a right angle because it's a curve, we have a very sophiticated inter-connection of geometrical shapes. >> But there's a unity here. >> Of course all of this geometrical complexity resolves and this is also very musical and mathematical. That is a complicated equation that ends up resolving itself in a perfect number. When the eye is drawn up by these great, white columns and again a series of undulating lines that divided the lower part of the church from the upper part, we go into a purer oval and then above that, the pure white light of the real sunlight coming in through the latern and the ceiling is made of inter-connected square shapes, crosses, hexagons and octagons. These are derived by Borromini from the early Christian church of Santa Costanza outside the walls of Rome which was built in the 4th Century and has exactly this series of inter-connected geometrical shapes. This is the early Christian fascination, we could say even the Byzantine one at that point, with inter-connecting shapes that then resolve because they all fit together. >> This reminds me of Renaissance architecture in its appeal to the intellect. You have to sit and think and pay attention visually. >> Yes. I think that apparent paradox of on the one hand imagination and fantasy and emotion, on the other intelluct actually do resolve here because in the end it's this question of numbers that is so mysterious and yet it resolves in the end. Returning to music, we have to think of a great piece of music by Bach, let's say. Now the counterpart, you do not have to be an expert in counterpoint to appreciate the music of Bach, to appreciate the extraordinary melodies and harmonies and yet of course if you deconstruct, if you analyze it, we have something highly intellectual and mathematical, but we don't feel that we have to be at that level because the impact of that music is emotional. This is where we get the crossing of those two worlds. Just as when we entered this church, we feel the impact of it immediately visually without having, again as I say, to involve ourselves too intellectually. >> Yes. >> I love the decorative elements here above the entrance, foliage. >> His decorations is again symmetrical, but they all look different to begin with but actually it's one rosette. That is a rose or flower shaped piece of architectural decoration flanked by two others that are different, but they are symmetrical to each other and two more. The other thing that Borromini was very fond of and we find it throughout his architecure is, well first of all carving. I should say that he's a stone cutter by trade and his passion for detailed painstaking stone cutting is visible in every single detail of these capitols and flowers and in particular, the cherubs. Now if we look at any of his churches, we see very ornate cherubs. These are from the words in Judaism, Cherubim and Seraphim, those are the plural words, bodiless creatures who are closest to God. We might just call them angels, but they're something slightly different. They have a head and wings, but really no body. He makes an endless variation on that theme with very broad wings spreading out and the wings become like curly brackets that enclose another piece of architecture and sculpture. >> Fill those spaces, those complex spaces, beautifully. >> Yes. >> When you were saying that carving is critical, it actually made me think of some of the ornate rosary beads that come out of the Medieval period. The entire interior space almost feels as if it was carved out. Light unifies this entire space beautifully. As you were speaking of light, a shaft of sunlight came right down through the latern. >> It's brilliant and this is the advantage, of course, having white architecture as we see it now. (bouncy piano music)