San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane: Madness or Masterpiece?

A wayward force of the High Renaissance, Baroque was broken in by Michelangelo in Rome in the sixteenth century before being given full rein by Bernini and Borromini in the seventeenth. Characterized by curves, domes, broken pediments and a gloriously inventive play on classical detailing, at its theatrical zenith it was thrilling architectural opera – far from the chaste and graceful classicism that both preceded it and ousted it in the eighteenth century. Deeply romantic, it also had something of the subversive about it.

As did Francesco Borromini (1599–1667), architect of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, a Roman church that retains the power to provoke and thrill three-and-a-half centuries after its consecration. This was Borromini’s first independent commission, received in 1634. He created a geometrically complex and serpentine building, writhing around an exquisite oval dome inside. From the street San Carlo presents an undulating facade, both concave and convex, as if stone was a plastic material to be moulded and sculpted at will.

Here is one of those buildings that is hard to sketch and difficult to understand. There are those who declare San Carlo nothing more than perverse kitsch, and Borromini mad. A passionate and troubled man, Borromini was to commit suicide, and yet, working with a single assistant and with nothing more than pen and paper, this seventeenth-century architect produced buildings that would challenge the most imaginative twenty-first-century architect armed with the latest computers, parametric theories and high-tech materials. 

Born Francesco Castelli in Switzerland, the young stonemason worked on Milan Cathedral and St Peter’s in Rome, newly crowned with Michelangelo’s magnificent dome. He set up in practice in 1633 as one of the world’s first professional architects under the pseudonym Borromini. For Borromini, architecture was truly a matter of life and death. While working in Rome on the rebuilding of the early Christian basilica, San Giovanni in Laterano, he discovered a man spitting on and disfiguring sacred stonework, and had the man beaten up. He died, and Borromini was granted a papal pardon. Studious, solitary, garbed in austere Spanish fashion, he lived in spartan rooms furnished with a library of more than 1,000 books, and a bust of Michelangelo.

Borromini was well aware of the challenging nature of his work. ‘In inventing new things’, he wrote, ‘one cannot receive the fruit of one’s labour except later.’ Bernini said, after his rival’s death, ‘only Borromini understood this profession, but he was never content and wanted to hollow out one thing inside another, and another inside that without ever getting to the end.’ Although his brilliance was recognized by German art historians from the 1920s, and later championed by English academics, even today there are lazily written guidebooks informing tourists that Borromini was insane. No. Borromini was inspired, a brilliant architect who played with complex forms and geometries to shape churches with passion and spirit. Few buildings are as restlessly alive and yet as serene as San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.

This extract is from Jonathan Glancey’s new book, What’s so great about the Eiffel Tower?, published by Laurence King Publishing. ArchDaily readers can receive 35% off the book by using the code "ARCHDAILY" at

What's So Great About the Eiffel Tower? 70 Questions That Will Change the Way You Think about Architecture

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Cite: Jonathan Glancey. "San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane: Madness or Masterpiece? " 06 Mar 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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