Truth Unveiled: Bernini’s Bell Towers and the Allegory of Truth: Borromini’s Role
–Chelsea Neal

Figure 1o. Anonymous, Portrait of Francesco Borromini, 18th Century. Source: ARTstor

Most of the sources documenting the tower debacle invariably cast Francesco Borromini as the main antagonist in the affair. Domenico Bernini writes of Borromini as a villain driven by the jealous notion that “Bernini had robbed him of all the greatness that was rightfully his.”[1] Baldinucci is slightly more constrained in his approach to the matter, but even he remarks that Borromini alone “inveighed against Bernini with his whole heart and soul.”[2]

It is true that, of all of the criticisms leveled against the artist during the course of the bell tower fiasco, the loudest and harshest were inevitably those of his long-time rival. The two architects had worked together in the past, both of them having been at St. Peter’s during the time of Carlo Maderno. Borromini was distantly related to the former chief architect, and he had served as Maderno’s confidant and first assistant during the reign of Paul V. Doubtless he had expected to succeed him as chief architect of St. Peter’s; however, as mentioned previously, Urban VIII was no fan of Maderno’s work and was therefore unlikely to choose one of his followers over his protégé.

Even before Maderno’s death Urban had taken to giving Bernini control of the other’s commissions—this was in fact how Bernini had come to inherit the Baldacchino—and so it should not have come as such as surprise when Borromini was passed over in favor of Bernini. Borromini was taken on as Bernini’s assistant, but this unlikely partnership did not last long. Borromini chafed under his secondary status and complained that the chief architect was taking credit for his ideas. Finally in 1633, in a move that was as a bold as it was reckless, a fed up Borromini abandoned the most important architectural commission in Rome: St. Peter’s. He appears to have landed on his feet, however, as the next year found him executing his first major independent commission, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.

Figure 11. Borromini, Sections of the Foundations beneath the facade block of St. Peter’s, 1645. Source: Bernini’s Rome.

When Innocent X’s committee was established to investigate the cracks, Borromini was among the architects called in to give his opinion on the matter—a request that he was only too happy to oblige. His testimony consisted, along with a powerful drawing of the progression of the cracks, of a barrage against the extreme weight of his rival’s towers wherein he asserted that “the ruin of the campanile….proceeds from nothing other than that the foundation…was made to support a single story above the façade…”[3]

Throughout the entire affair, Borromini was a staunch defender of Maderno’s foundations, the stability of which had been called into question in light of the appearance of the cracks. Bernini had stipulated that the cracks in the façade were merely a result of the natural settling the building, although he slyly added that “he had built his tower on foundations laid by Carlo Maderno and that this alone should have assured success.”[4] In other words, if anything had in fact gone wrong it was only due to Maderno’s defective foundations, never Bernini’s tower.

It is entirely possible that Borromini had taken this as an attack on his friend and mentor, and that his relentless assault on Bernini’s tower constituted a defense of Maderno that, as McPhee notes, “…hint[ed] at the attacks that had been leveled at the deceased architect…,” perhaps offering a motivation other than the pure jealousy described by Domenico Bernini and Baldinucci.[5] Whether his reasons were spiteful, personal, or a mixture of the two, Borromini’s interference combined with the voices of other critics and the ready ear of the Pope, spread genuine concern about the stability of the towers and undoubtedly had a large role in the final decision.

[1] Domenico Bernini, The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 153.

[2] Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini, 34.

[3] Morrissey, The Genius in the Design, 155.

[4] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 97.

[5] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 100.