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Borromini vs Bernini

Everybody knows that the four statues representing the great rivers of the Earth, in the central fountain of Bernini's sculpture for the Piazzo Navona in Rome, are either looking away from the extremely nearby fašade of Borromini's Sant'Agata in Agone or regarding it in horror, because Bernini and Borromini were rivals. That's all I knew, too, until I read Jake Morrissey's agreeable compare-and-contrasticon, The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry that Transformed Rome (William Morrow, 2005).

For once, the vaunting subtitle is not implausible. Totting up the contributions to the glory of Rome that were made by these two men alone is breathtaking. Bernini erected the baldacchino in St Peter's (stealing an idea or two from Borromini), as well as the great colonnade immediately outside the basilica. He adorned the Ponte Sant'Angelo with its angels. Parts of the Palazzo Barberini and Sant' Andrea al Quirinale are his, as well as the bell towers that grace the Pantheon. Let's not forget the Cornaro Chapel, with its most erotic of clothed religious figures swooning in ecstasy.

Bernini clearly thought big, even in small spaces. Borromini developed a jeweler's precision for filling small spaces with intricate compositions. An early church that I hope to visit someday is the tiny San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, with its oval, coffered dome. Borromini's baroque was not flighty or eccentric; his interiors owe their soul-lifting exuberance to mathematical rigor, to the overlap of circles and regular polygons. Other wonders include the Oratorio dei Filipini, the Palazzo Pamphili (next to Sant'Agata), the Propaganda Fide, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, and the interior of San Giovanni in Laterano, the Cathedral of Rome.

The two men were personally very different. Bernini was a man of the world, affable but hardly retiring. Borromini appears to have been somewhat misanthropic. He was always quarreling with clients, and business dried up to the extent that he killed himself. Bernini always made the most - and then some - of every opportunity, and he inarguably gave baroque Rome its face. His portrait busts are matched only by those of Houdon, a century later. Borromini could make an enemy out of anybody. Watching his rival swing from triumph to triumph must have become insupportable.

They both also shared a lifelong passion for creativity, for the new, and they reached heights that few artists have achieved since. Even the American architect Frank Gehry, whose own work has been praised and lambasted for its rule-breaking individuality, told a television interviewer that the greatest building ever designed is Borromini's San Carlino. "It's got all the moves in it that I've made," he said. "I've done nothing new since then."

It's the individual approach to their work that truly distinguishes these men, through the way they lived and the way they worked. Bernini succeeded by surpassing expectations; Borromini startled by defying them. Bernini's artistic vision was persuasive, impressive, precocious, and emotional. Borromini's sensibility was personal, intuitive, logical, and incorruptible. Together and apart, they worked to the best of their abilities to produce art that would last. They succeeded. And in the process they became immortal.

Mr Morrissey's book is for lay readers. It is painfully short on illustration, but images of Rome are hardly difficult to come by. Having seen none of the objects and structures that Mr Morrissey discusses, it's not for me to declare their excellence (although I do), but I can attest to the book's power as an appetizer. (April 2007)

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