“Borromini” White

Written by Iacopo Benincampi
Translated by Maria Letizia Pazzi (IT Version)

Francesco Castelli (1599-1667) – better known as Borromini – has marked the architectural history with his extremely original artistic work. The professional from Ticino denied that the universality of the rule only corresponds to the formulation which has been decoded by the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Century tradition. Therefore he aimed to prove the existence of other expressive possibilities that  hide within the borders of such traditions: malleable edges that may be expanded by means of new inputs that could bring about modern creations, innovative rhythms and foster a unitary interpretation of the work. Centralising space  is the ultimate goal of Borromini’s actions, alongside with seeking a balance, in itself precarious due to its tension, which is partly stabilised by the colour.
In fact, the adoption of ‘white’ is not a singularity of the architect modus operandi, however it may be interpreted as a precise intentio auctoris. Moreover, because Borromini pursued a strict consistency as the absolute principle of each of his architectural results, the implementation of white may enhance the frames, and emphasise the vibration which indicate a hidden dynamism. Thus, the chiaroscuro intensifies, the drama emerges and the viewer’s eye is constantly pointed towards the continuous connection of the elements. The image appears as a whole and its fragmented nature disappears within the colour; the clarity of forms, the punctuality of the lexicon, and the accuracy of the syntax emerge. Such technique may be called ‘sculptural’, in the manner of Michelangelo (1475-1564): the depth and three-dimensionality gain strength in the incisions and in the shadows,  therefore the final result is rife with a mind-produced illusory feeling.

White – the sum of the seven colours of the iris – may also be considered as a synonymous of identity. The monochrome may act as a hierarchy tool within a single element of the city, since it is a “distinctive” feature in the context, and it identifies the sacred building within the uniform urban tissue. Besides, church is the gathering place for praying people, the house of God, the centre of the religious life of the smallest communities. Therefore, even Borromini, developing one of his uncle’s ideas, realised that such emergency cannot remain unnoticed or be confused with something else. Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) had indeed noticed that a mediation was to be created in order to integrate a “noble” building within a more “popular” atmosphere by establishing a gradual dialectic between the emergency and the surrounding area, provided that the separation did not appear too sharp and was not interpreted as a rupture instead of a continuous. Consequently, Borromini followed the example of the Roman church of Santa Susanna (from 1603), where Maderno had affixed two brick wings as a summary of the stone facade, and designed the famous Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri (from 1637 ), placing the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (from 1577) in the middle of a triptych. The composition consists of three elements, namely two on the sides which are both equal and different from the central and celebrate the third by exalting its monumentality, severe nobility and material quality. Therefore, in this case  white acts as a logic consecutio and not as an a priori condition, emphasises the brick-stone material distinction; the white-yellowish travertine is necessarily the support of the religious building image: such elitist feature, which is largely spread and applied to almost all church facades in the city, seems to establish a precise sign of recognition for this kind of artifacts, as well as a general categorisation.


The use of different materials with chromatic contrast in the external part of the buildings has actually been in vogue since ancient times, even during the Middle Ages. Therefore, it can’t be defined as an actual innovation, but rather a desire to emulate the past, which was a  typical baroque ideology. Such approach shall not be confused  with the ‘myth of white’ which has later become the symbol of neoclassicist poetry: aristocratic buildings are therefore given dignity and prestige in order to distinguish high social classes from low ones; similarly such approach became the image of the State’s power in its public buildings. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (11717-68) wrote in his famous Geschichte der kunst de Altertums (1764): «Because white is the colour that reflects more rays of light and consequently becomes more sensitive, the more white a body contains, the more beauty it will gain». He proposed a harmonisation aimed at achieving a non-realistic artistic ideal  hidden in a unquestionable hyperuranium by associating antiquity with an abstract lack of shade. Yet the lesson of Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (from 1634), which has later  become S. Ivo alla Sapienza (1642), as well as the contemporary Chiesa dei Santi Luca e Martina (from 1634) by Pietro Berrettini from Cortona (1596 -1669) was clear: white does not act as a solution, but rather as an open question, a pre-condition to colour, an attempt to help the observer understand the theoretical and programmatic architecture model. Ultimately, it  expresses a “suspension of judgment”. Borromini’s white may be defined as a will to transfigure the matter through light following an  albus instead of a candidus, since it embodies a religious as well as practical feeling. The architect himself stated:  «I did not aim to gild or paint, I coloured it with the shade of travertine, which was great and inexpensive».

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