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Francesco Borromini (1599-1667)

A design for the upper half of a column 1625

RCIN 905635

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Soon after his election in 1623, Pope Urban VIII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to construct a huge bronze canopy or baldacchino at the crossing of St Peter’s, over the tomb of the saint. Then only 25 years old, Bernini’s architectural experience was minimal, and Borromini was appointed to assist him. This is a design for the upper section of the twisted columns that support the canopy, and incorporates the Barberini emblems of bees, branches of laurel, and the sun.

Shortly after the election of Maffeo Barberini as Urban VIII in 1623, the Pope commissioned the 25-year-old Bernini to construct a huge canopy (or baldacchino) in part-gilded bronze over the tomb of St Peter, at the central point of the basilica. Baldacchini usually consisted of four sculptures of angels or other figures bearing poles from which was slung a canopy of precious cloth, simulating the sunscreens that were carried over important personages in processions. Temporary baldacchini had been placed over the tomb of St Peter from an early stage in the reconstruction of the basilica. In 1606 a wooden baldacchino to Maderno’s designs was erected, and in 1624 the angels of that structure were replaced with larger stucco figures by Bernini. But that seems to have been intended as a temporary arrangement, for around the same time Bernini began work on the design of the new bronze baldacchino.

Bernini recognised that any baldacchino supported by figures would be hopelessly lost in the cavernous spaces of St Peter’s, unless the figures were absurdly large. To match the new baldacchino to the vast interior he raised the canopy on four enormous columns, topped with an entablature, upon which stand angels supporting the canopy from decorative rope-like swags, the whole standing 28m (92 ft) high. The twisted columns echo the form of ancient columns from the old basilica thought at the time to have been brought by the Emperor Constantine from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem (hence the description of such twisted columns as ‘Solomonic’).

By late 1624 attempts were being made to gather surplus bronze from the construction of the dome of St Peter’s, though it was found necessary to supplement this with antique bronze pillaged from the portico of the Pantheon (giving rise to the anonymous epigram ‘Quod non fecerunt barbari fecerunt Barberini’ - ‘What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini have done’). The foundations were begun in spring of 1625; by September 1626 the columns had been cast in three sections, and they were erected during the summer of 1627. At that stage the form of the canopy itself had still not been decided. Bernini’s initial design culminated in a statue of the Risen Christ, and a wood and papier mâché mock-up of this design stood in place until 1631, when it was replaced by another featuring volutes rising on the diagonals to a gilded globe surmounted by the Cross. This version was cast in 1632, and work was complete by the following year.

This drawing studies the upper section of the right-hand columns (the columns twist in opposite directions on either side of the baldacchino), and corresponds closely with the design as cast. The capital is composite, with egg-and-dart moulding between the Ionic volutes, and a tiny sun - one of the emblems of the Barberini - placed on the abacus above it. Branches of laurel, another Barberini emblem, follow the spiral of the shaft, interspersed with putti and Barberini bees, and with a collar of acanthus leaves at the base of the section.

As with two other drawings in the Royal Collection for the entablature of the baldacchino, this sheet is carefully measured out with many pinpricks, and is drawn with a sharpness familiar from many of Borromini’s architectural drawings. It is plainly a working drawing, but the role of Borromini in the project remains problematic. While it is accepted that Bernini was responsible for the overall concept of the baldacchino, his few surviving studies for the project are sketches, and he was clearly exaggerating when he claimed that he had himself ‘made the designs and the small and large models, that he had made the plaster moulds and cast the wax, that he had cleaned the wax casts and fitted them together to cast the metal, that he had attached the tubes for the metal to enter and for the air to escape’, playing down the role of the master bronze founders who had been recruited to cast the huge sections. Borromini had presumably been enlisted in the project for his architectural expertise, for at that stage of his career Bernini’s own architectural experience was minimal. This drawing may have been prepared by Borromini on the basis of Bernini’s sketches for the approval of the Pope, and to serve as a model for the craftsmen who were constructing the moulds for the casting.

The drawing comes from one of two volumes devoted to Bernini in George III’s library, together containing over a hundred drawings. Their earlier history is unknown, though it is likely that most came to the King with the Albani collection. They must have been treasured from the start, for many (including this sheet) bear the signs of having been displayed for long periods, with discoloured paper, faded washes and insect damage, and several have been skilfully restored, apparently at an early date.

Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007