Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sant' Ivo

When I wrote here last fall about Francesco Borromini's church of Sant' Ivo della Sapienza in Rome, I used photos from the Internet that were undoubtedly more accomplished than these present ones, taken myself. But like any traveler, I want to remember what attracted my own spontaneous eye, and these are the trustiest reminder of just what that was.

The smooth broad concave curve of the entrance front surprised me in person as deeper, more extreme than I'd understood from photographs taken head-on. Borromini had to fit his church into a narrow space between the already-existing arcades, and that deep curve helped him exploit the space beyond its apparent potential.

The eight-pointed stars used above as a drain in the courtyard and as air vents near the foundation are repeated (below) inside the dome, rising in vertical strips as relief-ornaments. These are a tribute to Pope Alexander VII, copied from his family coat of arms. Alexander happens to be my personal favorite among Popes – he had the good luck to live in the glorious 17th century and the good sense to commission a shitload of architecture.

Though I stopped by several times to say hello to the outside of the church, the interior was only open on Sunday mornings for two hours. When I first arrived on the fateful Sunday morning and pushed through the velvet drapes hanging over the doorway, a Mass was in progress. Sant' Ivo is so small that I would have felt impossibly obtrusive peering around and taking pictures while people were acting out their religion, so I went for a walk.

When I came back an hour later the pews had all been filled by a different audience and they were listening to a lecture in Italian about the nature of the architecture they were sitting inside of. This time I did not feel so shy about pursuing my own agenda.

According to Anthony Blunt, in 1859 the interior of Sant' Ivo was "grievously restored" and the immaculate white walls covered with "sham painted marble of extreme coarseness." These horrendous improvements were left in place for over a century and only undone in the 1970s. The glowing niches that you see in the two pictures above are the result of fluorescent strip lighting – an innovation that I found sufficiently disturbing – but minor in comparison to what the structure has suffered in the past. Truly, architects practice the most distressing of all the arts – as soon as their work is finished it is handed over to those with the power to alter it. They almost always use that power and almost never for the better.

Blunt is also eloquent enough to describe his own concrete vision of Borromini's success here – "... the eye is carried round the line of the entablature in a ceaseless swing, moving from the simple concavity of one bay to the broken and more angular form of the next. Never perhaps did the Baroque ideal of movement attain more complete and perfect expression."

On a later day I was more than a mile away from the church of Sant' Ivo, surveying the whole wide swathe of central Rome from the roof of Castel Sant' Angelo. There I found a large diagram-map showing the names and locations of at least fifty visible church domes and spires. This helped me locate Sant' Ivo, which I would never have picked out in the far distance. Thinking there was almost no chance of success, I still tried to take a maximum-zoom-photo of Borromini's funny corkscrew-structure poking up at the sky. And I felt as merry as a grig when I got something close to a recognizable image, even if not a very sharp one.

Because Sant' Ivo is great. That is all there is to say. The end.