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Photographer's Note

This is one of the most understated churches in Rome, which is strangely refreshing after viewing the vibrant, almost vulgar opulence of the veritable string of pearls of churches on "Baroque Row," which include Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, Santa Susanna, and the crown jewel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, at the end of this long street. This austere, very serene church is definitely the stand-out example of simplicity. Don't be mistaken, however (and don't miss it): its complex oval dome is a work of genius, inset with coffered shapes that decrease in size the higher they progress, making it reminiscent of a honeycomb. The light, ethereal, almost sterile interior gives it a fragile, airy, almost feminine character, which is quite unique, particularly in this part of town.

The Church of Saint Charles at the Four Fountains (colloquially known as San Carlo) was the first independent commission for the brilliant but troubled Francesco Borromini. It is a part of a monastic complex on the Quirinal Hill, constructed for the Spanish Trinitarians. It is situated at the southwest corner of the Quattro Fontane, or four fountains set at the intersection of two main roads, the Strada Pia and the Strada Felice. Main construction occurred from 1638-1641, but it was not totally completed until after his death in 1667.

This seventeenth-century convent church is often paired with the equally impressive Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, but the latter was at the time undergoing extensive renovation, so it was almost impossible to get any sense of the interior, which is almost completely obscured by scaffolding.

The two churches are considered “complementary masterpieces by the two titanic rivals of the architectural world of seventeenth century Rome, Francesco Borromini and GianLorenzo Bernini.” This one, whose interior is quite unexpected for a baroque church, considering the others in the area, was named for St. Charles Borromeo (although it’s locally known as San Carlino, “Little St. Charles”), and the Quattro Fontane, which is located just a few feet away at the intersection. The church now belongs to a convent founded by Spanish Discalced Trinitarians whose purpose was ransoming Christians captured by Muslim pirates in wartime.

Pope Sixtus V commissioned the adjacent Quattro Fontane (the four fountains), a group of late Renaissance fountains located at the intersection of the Via delle Quattro Fontane and the Via del Quirinale. They were installed in this difficult space between 1588 and 1593. The four figures represent the Tiber river, the Arno river, the goddess Diana and the goddess Juno, designed by Pietro da Cortona.

Primary construction on San Carlo occurred from 1638-1641. The brilliant but troubled Borromini began the facade but committed suicide before its completion. As with other sites and personalities, a striking account lies just beneath. Always reputed to have an artistic temperament, Borromini reportedly wanted to be interred in this church, but the friars refused the request after his suicide. Some evidence to the contrary: his will specified that he be buried at San Gioanni dei Fiorentini. The account of his death is striking, as it survives in his own words. The following text (from a biography) details the event. He reported:

“I have been wounded like this since about 8:30 this morning and I will tell you how it happened. I had been feeling ill since the feast of the Magdalene [22 July] and had not been out because of my illness except on Saturday and Sunday when I went to S. Giovanni [dei Fiorentini] for the Jubilee. Last night the idea came to me of making my will and writing it out with my own hand. I began to write it about an hour after supper and I went on writing with a pencil until about 3 AM. Messer Francesco Massari my young servant … who sleeps in the room next door to look after me and had already gone to bed, seeing that I was still writing and had not put out the light, called to me, ‘Signor Cavaliere, you ought to put out the light and go to sleep because it is late and the doctor wants you to sleep.’ I replied that I should have to light the lamp again when I woke up and he answered: ‘Put it out because I’ll light it again when you wake up’; and so I stopped writing, put away the paper on which I had written a little and the pencil with which I was writing, put out the light and went to sleep.

About five or six I woke up and called to Francesco and told him to light the lamp, and he answered: ‘Signor, no’. And hearing this reply I suddenly became impatient and began to wonder how I could do myself bodily harm, as Francesco had refused to give me a light. I remained in that state until about 8:30 AM when I remembered that I had a sword in the room at the head of the bed, hanging among the consecrated candles, and, with my impatience at not having a light increasing, in despair I took the sword and pulling it out of the scabbard braced the hilt on the bed and put the point to my side and then fell on it with such force that it ran through my body, from one side to the other. Falling on the sword, I fell on to the floor with the sword run through my body and because of my wound I began to scream, and so Francesco ran in and opened the window, through which light was coming, and found me lying on the floor, and he with others whom he had called pulled the sword out of my side and put me on the bed; and this is how I came to be wounded.”

Borromini died a few days later, after finishing his will and receiving the last sacraments upon repentance. Some have even suggested that his suicide was a result of worsening schizophrenia, a condition manifest in his architecture, but it’s rather doubtful, as the disease often lessens in old age; if it were severe enough to lead to suicide, it’s doubtful that he would have lived as long or functioned as well as he did.

Notwithstanding the graphic account of his death, the church is a crowning achievement of his genius. The interior is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this church, which is exquisite in its execution, It’s very austere in some regards, but its symmetry and architectural complexity are impressive yet subtle. The interior space is an incurved rhombus. The dominant color is a simple white, accented by pink, so it has a very feminine character, as it’s very light and airy, with scallops and shells throughout. The most impressive feature is the unbelievable interior dome.

Borromini raised three semi-domes over three altar apses, adorning them with coffering with rosettes. A large window allows the only direct natural light into the church. The dome is oval rather than circular, and its delicate interior looks like intricate lace. Indeed, the primary difference between the two great architects was that Borromini favored geometric proportions rather than those based on the human body, as Bernini seemed to favor.

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Photo Information
  • Copyright: Terez Anon (terez93) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 89 W: 78 N: 1048] (1873)
  • Genre: Places
  • Medium: Color
  • Date Taken: 2013-11-00
  • Categories: Architecture
  • Photo Version: Original Version
  • Date Submitted: 2020-02-25 10:50
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Additional Photos by Terez Anon (terez93) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 89 W: 78 N: 1048] (1873)
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