Piazza Navona: how beautiful it is. So beautiful one may even accept to pay an excruciatingly high price for a “granita al limone” and a coffee in one of its many cafés just to dwell in comfort for a few minutes in all its splendor.
Born upon the vestiges of Domitian’s Stadium, of which it still holds the ancient shape, its visual fulcrum is, today, Bernini’s “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi” (the Four Rivers Fountain”). Commissioned to the architect by Pope Innocent X, it was built between 1648 and 1651, in the very centre of the square.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers is also known as The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. Photo by Marina113
Just opposite, a Church. Sant’Agnese in Agone, realized by another great representative of Italian Baroque, Francesco Borromini. If you’ve been to Rome, you definitely know how the story goes: the Rio de la Plata’s statue - one of the “four rivers” of the fountain - keeps its arms up to, supposedly, protect itself from the eventual collapse of the church. The Nile, just as displeased by Borromini’s architectural effort, covers its head with a veil not to see it.
There’s more: the legend continues stating that Borromini himself placed on the church’s façade a statue of Sant’Agnese, head tilted on the side and a hand worryingly placed on her heart, as the ultimate sign of disgust to the ugliness of his rival’s work.
Mutual shading, before “shading” even became a thing? Actually, not really. Sant’Agnese in Agone was built a few years after the fountain, making the popular story you’ve just read an historical anachronism. Yet, there’s some truth behind it, because its protagonists, Bernini and Borromini, immense architects, fathers of most of Rome’s own baroque patrimony, apparently didn’t like each other much.
Another story, this one apparently more historically accurate, tells how Bernini managed to obtain at the last minute the project commission for the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide, already promised to Borromini. Always the braggart, Bernini placed a large sculpture of a pair of donkey’s ears on the Palazzo’s façade, which just happened to be opposite Borromini’s residence. The latter, who may have been of more serious inclinations but wasn’t certainly the type to take it home without a fight, placed a large stone reproduction of male genitalia out of his own window.
Both sculptures were, of course, quickly removed to preserve the area’s own decency.
Truth is, rivalry could be expected: both divinely talented, both working in the same city, seeking to obtain the best commissions, no one would have thought them friends. Yet, they may have just tolerated each other a tad more, had they not been such different characters. Bernini had all the sunny disposition and people-charming ways of the lands of his origins, Naples and Tuscany. Borromini, on the other hand, was solitary and melancholic, prone to raging fits and probably not as friendly as his rival. Borromini’s bad temper apparently costed him a few commissions: he wasn’t a simple person to work with.
Bernini and Borromini, however, did collaborate sometimes, the most notorious of their joint productions being the large stone canopy above the main altar in Saint Peter’s. Which is, alas, only remembered today as “il Baldacchino del Bernini”.
Rising above the altar is the baldacchino (95ft. canopy), Bernini's masterpiece and first work in St. Peter's
Borromini, some say also because of the increasing success of his rival, committed suicide in 1667. It’s funny how, should they have lived today, Borromini’s attitude and malaise would have probably made him a much more coveted artist than jet-set loving Bernini.
Let’s go back in time of a couple of centuries, to a non less fascinating time in the history of Rome, the Renaissance.
Once again, it’s the Rome of the Popes we’re looking at, the Papal court mirror of all the beauties, sins and holy things the world had to show in those decades. There was one family then, one family whose name is today just as famous as it was then, the Borgias. All familiar with the strange, borderline incestuous adventures of its members thanks to numerous recent cinematic renditions, Lucretia remains the best known Borgia, in spite of the fact her father was a Pope (Alexander VI) and her brother, Cesare, is remembered as one of the most lascivious and evil men of those years.
Lucretia’s destiny was marked by her own birth, the bastard child of a cardinal and his young lover, Vannuzza. Her father adored her, in a way many considered sick, most likely just as a precious exchange pawn to create, via marriage, advantageous ties with powerful Italian families. Her first husband, whom she married at age 13, was a Sforza, the heir of Milan’s own dynasty.
When her father, a few years later, sought an annulment of that marriage, keen to use his daughter to tie a more lucrative alliance, her spouse, humiliated, started the rumor Lucretia had a sick attachment to her own brother, Cesare. No need to explain, as the lurid nature of her relationship with her sibling, real or not, remains one of the most known aspects of Lucretia’s life.
What many don’t know, though, is that Lucretia did fall in love once. And in love for real. After the end of her marriage with Giovanni Sforza, she had sought refuge in the convent of San Sisto. Here, she met a humble messenger, a man called Pedro Calderon, known as Perotto by everyone, a man who didn’t care about her family history nor about the gossip around herself and Cesare. Lucretia fell in love and her feelings were returned by Perotto. What a change for Lucretia, being loved for once.
The two shared a secret, passionate and sincere feeling for quite a while, until Lucretia became pregnant with Perotto’s child. In an evil twist of fate, their child, conceived in love, was born dead. Perotto was killed by Lucretia’s father - the Pope, let’s not forget - and she was once more left alone and abandoned, a mere exchange pawn in a power game larger than she could possibly have conceived.
A city made of beauty, rivalries and disgraced love, Rome. A secret, truly awaiting around each and every corner… .