Palazzo Barberini

7:00 AM

Carlo Maderno, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Francesco Borromini, Palazzo Barberini, 1627-1633
By LIBBY ROHR

The story of the Palazzo Barberini starts with a Pope. Urban VIII, formerly Maffeo Barberini, was a religious man from a powerful Italian family that reached their height right around the time their great villa-style palace was constructed. During Urban VIII's reign he set out to beautify Rome, and in 1627, construction began on this building, as a way to glorify the family and a place to hold parties and enjoy the finer things that were still allowed by Catholicism. Urban and his brother Taddeo were very involved in this commission, arguably more than most. While the ideas for the villa-esque layout and facade originated in the heads of these brothers, the reality and the nuance of every building belongs to the architect. Or in this case, architects.

Let's start at the beginning. Even though we're really talking about Bernini and Barberini, the first architect to try their hand on this building was Carlo Maderno. After only a few years, Maderno died, leaving his brilliant assistant, Borromini, behind. Urban, a fan of Bernini at the time, caught up in his popular glow, assigned him to be the chief architect of this project. Borromini feared he'd lose his job, but Bernini was a sculptor, not an architect, and asked him specifically to stay on due to his engineering brilliance. Only Borromini could find a way to bring Bernini's designs to life. After all, what good are a building's plans if they can't be executed?

I love this building for many reasons, particularly the fact that this is really one of two buildings in the world that had both Borromini and Bernini invested and making an impact on it. There are a million things I could dive into with this building, but, for sheer lack of time and space, I'll focus on two aspects of the building that make up a single perfect metaphor. Stairs.

There are two main staircases in this funhouse. First the left side stairs, the main stairs. Bernini's attempt to display the grandeur of the Barberini family with a single feature. These stairs are classical in style, and angular, with tall pillars, and covered in relics and statues built into the very walls. It's certainly grand, but without a clear understanding of space and engineering, these stairs... well... kind of miss the mark. They're a little cramped, a little bland, a little unoriginal. Not bad, but it's clear Bernini has other "areas of expertise."

Then there are the right set of stairs, the only part of the building totally created by Borromini, and you can tell. They're different from the rest of the house. And one glance shows you why. Borromini's stairs curve up in a gorgeous elipse, white and glorious while retaining all the grace white marble should have. In the classic Borromini style, his stairs seem to make rock malleable, curving and bending at his will. These stairs, his silky fingerprint on this massive palace, are the essence of Borromini, the simple, natural beauty of his work.  

While Bernini is likely the greatest sculptor in history, these stairs are on example of Borromini transcending his architecture game in an undeniable way. This pair would feud after this until their deaths yet their cooperation has left its mark on Rome in a way that we can still see today. 

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