San Giovanni at Laterano

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Francesco Borromini, San Giovanni at Laterano, Renovated by Borromini in 1649

Pope Innocent had big plans for San Giovanni in Laterano. He wanted it to be the new St. Peter’s, which Julius chose to demolish and rebuild. After, witnessing the problems with St. Peter’s, Innocent vowed to preserve as much of the old church as possible, just embellishing it.

Innocent needed an architect who could manage the technical issues of renovating an old, nearly decrepit building. Innocent was aware of the challenges Borromini faced at Sant’Ivo and was impressed how Borromini created such a nice church in the small confines of the courtyard. April 15, 1646 the pope appointed Spada to oversee the renovation and Borromini as the architect.

“The job called for more than just an artist or a theorist; it demanded a technician, an engineer, a problem solver--a realist, not a dreamer someone who understood the secrets of stone and wood, the limits of travertine and tile; someone who could refurbish the pope’s church the way the pope wanted.” (Morrissey 193)

Borromini was the man for the job. He had the experience and expertise to help Innocent’s dreams become a reality. His deep understanding of architecture set him aside from all other young architects at the time. His ability to work well with limits and defy expectations qualified him for the job.

Innocent was determined not to discard the past in order to forge a new, more dynamic future. Borromini abided by Innocent’s restrictions, but felt that his artistic capabilities were being hindered. Perhaps Borromini’s greatest disappointment at San Giovanni was the ceiling. He wanted to vault it, but Innocent would not allow him to tear down the carven wooden ceiling by Pius IV. He had more freedom with the side aisles, allowing his creativity to come to being. He inserted windows between the aisles, allowing him to play with light and shadow. He also placed cherubs and angel heads as decorations above arches and along support beams.

On December 6, 1649, the body of a young man, Marco Antonio Bussone, was discovered at San Giovanni. It was determined that the workmen caught the boy damaging marble for the church and the laborers beat him. It was also found that they even tried to dispose of the body by burying it in the church. Their supervisor, aka the guilty party, was Borromini. Because of Innocent’s intervention, Borromini was given a light sentence ,and it was never fully enforced. He was remanded to temporary banishment at the pope’s pleasure with the prospect of a three-year expulsion from Rome to Orvieto. He completed the renovations and Innocent awarded him knightship in July 1652.

“The pain that incites it in the first place, the anguish that breeds the longing for self-destruction, never fades.It stands out on the soul like a welt on tender skin, aching and raw. Even after the deed is done, the mark remains--a last, terrible legacy of a life lived in torment.” (Morrissey 1)

The story of San Giovanni at Laterano is really the story of Borromini’s downfall. It talks about his lack of happiness, even with his successes, his troubles with the papacy and the law, his shady past and constant position as an outsider, his place in the wrong crowd of people, and his need to work with damaged property because he was always the second place (meaning Bernini always got the fresh piece of marble and he got the cracked piece). And yet, with all of the cracks and grooves, Borromini was still able to create a beautiful piece of architecture and cement his fate as a great architect.

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