Faced with the latest literary tome on architectural combat — this one about 17th-century Italians Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini you'd be forgiven ...
“The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome”
by Jake Morrissey
Morrow, 320 pp., $24.95
Faced with the latest literary tome on architectural combat — this one about 17th-century Italians Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini you’d be forgiven if you thought that only over-the-top rivalry between two masters of the craft could produce buildings of artistry and wonder.
Or maybe it’s just the Italians.
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First, about five years ago, came Ross King’s “Brunelleschi’s Dome” and his exquisitely detailed story of the intense competition between Filippo Brunelleschi and his nemesis Lorenzo Ghiberti to build the dome atop Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo of Florence.
Then, King turned around and turned out “Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling,” the tale of the creation of Michelangelo Buonarotti’s painting of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome. However, in this case, there weren’t just two battling Italians, there was a slew of them: Pope Julius II — an arguable architect wannabe — who commissioned the ceiling and wanted Michelangelo to design his tomb, too; Raphael, no slouch himself, who won the honor of sprucing up the papal apartments not too far from where Michelangelo was working; and the soul of Michelangelo himself — seems the great artist did little without a lot of interior hand-wringing. Quite an artistic conflagration.
Now comes “The Genius in the Design” by Jake Morrissey. It was Morrissey’s quest to define the lives of Bernini and Borromini, born a year apart, whose art and architecture still define Rome — and who, at their pinnacle, seemed to take as much delight in ripping down each other’s facades or ripping off one or the other’s ideas as they did in their own genius, all to further the glory of the Eternal City.
The pair are responsible, at least in part, for the basilica of St. Peter’s; the bandacchino, or vaulting canopy, that stands over the tomb of St. Peter; as well as several glorious churches, buildings, fountains and sculptures that dominate guidebooks these days and keep tourists coming to Rome.
Would that their modern-day worshipers knew the genius in the design and the designs behind the geniuses.
Morrissey does his best to present a detailed sketch of each man, in practical and personal terms. And he succeeds. His descriptions of the men’s passions and their art and architecture make for page-turning reading. No doubt, among Rome-o-philes, the narrative will also bring about eyes-closed concentration as readers try to recall the men’s accomplishments seen on various trips to the heart of Italy.
If Morrissey’s story does that to any great degree, it should join the happy ranks of books-not-written-to-be-guidebooks, which turn out to be the best sort of guides of all.
Terry Tazioli is the travel editor at The Seattle Times.