Borromini – Saint Charles at the Four Fountains

Four Fountains??

Today we are going to find out why there is “Saint Charles at the Four Fountains”

Let’s start!

ARTIST Francesco Borromini
NAME Saint Charles at the Four Fountains
YEAR 1638–1680
TYPE Architecture
DIMENSIONS Lenght 20m (66ft) – Width 12m (39ft)
MATERIAL Miscellaneous

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art!

Today I am going to talk about another Baroque masterpiece you can visit in Rome: San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane or Saint Charles at the Four Fountains. It is a Roman Catholic Church designed by the architect Francesco Borromini and it was his first independent commission. He received the task in 1634, under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Barberini (Pope Urban VIII’s nephew), whose palace was across the road. The project included not only the Church, but also the group of monastic buildings for the Spanish Trinitarians, an order dedicated to the freeing of Christian slaves.

Starting from the 1630s in fact, the monks of the Trinitarian Order were searching for an architect to build a church connecting their monastery. The main challenge was the little space available. Borromini (who was 31 at that time) offered to complete the commission for free just to start his career as a solo architect.

Borromini was really skilled thanks to a perfect balance between talent and many years of experience with another great architect: Carlo Maderno. However, here the challenge was hard because, in a very little space, he was suppose to design something suitable to the monks needs, but at the same time unique.

The Solution

And he did it! The monastic buildings and the cloister were started first while the Church construction took place during the period 1638-1641. However, the façade was completed just in the 1680 by Borromini’s nephew, since the architect died in 1667. However, the façade design, one of the reasons why this Church is so appreciated for, must have been conceived fairly early on, probably in the mid-1630s.

For the façade Borromini had just a width of 12 meters (39 feet)! And here his genius: design a concave-convex undulated layout to enhance the contrasts and dramas typical of the Baroque. In addition, that give the idea that the Church is not squeezed!

A more “flat” surface in fact would have given the idea of a tall and narrow rectangular shape that probably would have risked to look a bit “anonymous”. And Borromini couldn’t waste the opportunity he finally had. With this smart solution, wisely combined to tall Corinthian columns standing on plinths and bearing the main entablatures, the architect defined the main framework of two storeys and the tripartite vertical division.

NOTE use the interactive image below to find the elements of the descriptions 🙂

In the lower half, there are 3 statues: the central figure of Saint Charles Borromeo above the main entrance, St. John of Matha on the left and St. Felix of Valois on the right, the founders of the Trinitarian Order.

In the upper part we can see other two niches (originally designed for other 2 statues and a big window that allows to have natural light inside the Church. Moreover, on the top the oval framed medallion borne aloft by angels that once contained a 1677 fresco by a Pietro Giarguzzi of the Holy Trinity.

Saint Charles at the Four Fountains, inside detail
Saint Charles at the Four Fountains, inside

The Inside

But now let’s give a look inside and see how Borromini continued to design with ingenious solutions. As soon as we step inside we can see the surprise of a space that we couldn’t imagine. An unexpected combination of curves and rectangular forms that shape an elliptical floor plan!

Saint Charles at the Four Fountains, Borromini's design dome
Saint Charles at the Four Fountains, dome

The interior is divided in three parts: the lower order at ground level, the transition zone of the pendentives and the oval coffered dome with its oval lantern.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane_lateral section drawing
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane_lateral section drawing

In the ground level the main altar is on the same longitudinal axis as the door and there are two altars on the cross axis. Between these, sixteen columns carry a broad and continuous entablature that opens a space which make us forget the real dimensions of the Church.

The curve lines and geometrical patterns in fact create a pulsing perspective that it is still one of the most amazing solutions Baroque architecture and not only!


I leave you with a little quiz. Why such a “weird” name: “Saint Charles at the Four Fountains”? There is a detail in the interactive image below that can help you…

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Charles Keisling

    Love your blog, it is quite instructive.
    Humbly request your permission to use some of your photos and information in my Facebook posts (non-commercial No ads) Historic Sites.
    Thank you,
    Charles Keisling

    1. Exploring Art with Alessandro

      Hi Charles and thank you. You can forward some of my Facebook post, but please add the source

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