These three accounts of Borromini’s church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane reveal different approaches to the writing of art history. Steinberg’s 1960 account is formal and technical; Blunt’s 1979 biography is scholarly but approachable and gives the reader a context; and Portoghesi’s 1999 article approaches the church as a popular icon.Architectural historians Leo Steinberg, Anthony Blunt, and Paolo Portoghesi all present varying accounts of Rome’s Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, designed in 1634 by Francesco Borromini. Written roughly twenty years apart, the three studies discuss the building according to highly divergent methods; while Steinberg’s 1960 dissertation is largely technical and self-contained, Blunt’s 1979 account offers a much richer look at the architect and his times, and Portoghesi’s 1999 appreciation studies only one aspect of the church as a cultural icon.Steinberg’s intensely detailed and technical study, written as his doctoral dissertation at New York University in 1960 and republished years later, examines the building almost entirely in and of itself, doing little to create connections between it and either the rest of Borromini’s work or that of his contemporaries.
His central thesis is “that the bravest baroque architect made his first building structurally contrapuntal in the service of a symbol” (Steinberg, 1977, p. iii), and much of the text reads similarly. Using largely dense technical and theoretical language, Steinberg presents an account full of physical descriptions without paying much attention to what influenced Borromini or how he related to the architectural and artistic contexts of his era.For example, he spends chapter one arguing about the interior plan’s shape – particularly whether it forms an “interior oval with axial and lateral niches” (Steinberg, 1977, p. 18) or “fine penetrated ellipses interlocked with a lozenge” (Steinberg, 1977, p. 24).
Subsequent chapters discuss the relationship of various surviving drawings to the finished work, the dome, and the uses of the octagon, oval, and cross motifs, all in frequently dry language. For example, in his discussion of decorate motifs, he writes, “Thus the oval, too, is embodied in San Carlino [an alternate name for the church]. It determines the nature of the lateral chapels, the ambiguous transition to the diagonals, the felt relation to the walls of the dome” (Steinberg, 1977, p. 152) – prose that a lay reader might find rather opaque. He devotes a single chapter near the end to the artist’s life but does not relate him very closely to his times and does not provide a very enlightening context.Writing nearly twenty years later, British art scholar Anthony Blunt looks at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in relation to the artist’s era, giving the reader a much clearer context and far more valuable insights into Borromini’s life and personality. In his biography of the architect, Blunt devotes an entire chapter solely to this building, describing in more accessible, dynamic (and less theoretical) language what Borromini did and what other architects and structures influenced him. More importantly, Blunt tells the building’s story, from its initial commission by a poor monastic order (hence its small size) to its physical descriptions and how Borromini interpreted elements of other Baroque works (particularly its distinctive curved façade).
Blunt agrees with Steinberg that San Carlo is a bold, even revolutionary work, claiming that Borromini “breaks with every Renaissance convention and introduces the maximum effect of movement and variety into a small detail” (Blount, 1979, p. 57). This statement, if not necessarily earth-shattering, provides a solid example of Blunt’s direct, articulate prose and demonstrates what the church meant in terms of its lasting legacy in Western art. Where Steinberg frequently analyzed the church as though it were in a vacuum, Blunt singles it out in the greater context of both Borromini’s life and Baroque architecture and explains the “whys” that Steinberg does not sufficiently address.
Likely intended for a broad readership, Blunt’s account of the church is far less technical and more widely useful.The most recent account of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, a four-hundredth anniversary appreciation by veteran art scholar Paolo Portoghesi, is a study of the church’s celebrated façade, a curving marble structure that gives the viewer a sense of undulation and movement. Portoghesi, who has written about Borromini since 1968, approaches the church’s front not as a technical problem or as simply the pinnacle of a genius’ body of work, but mainly as a cultural icon. He writes in experiential, sensual terms, guiding the reader through its elements as an experience to be enjoyed, and he uses lively visual language to describe what the viewer sees, stating that the façade is “a modeled object of unexpected intensity that rests on the street and suddenly brings it to life, interrupting its inertia but not its continuity” (Portoghesi, 1999, p. 665).In addition, he appeals to the modern reader’s sense of freedom by defining San Carlo as not simply an icon of Western civilization but also as a potent symbol for liberation.
Blunt states that San Carlo “reveals itself as a continuous and coherent process of ‘liberation.’ . . . Here, the ties to the past . . .
define themselves unequivocally as a flexible bond, an umbilical cord that nourishes thought without restricting it. . . .” (Portoghesi, 1999, p. 669). One sees the church in a new context, shaped not only by its own time but also considered as a great work with relevance well beyond the seventeenth century.These three accounts reveal highly divergent approaches to art history, shaped by their respective eras.
Where Steinberg’s account reflects a more traditional historical bent, discussing the technical aspects in dense, difficult language, Blunt has a less formal but still scholarly approach, relating Borromini and his creation to their times and illustrating the “big picture” of which they were a vital part. Portoghesi’s work is less pedantic than either, accepting the fact that San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane now has iconic status as a great work of Western art and appreciating its meaning for modern observers. Overall, these accounts illustrate how the writing of art history has evolved from the formal and theoretical to a mindset more aware of popular culture and meaning beyond the realm of scholars alone.