The Architecture of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

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  • 0:01 A Little History
  • 1:31 A Unique Plan
  • 2:46 A Unique Exterior
  • 5:48 A Unique Interior
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll explore the architectural wonders of the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. We'll study the church's history, unique plan and exquisite Baroque ornamentation.

A Little History

Art historians often call the Roman church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane a 'Baroque jewel' or a building that is really a sculpture. Indeed, it is a miniature treasure chest of beauty and design. In this lesson, we will explore the architectural wonders of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, paying close attention to its history, plan and Baroque ornamentation.

We'll begin with a bit of history. In the 1630s, the monks of the Trinitarian Order commissioned architect and stonecutter Francesco Borromini to design and build them a church adjoining their monastery. Borromini jumped at the chance and quickly launched into his first independent project, even offering to work for free. The project turned out to be quite a challenge, for the monastic property was squished into a small, irregularly shaped plot located on a busy crossroads. As we shall see, Borromini passed the test with incredible sophistication and elegance. The church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (St. Charles at the Four Fountains) was built between 1638 and 1641 and consecrated in 1646. It's pretty safe to say that the Trinitarian monks were more than satisfied with the results.

A Unique Plan

To squeeze a whole church into the little, strangely shaped area he had to work with, Borromini designed a unique plan. The church, which is only 66 feet wide and 39 feet long, is tucked neatly between pre-existing buildings. Its entrance and primary facade faces Northwest and opens onto a narrow street. A smaller, secondary facade angles off from the main entrance and incorporates one of the four fountains that already stood in the square.

Most of the interior space is dedicated to the oval sanctuary where the monks and their guests worship. Off to the sides are a small sacristy - where priests prepare for Mass - and little chapels for intimate prayer. Steps lead down to a crypt with burial places and more chapels.

Facade of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Notice Borromini's attention to geometry and detail. Lines, angles and curves all come together in his plan. He combines the primary oval with a hint of a cross (see how the oval curves out just a bit on each side?), a rather abrupt rectangle for the sacristy and some asymmetrical polygons for chapels and other spaces. His plan makes the most of the church's limited space and still creates a wealth of visual interest.

Floor plan of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
Floor plan of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Now let's turn our attention to the church's exterior. San Carlo's main entrance is tucked into a highly ornate, primary facade. Take note of a few of its prominent, and very much Baroque, characteristics:

  • Curving lines - The church's primary facade is made up of three bays (or sections) that form a serpentine pattern. The bay with the door is convex (curved outward), but the bays on either side are concave (curved inward). On the upper story, all three bays are concave.
  • Movement - The serpentine pattern suggests a rippling wave motion that draws the eye back and forth across the facade.
  • Play of light and shadow - The alternation of concave and convex bays reflects light in unique and creative ways. Some areas are brightly lit. Others fall into shadow. As the day passes, the illumination shifts. Borromini, Baroque architect that he was, paid close attention to the patterns of light in his design to make them as contrasting and interesting as possible.
  • Classical elements - Borromini borrowed classical elements like columns and adapted them to fit his design. San Carlo's columns, for instance, are topped by crowns and curling acanthus leaves that far exceed the classical style.
  • Geometric shapes - Borromini loved geometry, and he incorporated many different shapes into his work. Notice, for instance, the oval medallion at the top of the facade, the rectangular niches for statues and the circular wreaths.
  • Complex ornamentation - The facade of San Carlo is packed with ornamentation. Free-standing and relief sculptures are everywhere. Wreaths, crosses, angels, crowns, flowers and even animal heads appear all over the building. Viewers never seem to run out of new decorations to discover.
  • Drama - All of these elements combine to give San Carlo's facade a strong sense of drama and excitement.

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