MoT‘s editorial board selected Francesco Borromini’s birthday (September 25, 1599) as the launch date for Taste Matters for two reasons, one scholarly and one personal.
First, it was during an undergraduate course in Baroque and Rococo architecture that MoT COT (Chief Officer of Taste) determined to forgo plans for a future in the practice of architecture (where she might have charge of a few good buildings but be subject to potentially questionable personalities) and instead become an architectural historian, writer and critic (where she might spend all her time with fantastic buildings and extraordinary talent). Life as a historian and academic allows one to think, read and write about beautiful (and not-beautiful) buildings, what makes them so, and how they came to look the way they do. It also encourages one to travel to go see these things in person. MoT owes a debt to Borromini and his peers for providing the academic and professional justification for past and future travels chasing down buildings. Molti grazie, il signore.
Second, the nature of Borromini’s work is at the center of this blog’s concerns. Although it would be difficult to identify any architect whose work has never been subject to criticisms stemming from the changing nature of public and critical taste, Borromini is a poster child for this problem. As one of the primary architects of Roman Baroque architecture, Borromini worked during the Counter-Reformation. During this period the Catholic Church responded to Protestants’ calls for reform by blowing huge theological raspberries. Some of them eventually took the shape of new chapels that were meant to celebrate the triumph of the Church and inspire spiritual and emotional responses among the faithful.
Borromini was ideally suited for this task. Steeped in Roman building tradition and with great family connections and gobs of creative energy to spare, he designed complex and marvelous buildings, surprising and confounding in their manipulations of the architect’s standard palette of materials and forms. He could stretch small budgets and meager sites to deliver the wow factor of much more expensive buildings. Well-received by his clients, Borromini’s work was unevenly assessed within decades, and then fell quickly in the estimation of the following centuries. Although the Baroque period was seen, overall, as pretty tasteless by the eighteenth-century Neo-Classicists who gave the period its name (“baroque” originally referring to a kind of misshapen pearl), it was Borromini whose buildings were singled out as being especially ugly, chaotic, confused. In the twentieth century Borromini’s work met with the reappraisal accounts for him now being a celebrated, rather than a censured, architect.
Had Neo-Classicists had their way, Rome might have been swept clean of Baroque architecture. This potential demolition raises questions that are unique neither to Rome nor other periods. Whose taste should prevail from generation to generation? Should we act to remove buildings that we think are unsightly, or preserve them in the expectation that future generations might cherish them? Does that mean saving everything, no matter what? Or is there something inherently valuable about work like Borromini’s, that is provocative and delightful, that should help us identify what is really good and worth preservation efforts? To what extent do we honor the building’s cultural relevance, at the time of its construction or in our own?
Finally, can we deem any architecture inherently good or bad, or is it all subject to the changing nature of preference–either public or private, communal or personal, matters of taste? Especially on Borromini’s birthday we like to wrestle with these questions and tackle great big cakes as luscious as his spectacular buildings.