The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

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fall 2008

ARC 388R:
Professional Design Practice in Baroque Rome: Landscape, Urbanism, Architecture

Mirka Beneš


This inter-disciplinary seminar takes Francesco Borromini, one of 17th-century Papal Rome's greatest architects and draughtsman, as the departure point for exploring professional practices and disciplines at a paradigmatic moment in the history of design, when landscape architecture, urbanism, and architecture were the practices of a single designer, but the turn to specializations was already appearing. Set against the scenery of one of Europe's monumental Baroque cities, epitomized by the 17th-century Piazza Navona with its fountains and sculptures, the "spine" of the seminar follows the chronological, in-depth study of Borromini's major works (1630s to 1660s)-among others, San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane and the Oratory of San Filippo Neri for religious communities, and Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza for the Roman University; chapels such as the Cappella dei Re' Magi; designs for the Barberini, Carpegna, and Pamphilj palaces. But these works are also considered synchronically within the broader contexts of Roman Baroque society and its papal monarchy in a period of triumphant Catholic Counter-Reformation, as well as diachronically with a view to ancient, medieval, and Renaissance precedents, from Hadrian's Villa to Gothic architecture to Palladio. Borromini's complex works are at the same time profoundly emotional and rigorously intellectual and serious, and the specificity of their conceptualization is considered in illuminating contrast to the jubilant, dynamic, and dramatic creations of his so-called professional rival in Rome, the sculptor-architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Students are immersed in the richness of design culture in Baroque Rome, a period of exceptional artistic innovation, connected on the one hand to modernity, to new scientific studies of perception, optics and light, machinery, and botany, and on the other hand to antiquity, to remarkable archaeological and antiquarian studies. Recent, exceptional historical research on Roman society provides understanding of the social categories fundamental to Baroque Rome's urban, architectural, and landscape development-rural and urban, public and private, religious and secular spaces; men and women; vernacular and elite lives; patronage and social networks of the designers.

Seminar meetings, including sessions with rare books, prints, and maps in the Harry Ransom Center and one session in the Prints & Drawings Room of the Blanton Art Museum, focus on contextual topics for Borromini such as: education, training and social status of the designer; disciplinary boundaries between sculptors, architects, painters and theatrical set-designers-how did Borromini and Bernini each use architecture and sculpture in ornament and expression?; drawing techniques, types and new media, in relation to Borromini's innovative use of the graphite pencil; the study of the Antique, from Pirro Ligorio to Giovanni Battista Piranesi; urban design, the grand piazzas, and the "Masters of the Street"; the new sciences in Galileo Galilei's Rome-building technologies, vision and surveying instruments; collecting of floral, vegetal, and rare specimens, in relation to architectural and natural ornament; materials from marbles to stucco; hydrology, water-works, and fountain design; building types-churches, palaces, villa buildings and villa gardens; cultural life and the libraries of architects, artists, and members of Roman society and of the papal bureaucracy; publication of designers' buildings, gardens, streets and piazzas in prints and books.


All students will write a short 5-page paper on one of the innovative technical and material aspects of Borromini's or Roman Baroque design (tools, materials, drawings, etc.); an analytic drawings journal will be kept; and for a final project, students will have wide latitude in fulfilling the course requirements-through drawings, models, or papers.

Goals of the Seminar:

The purpose is to give students a strong inter-disciplinary grounding in one of the key historical periods of design and in advanced research methods, as well as strong intellectual, conceptual, and historical frameworks with which to approach design creatively today, by rehearsing the translation of the synthetic act of design from the past to the present and by understanding how the design profession carves its territory of concerns and interests, from concrete and technological to spiritual and philosophical.