This article was contributed by Kurt Nemes.
Did you hear the one about the lawyer who became a monk, fought against unjust taxation, gave everything to the poor and was canonized a saint? It could happen. It did happen once in the 1200s to St. Yves of Brittany. Yves (Sant'Ivo in Italian) is memorialized in Rome by the baroque architect Francesco Borromini, who created a church dedicated to the saint in the courtyard of Rome's law school, "La Sapienza." This is fitting, as Saint Yves is the patron saint of lawyers as well as Brittany and abandoned children. The church is considered Borromini's masterpiece. Its integration into the majestic colonnaded courtyard of La Sapienza is both ingenious and awe-inspiring.
History of Sant'Ivo
The startling Sant'Ivo sits at the far end of the courtyard of the Palazzo della Sapienza (house of knowledge), which until 1935 was the seat of the University Rome. The palazzo now houses the Italian State Archives containing all official documents from the 9th century to the founding of the Italian Republic in 1870. The University was founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VII and expanded into a number of buildings near the 8th-century church, San Eustachio, which sits behind the Pantheon.
In the 1500s, work was begun on a single structure to consolidate the university. Under Pope Gregory XIII, Giacomo Della Porta (who designed the façade of Il Gesù) was commissioned to complete the palazzo, and he created a spectacular two-story colonnade that wraps around its courtyard. Unfortunately, Della Porta died in 1602 before he could finish the project.
Thirty years later, the job of completing it fell to the son of a Swiss stonemason, Francesco Borromini, along with the task of replacing the university's 14th century chapel (dedicated to the saint) with a proper church.
Borromini had moved to Rome around 1619 at the age of 20 and went to work for a distant cousin, Carlo Maderno, who created the façade of St. Peter's in Rome. The young Borromini threw himself into the study of architecture with Michelangelo as his inspiration. In 1627, Maderno was commissioned to work on the Palazzo Barberini, which today houses the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica.
When Maderno died two years later, the project was given to Gian Lorenzo Bernini instead of Borromini. This might have been the cause of their famous rivalry, though Bernini was able to help Borromini obtain his first major commission: the reconstruction of the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. For San Carlo, Borromini created a novel elliptical coffered dome, which established his reputation and brought him more work.
After designing the church San Agnese in Agone on the Piazza Navona, Borromini won the commission to finish the Palazzo Della Sapienza and then Sant'Ivo, from the Barberini Pope, Urban VIII in 1632. (Urban was the Pope who called Galileo to Rome to recant his belief in Copernicus' heliocentric view of the universe.) The work began in 1642 and continued until 1660 under the sponsorship of two more Popes, Innocent X and Alexander VII, who came from the powerful and wealthy families of Pamphilij and Chigi, respectively.
Borromini continued to work for seven more years after completing Sant'Ivo. He was not as popular as Bernini, who mastered painting, sculpture, and architecture and who thrived among the social, political and religious power brokers of his day. Borromini was purportedly broody, surly and lacked the social graces of his rival. Today his behavior might have been labeled bi-polar, and sadly he died at his own hand. Perhaps this is also why he did not enjoy the same reputation after his death as Bernini, though scholars starting in the 1800s began to acknowledge his influence.
What to See at Sant'Ivo
One of Borromini's hallmarks is his use of convex and concave exterior and interior surfaces that play against each other. When you enter La Sapienza, the breathtaking white Travertine marble façade of St. Ivo rises up before you at the far end of the long courtyard. Across the concave façade, Borromini gracefully continued the lines of the Palazzo's two stories of arched colonnades. Atop the church sits a hexagonal drum that houses the dome, its convex walls supporting a stepped pedestal. Next comes the lantern, also hexagonal, but with concave sides.
To top it off, Borromini crafted the most unique spire of any church in Rome. It resembles a spiral staircase, reminiscent of the friezes on the nearby columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Borromini topped the spire off with a laurel wreath, a bronze orb, a dove, and a crucifix. Some speculate that Borromini either based the design of the spire on a conch shell, which he kept in his study, or drawings of the Tower of Babel. Others have compared the spire to the stinger of a bee, which is of course the symbol of the Urban VIII's Barberini family.
By the way, Borromini also honored the other popes who contributed funds by incorporating their families' symbols into the structure. Using the key below, a close study of the façade (and the interior) will help you "read" this church:
|Pope Sixtus V||1585-90||Montalto||Lion, pears, three mountains and star|
|Pope Paul V||1605-21||Borghese||Dragon, eagle of|
|Pope Urban VIII||1623-44||Barberini||Bees|
|Innocent X||1644-55||Pamphilij||Dove, olive branch, three fleurs-de-lis|
|Alexander VII||1655-67||Chigi||Six Mountains, Star, Acorn|
On entering the church, one can easily see why art historians call it Borromini's chef d'oeuvre. Once again we see Borromini's use of alternating concave and convex surfaces and geometric shapes, here miraculously united to make concrete the beauty of mathematics and its universal forms.
For the small space, the architect superimposed two triangles on top of one another to form an enormous Star of David and create a hexagonal floor plan in the center of the church. The alternating points of the star, however, are rounded off either convex or concave and form niches that slope upward to the dome. The dome itself is segmented into six sections, each one decorated with the Chigi family mountains or stars. At the apex of the dome, the lines converge at a perfect circle that forms the base of the lantern.
Remarkably, Sant'Ivo has none of the gaudy, gilt ornament of its Roman baroque contemporaries. In fact, the walls are painted white, which not only makes the tiny church seems grand, but also gives it an otherworldly airiness that pleases both the mind and the eye.
The altar dedicated to Sant'Ivo is by Giovan Battista Contini, and it houses a painting by another of Borromini's rivals, Andrea del Cortina, entitled, Sant'Ivo, Leone, Pantaleone, Luca e Caterina d'Alessandria in Gloria di angeli.
Sant'Ivo is located between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. From the Colosseo metro stop, walk up Via dei Fori Imperiali to Piazza Venezia, turn left on Via Del Plebiscito. This turns into Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II. Turn right on Corso del Rinascimento. The entrance to La Sapienza is on the right.
Quick Facts on Sant'Ivo
|Names:||Chiesa Rettoria Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza · Sant'Ivo|
|Dedication:||St. Yves of Brittany|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.898196° N, 12.474514° E|
|Address:||Corso del Rinascimento 40|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Sant'Ivo|
- Photos of Sant'Ivo - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Sant'Ivo, Rome
Below is a location map and aerial view of Sant'Ivo. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.