Church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome

The church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, together with San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Sant'Agnese in Agone, is one of the greatest examples of Roman Baroque architecture by Borromini.

An unusual perimeter of straight lines and curves forms the base of the dome in the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, in Rome, designed by the creative genius of Francesco Borromini in 1642. Its structure, with its complex geometries, is built upwards, creating an ideal skyward pathway that culminates in a perfect bright and starry circle, the symbol of divine knowledge.

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Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome

Francesco Borromini, historical exponent of Roman Baroque, in his famous works, often made use of symbolic elements and hidden meanings or mystic numerology. This is the case of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, in Rome, where several numerical references are repeated in an apparently casual manner. For example, there are 111 stars on the marvellous dome, with an obvious reference to the number 3 of the Holy Trinity. There are raised stars in multiples of 3 (12), apostles (12), and the seraphim (6) surrounding the central circle, also consisting of 12 stars.

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, Roma

The famous architect Borromini, who designed the church of Sant' Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome also became famous because of his historic rivalry with Bernini, another great protagonist of Roman Baroque. According to a well-known anecdote, one of the statues of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, designed by Bernini, appears to protect itself with its hands from the imminent collapse of the church in front, Sant'Agnese in Agone, built by Borromini.

Chiesa di Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza

It is one of the Baroque works of reference as well as an absolute masterpiece by Borromini. And maybe it is for this reason that so much symbolism has been identified by scholars in the church of S. Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome. The famous lantern placed at the top of the dome, for example, has been associated with Alexandria’s Lighthouse, with the Tower of Babel and with the mountain in Dante's Purgatory because of its spiral shape.

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"Il signor cav. Bernini ha fatto sapere da parte del signor cardinal Barberini padrone, d'aver fatto deputare dal popolo romano per architetto della Sapienza l'illo signor Borromino nipote del signo Carlo Maderni” (Bernini has announced, on behalf of Cardinal Barberini, the patron, that Borromini, nephew of Carlo Maderni has been appointed by the Roman people as architects of the Sapienza). This declaration, found in a document preserved in the archives of La Sapienza University of Rome is proof that the project to build the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza was entrusted to the architect Francesco Borromini in 1642. The request was not at all a simple one, as the church had to stand in a limited space inside the ancient site of the Roman university. However, Borromini transformed such architectural limitations into a great opportunity for freedom, creating one of the most famous and most often imitated Baroque works in the history of art. In fact, the structure has a six-point star shape, which is only simple in appearance: it is a complex shape, with a rhythmic alternation of straight and convex lines, developed vertically and producing an illusion of lightness and transparency.

The dome plays an essential role in this sense: the symbolic decorations with angels and stars, the effect of the light coming in from the windows, and the spiral shape of the lantern culminating in a perfect circle all contribute to creating the impression of an ascending path that leads the devoted towards divine wisdom.

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