Borromini’s disconcerting prospective

Borromini was one of the most creative architects of the Baroque era in Rome, both in terms of style and technical innovations. He designed numerous buildings and churches which have become models for architects and artists all the way to the 21st century (see previous posts). Another of his amazing works, is the famous trompe-l’oeil prospective he created in the Palazzo Spada.

Borromini's prospective in Palazzo Spada

Seen from a distance, the prospective gives the illusion of being as long as 30 metres, but it is actually only about eight metres long. The effect is created by having a series of columns mathematically decreasing in size on each side of an alleyway, and an ascending path which converge towards the same central point as the columns. The rather disconcerting effect it creates, is further enhanced by a statue of a Roman soldier placed at the end of the prospective. The statue, which is only 50 centimetres high, seems to be of full human proportions to the naked eye. It is only when a person stands next to it at the end of the alleyway that its true dimensions are revealed. When Borromini created his masterpiece, the prospective was opening on to a painted wall, which has since faded and can no longer be restored. The statue was added later during the 19th century. It was a pure coincidence that gave the artist the opportunity to create the work. He was initially commissioned to paint a trompe-l’oeil fresco in the so-called orange garden of the palace, but his patron, the owner of the palace, Cardinal Bernardino Spada, was able to purchase an additional piece of land from his neighbour. The plot was too small to extend the palace, so Borromini came up with the idea of creating an architectural prospective as opposed to a painted one, to give the illusion of a larger and more ornate garden.

The palazzo Spada, located between Campo de’ Fiori and via Giulia, was initially built in the 16th century by Cardinal Capodiferro, a close adviser of Pope Paul III, who was himself building his palazzo Farnese nearby. A century later, Cardinal Spada, purchased it to house his growing art collection, and turned it into a Baroque palace, commissioning the greatest artists of his time, such as Borromini, to work on the decoration.

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