A Stairway to Heaven

Text & Photography by Rob Haff

 

The HELICOIDAL STAIRCASE at Palazzo Barberini – Francesco Borromini

 

Rome is a city that keeps on giving. After more than a dozen visits over the last 25 years, I can attest to this as I have never, ever run out of things to discover in the Caput Mundi.  It is a city of many layers, and those that spend the time and energy to look deeper than the amphitheater and the forum can find the hidden gems. One such example is Francesco Borromini’s staircase in the Palazzo Barberini.

Pope Urban VIII commissioned the Palazzo in 1625, and several famous artists contributed to its construction, including Carlo Maderno, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Francesco Borromini. Today the Palazzo houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, one of the most important collections in Italy. The Museum has works from Raphael, Caravaggio, and many other important artists. A visit here today is for its art, as well as its architecture.

But in my humble opinion, the pearl of this palazzo is this staircase, found in a somewhat obscure corner near the exit, and which only recently was opened to the public.


When I first came upon the staircase, while exiting the Palazzo museum, I was floored. Borromini design is “helicoidal”, which means it follows the principle of turning on its rotational axis, as opposed to the far more common circular design.  This plan allegedly provides easier ascent for its users, although I suspect the design is not easier for the architect!  Each turn of the stairwell comprises 12 Doric double twisted columns, all with capitals decorated with bees, the symbol of the Barberini family.  The stairwell is largest on the ground floor, and grows tighter as it gracefully ascends.  It emits strength, and is yet light and graceful at the same time.  It is like no other I’ve seen.

In the summer of 1667, Francesco Borromini took his own life.  We know that he was a tortured soul and was notoriously difficult to work with. Known as one of the 3 main Italian Baroque Masters, along with Pietro Da Cortona and the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini — his extreme abrasiveness hindered his career when compared to his 2 principal rivals, which of course added to his anguish.   I read a very brief version of his life while viewing the staircase for the first time, and I could not help but wonder if, immediately prior to taking his own life, did he have ANY idea how much pleasure his work would bestow upon myself, and for all of humanity, for the centuries to come?  

The Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at the Palazzo Barberini is a magnificent gallery & museum, worth discovering for its extensive art collection, as well as its unique and 17th-century baroque architecture.

Palazzo Barberini – Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica
Via delle Quattro Fontane, 13 Rione Trevi – Rome


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