Painting by Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburg (perimeter), around 1630.
This view shows the façade of St Peter’s with the bell towers, as originally envisaged by Carlo Maderno from Ticino. After the death of Pope Paul V, alternative plans were developed and the towers were never built. Painting by Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburg (perimeter), around 1630. Musei Vaticani, Città del Vaticano

Swiss architects and the "Baroquisation" of Europe

Architects from Ticino and the Valle Mesolcina spread the Baroque architectural style all over the known world. These men are responsible for the modern-day appearance of some of Europe’s most important churches and castles, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Axel Christoph Gampp

Axel Christoph Gampp

Axel Christoph Gampp is Professor of General History of Art at the University of Basel and Professor of History and Architecture at the Bern University of Applied Sciences.

The term “Baroque” is usually understood to mean the first global style. The “Baroque” isn’t restricted to Europe; examples of the style are also found in Asia and South America. The beginning and end of the epoch can only be roughly pinpointed: the Baroque begins towards the end of the 16th century, and ends in the second half of the 18th century. The Catholic Church provided the impetus for its emergence. The most important ecumenical meeting of the 16th century, the Council of Trent, met a number of times between 1545 and 1563, and at the very end of its run a reform of the fine arts was promised. However, this reform was to be implemented in the individual dioceses. So, essentially, the stimulus for the entire movement came from the Pope in Rome, where Baroque was to be an especially prominent feature of the city’s appearance. Through a set of circumstances that is quite hard to untangle, three men from Ticino ended up playing leading roles in this: Domenico Fontana (1543-1607), his nephew Carlo Maderno (about 1556-1629) and their distant relative, Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). This trio put the stamp of the new Baroque on the Eternal City. Domenico Fontana was made papal master architect under Pope Sixtus V. In this role he had a hand in shaping the composition of the city. The great pilgrim churches, Saint Peter’s, Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major, Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls and the Holy-Cross-in-Jerusalem, were linked by a network of arrow-straight streets. These streets took no account whatsoever of slopes and gradients in the terrain, instead forming a kind of “highway” for the pilgrims who visited the Holy City to worship at these principle churches. Squares were laid out in front of the most important centres, St Peter’s, St John Lateran and St Mary Major, and obelisks were erected in front of St Peter’s and in front of St John Lateran. Fontana also rebuilt the major papal palaces, those of St Peter and the Lateran. In the architectural detail of his works he strove to emulate the great role model of the age, Michelangelo, who died in 1564.
This portrait of Domenico Fontana (1543-1607), holding an obelisk in his hands, alludes to his major urban planning achievement, the erection of obelisks at key points and street axes in Rome.
This portrait of Domenico Fontana (1543-1607), holding an obelisk in his hands, alludes to his major urban planning achievement, the erection of obelisks at key points and street axes in Rome. Zentralbibliothek Zurich
In a volume dating from 1590, Domenico Fontana documents his strategy for erecting the Vatican obelisk. Note the large number of people, horses and material required to move the obelisk.
In a volume dating from 1590, Domenico Fontana documents his strategy for erecting the Vatican obelisk. Note the large number of people, horses and material required to move the obelisk. ETH Library Zurich
Carlo Maderno succeeded his uncle as the Pope’s master architect. A particularly high-profile task fell to him. Michelangelo had planned St Peter’s as a structure built in the shape of a Greek cross, with cross arms of equal length. However, in the early 17th century, the incumbent Pope Paul V wanted a nave. To accommodate this modification, the eastern arm of the cross was to be extended. The task fell to Maderno, who at the same time was appointed to create a new façade for St. Peter’s. For the idea, he was able to go back to one of his earlier buildings, the Church of St Susanna. As at St Susanna’s, for St Peter’s he used a balanced interplay of flat pilasters, half columns and full columns, so that the façade gradually becomes more three-dimensional towards its centre. Carlo Maderno also provided important ideas for palace construction. In the Palazzo Mattei, he had the unconventional idea of placing ancient reliefs side by side with elements of modern architecture, creating an exuberant interplay of old and new.
Etching by Philippus Bonnanni, 1696.
Under Pope Paul V (1605–1621) it was decided to extend the nave of St Peter’s, so that the building’s footprint was in the shape of a Latin cross. Carlo Maderno implemented this idea between 1606 and 1626. In doing so, he adhered carefully to the architectural language of Michelangelo. Etching by Philippus Bonnanni, 1696. Privately owned
Francesco Borromini, the third of our important Ticinese in Rome, had studied architecture in Milan. The emphasis there was on knowledge of mathematics, particularly geometry. In the mid-17th century, Borromini constructed ecclesiastical buildings in Rome that rise above geometric shapes, circles, ovals, and triangles. This created exteriors and interiors in which sections project forward and others jump back, creating a sense of undulating movement. His work established a new trend for scores of churches throughout Europe, a trend that would continue until the end of the 18th century.
The 6th series 100 franc banknote dating from 1976 commemorated Francesco Borromini and one of his major works, Sant’Ivo della Sapienza in Rome.
Die 100er-Note der 6. Banknotenserie von 1976 erinnerte an Francesco Borromini und seinen Bau Sant’Ivo della Sapienza in Rom. Swiss National Museum
The domed tower of the Church of Sant'Ivo is depicted on the reverse of the note.
The domed tower of the Church of Sant'Ivo is depicted on the reverse of the note. Swiss National Museum
Just as these three Ticino natives left their mark on the Baroque in Rome, Swiss innovators were also the leading architects in the north, especially in north-eastern Europe. However, this group came from a region in Graubünden that formed an interface between the German-speaking and Italian-speaking areas: the Valle Mesolcina. The region produced whole dynasties of master builders who knew how to export Italian architectural ideas to the north. At that time, Italy and the classical architecture of a Michelangelo were considered the pinnacle of architectural beauty, even in the north. Any client who regarded himself as worldly and sophisticated wanted to build in the Italian style. The architects from the Valle Mesolcina were able to satisfy these wishes. They usually operated as construction crews, and were able to hold their own against the local craftsmen because they often quoted as general contractors at dumping prices. This meant they were able to present a building finished and ready for use – a turnkey project, so to speak. Many of these architects and builders worked in the Danube region and in Bavaria, and their pre-eminence can be traced through a number of individual figures. At the pinnacle were Enrico Zuccalli (around 1642-1724) and his collaborator and later rival Giovanni Antonio Viscari (1645-1713). In about 1700, the two highest building authorities at the Bavarian court, that of the chief architect and that of the master mason, were in the hands of these two men. So it’s not surprising that the huge Baroque residence of the Electors of Bavaria, Schloss Schleissheim, was built by Zuccalli. He also worked for an Austrian aristocrat, Count Kaunitz, and was heavily involved in the planning of the Count’s Vienna palace, today’s Palais Liechtenstein. It was from him that the Habsburg Empire got the idea of dividing the palace frontage into three sections – as in the case of Rome’s Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi – and emphasising the central section by having it project slightly above the two sides and being embellished with giant pilasters over two floors. This style of construction caught on in Vienna and ultimately throughout the Habsburg Empire, and had a lasting impact on palace construction there.
Drawing by Enrico Zuccalli around 1689.
Enrico Zuccalli provided the plans for Palais Kaunitz (now Palais Liechtenstein) in Vienna. Zuccalli adopted the three-winged construction, with the central avant-corps characterised by colossal pilasters, from the Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi in Rome. With a monumental portal designed by Domenico Martinelli, the Palais was to become a model for Viennese palace construction in general. Drawing by Enrico Zuccalli around 1689. Private collection in Lucca, photo Lucio Ghilardi
However, Vienna was by no means the last place where the Swiss led the way in introducing the Baroque style. Much further east, in Poland and Lithuania, others from the Valle Mesolcina and a Ticino family, the Tencalla, were very prominent. One of the family’s members, Costante Tencalla (about 1590-1646) was to build the chapel for the canonised king’s son Casimir in Vilnius, as well as other important churches in the city.
The interior of St Casimir’s Chapel in Vilnius, Lithuania, built 1623-36.
The interior of St Casimir’s Chapel in Vilnius, Lithuania, built 1623-36. Wikimedia / Diliff
Whether they were from Ticino or the Valle Mesolcina, the Swiss thus turned out to be the key players in the “Baroquisation” process both in the south (Rome) and in the north (Habsburg Empire). Their star began to fade as France’s rose, as they never quite mastered the French style. But wherever Italy was still in demand, such as in the Russia of Tsar Peter the Great, they were able to sustain their position well into the 18th century. It would be impossible to imagine a Baroque Europe without Swiss master builders and architects. In a sense, they formed the eye of that Baroque hurricane that swirled across Europe.

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