Guarino Guarini

Guarino Guarini (1624-1683) was an Italian architect, priest, and philosopher, whose mathematical studies enabled him to create the most fantastic of all baroque churches.

Guarino Guarini was born in Modena on Jan. 17, 1624. He joined the austere new Theatine order in 1639 and went to Rome for his novitiate. This was during the period when the architect Francesco Borromini was most active. Guarini studied philosophy and theology—and apparently also architecture—before returning to Modena in 1647, where he was ordained, began to work as an architect, and taught in the Theatine house until a disagreement with the ruling Este family in 1655 forced him to leave.

Guarini was in Messina, Sicily, in 1660; his works there were destroyed in the 1908 earthquake. He was back in Modena by 1662, and soon afterward he went to Paris, where he taught, wrote on philosophy and mathematics, and designed Ste-Anne-la-Royale. This church is now known only from engravings, but it must have seemed an extraordinary fantasy among the soberly classical buildings of contemporary Paris. Building was suspended soon after it was begun and was not resumed until 1714.

In 1666 Guarini went to Turin, where his last years were spent and where he created his masterpieces:the Chapel of the Holy Shroud (Sta Sindone), S. Lorenzo, and the Palazzo Carignano. His reputation is attested to by his designs for a church in Prague (but his plans were not followed) and another in Lisbon, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. In fact, all central European baroque churches owe much to Guarini's example, but few, if any, of the architects who designed them were able to imitate his extraordinarily daring feats of construction. His buildings could have been designed only by an expert in solid geometry (for example, the dome of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud), and there is reason to believe that Guarini was aware of the work of such contemporary mathematicians as Gérard Desargues in projective geometry.

The Chapel of the Holy Shroud is a large circular chapel added to the east end of the Cathedral and intended to contain the Holy Shroud, recently brought by the Savoy ruling family from France. Work on the chapel had commenced before Guarini's arrival, but his design of 1667 is remarkable for the treatment of the upper stages, which consist of a series of latticed arches forming a whole sequence of skeleton domes, so that the eye sees through one into the next in a manner that had never been attempted previously. It is almost impossible to describe these structures except in mathematical terms, but they make even Borromini's most daring inventions, such as the dome of S. Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, seem almost earthbound, so great is the illusion of light, fragile forms floating in space created by Guarini.

The nearby church of S. Lorenzo, begun in 1668, is perhaps slightly less virtuoso in its handling of the dome structures, but it is more complicated in plan and overall effect, since here Guarini was responsible for the whole work and was not taking over from another architect. The church was not finished until 1687, after Guarini's death, but it was sufficiently far advanced in his lifetime for him to be able to celebrate the first Mass said in it.

The Palazzo Carignano, begun in 1679, is slightly less daring in its treatment of the plan, although it does have a deeply curved facade, inspired by Borromini's Oratory of the Filippini in Rome. The texture of the palace is very rich and is notable for being in carved brick, not stone.

During these years Guarini continued to write on theology, philosophy, and mathematics, and while visiting his publisher in Milan, he died on March 6, 1683. His drawings, which are the source of our knowledge of many of his lost works, were published in 1686, and in 1737 the architect Bernardo Vittone published the text Guarini had intended to accompany them.


Further Reading on Guarino Guarini

The best account of Guarini in English is in Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750 (1958; 2d ed. 1965). Guarini is discussed in relation to his contemporaries in Henry A. Millon, Baroque and Rococo Architecture (1961). Germain Bazin, The Baroque (1968), contains an analysis of Guarini and reproductions of his work.