The quirky lantern that crowns the Baroque church of Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza is a striking feature of the Roman skyline. It was the creation of one of the most original minds in the history of architecture, Francesco Borromini (1599-1667).
The lantern is topped with a wrought-iron flame-like structure, which, according to the Iconologia (1593) by Cesare Ripa (a favourite source for 17th century artists), represents the desire for knowledge inspired by the intellect, while the flaming torches around the base stand for knowledge itself. These are appropriate references for a church belonging to La Sapienza, the university of Rome.
In 1632 Borromini was appointed to the post of architect to La Sapienza, one of only two public posts he ever held, and commissioned to build a church. Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza, which closes the fourth side of the courtyard of the Palazzo della Sapienza, was begun during the reign of Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-44), a member of the Barberini family, whose coat of arms is made up of three bees.
This original, if eccentric, architect came up with an extremely ingenious design, which is based on two equilateral triangles, interpenetrating to form a six-pointed star on the periphery and a regular hexagon in the interior. While we know that the plan was originally intended to symbolise the heraldic bees (head, body and four wings) of the Barberini family, Borromini must also have had in mind the six-pointed star of David, the accepted symbol of wisdom and therefore appropriate for the church of the Sapienza.
The decoration of the interior of the church began in 1659 during the pontificate of Alexander VII (r. 1655-67), a member of the Chigi family, whose coat of arms consists of three mounds surmounted by an eight-pointed star. The coat arms is to be seen all over the exquisitely beautiful dome, where the Chigi star alternates with the six-pointed star of David.
The Palazzo della Sapienza was begun in 1575 to a design by Giacomo della Porta. It gained its name when Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90) made it the seat of the University of Rome, known as La Sapienza (the Knowledge), which had been founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303.
The inscription above the entrance proclaims: INITIUM SAPIENTIAE TIMOR DOMINI (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom), a quotation from Psalm 111. The quotation can also be seen in the church, above the altar.
The university moved out in 1935; the palazzo is now home to the State Archives.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
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