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 Phillip Rollfing  

Unique architectural history studied by A&M professor

Obscure 16th Century manuscripts reveal unique Counter Reformation building projects under patronage of Pope Pius IV



A semester spent studying abroad in Italy provides a transcendent experience for most students, but for a select few, the journey can be epiphanous.

Such was the case for John Alexander, an architectural historian at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, who as an undergraduate spent an influential summer in Italy while studying architecture at the University of Detroit. That “formative experience” launched Alexander on a career path that a few years later found him tucked away in the archives of the 400-year-old Collegio Borromeo in Pavia, Italy, passionately perusing obscure 16th Century manuscripts for a dissertation examining the architectural patronage of Saint Carlo Borromeo (1538 – 1584). Canonized in 1610, Borromeo had served as Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal-Priest of the Roman titular church of S. Prassede, Papal Secretary to his uncle and mentor, Pope Pius IV (who reigned 1559 – 1565), and founder of the Collegio Borromeo, for whom the institution and the building were named.

Alexander’s discoveries during that 26-month project in Italy not only earned the young scholar a doctorate from the University of Virginia, it brought to light a captivating story about Pius IV’s mentorship of Borromeo and rescued from obscurity the integral role Pope Pius played in orchestrating many of the massive architectural initiatives of the Counter-Reformation. The discoveries also provided Alexander, who specializes in Italian Renaissance and Baroque architectural history, with expansive and challenging topics that have fueled more than 12 years of scholarly inquiry and provided fodder for a book project currently in the works.

“I never expected to come across the cache of documents that I found at the Collegio and in other archives,” explained Alexander. Among them were numerous correspondences between Borromeo and his representatives in Milan and Pavia that illuminated the chronology and methods employed in the design and construction of the Collegio Borromeo — an edifice designed by Pellegrino Tibaldi, which Alexander describes as “an enormous monument of shocking design, unprecedented in its time and place for both Its Mannerist design, and the scale of building for a residential college.” But even more important were documents, previously discounted or overlooked by scholars, that chronicled Borromeo’s direct consultation with his uncle, Pope Pius IV, on issues related to the college’s construction.

“I found that Borromeo was very much the pupil and protégé, learning from Pius IV and fulfilling his wishes,” Alexander explained. “The Pope wanted his nephew to be someone who embraced learning, art and architecture and this whole wealth of culture, and he saw Church reform as benefiting from that.”

This discovery prompted Alexander to delve deeper into Pius IV’s role in other architectural projects. Though Pius IV is perhaps best known for his role in concluding the Council of Trent — the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation — Alexander found that Pius had personally overseen a massive and unique building initiative in the mid 16th Century. He had worked closely with the leading architects of the day, including Michelangelo Buonarroti and Pirro Ligorio, initiating projects to expand the city of Rome and transform it into a religious capital. His projects, unlike those of other popes, included several secular works and encompassed a variety of architectural styles.

“Pius quite happily sponsored artistic, architectural and intellectual endeavors,” Alexander said. “He viewed architecture as an urbanistic art and his buildings demonstrated the reform and resurgence of the Church in the setting in which the faithful lived out their lives.”

Known as a moderate reformer among a host of more strident and even puritanical contemporaries, Pius IV was an anomaly in a time characterized by religious schisms and brutality. As Pope, he relaxed the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books and reined in the Inquisition.

“Pius had sought to similarly mold his nephew, the future St. Charles, into what he considered to be an ideal Prince of the Church: erudite, cultured, a magnificent patron yet serious about his religious responsibilities,” Alexander said. “Ironically, even during Pius' reign, Borromeo began to take a very different approach, becoming much stricter and much more puritanical than Pius IV.”

To fully appreciate Pius IV’s contributions to the architectural landscape of 16th Century Italy, Alexander said, one must pull apart the history of the Vatican Palace, or a specific basilica in Rome, or one of many structures that underwent renovation under the pope’s guidance. For instance, he continued work on St. Peter’s Basilica; reinitiated projects like the Belvedere courtyard at the Vatican and the Campidoglio, the seat of the civil government in Rome; and ordered the design and construction of a new ceiling in St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome. He commissioned Pirro Ligorio to design the Casino of Pius IV in the Vatican Gardens and ordered one of Michelangelo’s last works, the Porta Pia, a new portal in Rome’s ancient Aurelian Wall. Underscoring Pius’ support of intellectual pursuits, in addition to the Collegio Borromeo, he commissioned two other buildings for educational institutions: the Archiginnasio, for the University of Bologna, and the Sapienza, for the University of Rome.

“Pius IV really did believe that social, educational, political, artistic and intellectual agendas could support reform of the Church,” Alexander said. “The buildings resulting from his architectural programs attest to his enthusiasm and wisdom in selecting architects. We are left with a picture of a lively period in the history of Rome full of building projects and intellectual development. Pius comes across as a sympathetic character, striking a positive, optimistic note in a period characterized by polarization and brutality.”



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John Alexander

Portrait of Pope Pius IV

Portrait of Charles Borromeo

Collegio Borromeo

Belvedere Courtyard

Piazza del Campidoglio

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