Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Honeycomb of Design

By Patricia Winton

One of Rome’s most intriguing architectural gems lies hidden from view most of the time. The church of Sant’Ivo (St Ives) opens to the public for a two-hour mass every Sunday. When I came to Rome ten years ago, this Baroque masterpiece opened daily, and I loved to drop in to marvel at its mathematical puzzle.

Built by Francesco Borromini from 1642-1660, the church was originally conceived as a chapel for La Sapienza University, founded in 1303. Borromini confronted a tight space bound by the university’s open courtyard to the front and two completed buildings at the rear. He met the challenge by creating a complex floor plan that shoots up to the cupola, raising one’s eyes to the heavens.

The floor plan consists of two interlocking equilateral triangles that are often described as the Star of David, an assertion I find a bit silly. Other observers, especially those writing in Italian, agree with me. First, this is a Catholic church, after all, and a potent Jewish symbol would have been inappropriate. Furthermore, such a design would have been dangerous territory for Borromini since he worked under the patronage of Pope Urban VIII who, among many other things, issued a papal bull declaring Jews to be heretics 17 years before work on Sant’Ivo began.

In fact, Borromini altered the points of the triangles (three are semi-circular and three truncated) so that the design is in reality a hexagon, reminiscent of honeycomb. This shape is, in my opinion, a subtle bit of homage to the Pope who hailed from the Barberini family and whose family crest incorporated three bees. The six-sided shape continues to the drum and finally to the lantern. The hexagonal shapes are embellished with convex and concave edges, but hexagons they are.

Borromini included a number of other apiarian elements as well. At the top of the cupola, just below the lantern, there is an angel within each part of the hexagon, but the shape of the angels’ wings are similar to those of bees. In addition, bees decorate the courtyard.

Finally, the spire, often described as a “bee stinger,” completes the imagery. This pinnacle spirals up above the lantern in a highly unusual fashion.

I’ve heard, but I have no confirmation, that the church is no longer open to the public because it can’t afford a caretaker. I think that’s really sad, because it’s a jewel. 

La Sapienza University moved some years ago to sprawling area away from the city center, and part of the state archives are now housed in the former university spaces. I would like to see an arrangement to make the church open for some of the time that the archives have staff in the building.

Please join me on alternate Thursdays at Italian Intrigues where I blog about all things Italian. Next week I write about Italy’s oldest gelato store.


  1. Thanks Patricia, I found this fascinating.

  2. Beautiful pictures and an interesting history of a jewel of a church. I did not see this church but do love the architecture of many churches in Italy and France.
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Rome has about 1,000 churches, so it's likely that most visitors see few of them!

  3. I love church architecture. Thanks for this post! I've been so busy this week that I missed this week's blogs, but I love architecture so I'm going to have to catch up this weekend ;)

  4. Patricia, this sounds like a wonderful little church. I'm especially intrigued by the bees motif. I wonder if the architect incorporated bees or insects into any of his other designs?

    1. I'm not so sure about insects on other structures, although he worked on the Barberini palace before Sant'Ivo, and there are bees there. He's most well-known for his geometric puzzles which are one of the intriguing features of this church.