Looks are deceiving from the Borromini Perspective

The architect/artist Francesco Borromini designed this colonnade in 1653 to make Cardinal Bernardino Spada's courtyard look bigger.
The architect/artist Francesco Borromini designed this colonnade in 1653 to make Cardinal Bernardino Spada’s courtyard look bigger.

Rome has so many museums, I’ve lived here 2 ½ years and I’m discovering new ones every week. Last week I found one that tops them all in one little niche. Of all the Caravaggio paintings, Bernini sculptures and Michelangelo ceilings I’ve seen, none can match the weirdness of the piece of art I saw in a museum one mile from my apartment.

The Galleria Spada is in a massive stucco palace in Centro Storico’s Piazza Capo di Ferro one block from beautiful Piazza Farnese and two blocks from rollicking Campo dei Fiori, the party center of central Rome. Palazzo Spada was built in 1540 and stands out in a neighborhood of palaces with its intricate fruit and flower carvings on the facade as well as the massive sculpture of Pompey the Great. But what separates it in the neighborhood, as well as from every other museum in Italy, is something else.

An optical illusion.

Palazzo Spada
Palazzo Spada

Inside the palace is a piece of pure bizarre architectural genius. Ever see that drawing of the menage of staircases that seem to go up and down but all wind up interconnected in one big circle? It’s like that but that’s only a drawing, an up the down staircase that makes you dizzy if you look at it long enough. On the first floor of the Palazzo Spada, in a small, quiet courtyard, is the real thing. I stared at it for 30 minutes before I finally figured it out.

It’s a colonnade, an open-air hallway lined with columns that looks at first glance about 25 meters long. In actuality, when you get closer it’s about 8 ½.

How? Why?

Bernardino Spada
Bernardino Spada
Francesco Borromini
Francesco Borromini

This palace was built in 1540 for Cardinal Girolamo Capodiferro, who helped the Papal States defend against possible invasion from the Ottoman Empire. He died in 1559 and in 1632 Cardinal Bernardino Spada felt it would be his perfect home. One problem: He always wanted a spacious garden and the palace itself took up the entire plot of land. There was nowhere to build. In 1653 he hired the famous architect and artist Francesco Borromini to restore the building with one major task: Make the inside look bigger.

Borromini had a plan. Rome had an Augustinian priest named Giovanni Maria da Bitonto who was a bit of a mathematical genius. Da Bitonto gave him the numbers and Borromini went to work. In the passage of the courtyard, he reduced the dimensions from six meters high and three wide at the entrance to two meters by one at the end. He then sloped the floor upward. The two-deep rows of columns get smaller toward the end of the passage. They frame a statue of Mars, the Roman god of war, and it looks as big as any Bernini sculpture in the Borghese Museum. Nope.

The statue is 31 inches tall.

Spada would take guests on a tour of his palace. I imagined he smirked at their remarks about the massive size of his courtyard.

Galleria Spada
Galleria Spada

The Spadas came from a wealthy family in Emilia-Romagna in Central Italy and were huge art collectors. The Galleria Spada upstairs contains a nice collection of 16th and 17th century paintings, including Giovanni Domenico Carrini’s colossal “David with Head of Goliath.” It also houses Pietro Testa’s weird 1640 piece, “An Allegory of the Massacre of the Innocents,” a fine painting if you like looking at a collection of dead babies.

But the Borromini Perspective alone is worth the measly 5-euro charge. After spending the morning looking and analyzing pictures of the work, I toured the gallery then walked downstairs into the courtyard. When I first saw it from the rear, I thought I was looking at one of those long, romantic corridors you often see in palaces that are half the length of a football field. I tried counting the number of columns and kept losing track.

Then I walked about 20 feet to the entrance.

Borromini's genius becomes more evident when you get close.
Borromini’s genius becomes more evident when you get close.

At that perspective, I could tell. The corridor is only 10 meters long. The sculpture looked as if I could slip into my gym bag and walk out.

This probably won’t make people’s to-do lists in Rome. But I live here. I’ve seen every mainstream museum multiple times. Now I’m into novelties. I discovered the Borromini Perspective in Annett Klingner’s terrific book, “111 Places in Rome That You Must Not Miss.” I’m not the only one impressed. Klingner listed it at No. 8.

Also, there is more here than meets the eye. Inside this architectural mind game lies a moral. To the work, Cardinal Spada added a short poem:

In the same way that illusions may cause small shapes to appear great, worldly matters held to be great may prove to be illusory and insignificant.