Lee Foust's Reviews > Here Lies: The Remains of Francesco Castello, AKA Borromini

Here Lies by Lee Foust
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Author's Introduction

Here Lies: the Remains of Francesco Castello, AKA Borromini is a Baroque punk rock historical novel. It is at once the fictional autobiography of seventeenth-century Italian architect Francesco Borromini; a moral diatribe confronting Christian ethics, repentance, and the process of purification; and an extended meditation on art, artistic production in the capitalist world, and the “artistic temperament,” as it’s often condescendingly called. Also, since I’m a postmodern novelist, I felt comfortable injecting my own voice and experiences into Borromini’s purgatorial testament. I have not tried to parallel my own existence with that of the architect, but rather to find the places where our experiences are one: where his churches are my books, his loves my loves, his fears, moral quandaries, mistakes, addictions, and dedication to art are my own, until we become indistinguishable one from the other in the narration; this despite our disparate eras, artistic styles, and the materials of our two disciplines—literature and architecture.

Francesco Castello was born in 1599 in Ticino, the Italian speaking canton of what is today Switzerland. His father was a stonemason and Francesco, too, was trained in that trade as a young man. One day he went to a client of his father’s and collected the man’s payment; however, instead of passing the money on to his family, Francesco used it to run away to Milan, where he eventually found work cutting and carving stone for the Cathedral of that city, then under construction. Soon after that, Francesco moved on to Rome where his maternal uncle, Carlo Maderno, was supervising some of the most important architectural projects of the Mannerist period in that city, most notably finishing up Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s Cathedral. Maderno gave his young nephew the job of carving the cherubs above the Porta Sancta of the first church of Christendom.

Devastatingly for Francesco, upon his uncle’s death, Gianlorenzo Bernini (another of Maderno’s protégés) took over the supervision of most of the master’s projects, often stealing outright or simply, as head of the workshop, taking credit for Francesco’s architectural designs. Although a fabulous sculptor, a dilettante playwright, and genial bon vivant, Bernini was nowhere near Francesco’s equal in architectural design. The two men became rivals, opposites in nearly everything, including temperament, reputation, and fame.

Soon, however, Francesco was given the commission for a project all his own: to build a church in an awkwardly small spot at one of the major crossroads of Rome, on the Quirinal Hill—a church dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo. Francesco took Carlo’s last name, added the diminutive –ini ending to signal his dedication to the saint, and was known thereafter as Francesco Borromini. He was, however, called before the Inquisition and nearly burnt alive for the radically innovative design of this church, which featured the first façade ever to make use of concave and convex surfaces. It was dubbed in Roman gossip, “Borromini’s heretical wave,” and the architect was from then on simultaneously feared as a social pariah perhaps in league with Satan and hailed in the highest artistic circles as an iconoclastic genius of church architecture.

Despite an irascible and nervous disposition, a fanatical devotion to thrift and detail, and a tyrannical overseeing of all of his projects, Borromini managed, during his lifetime, to build two of the most beautiful churches in Christendom: San Carlino (as San Carlo came to be called) and Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. He also worked partially on an oratory, the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona, parts of the Palazzo Barberini, and the renovation of Rome’s oldest church, Saint John’s in the Lateran. Indeed, what’s known today as the Baroque style in architecture can almost be considered to have been Borromini’s own invention.

As the construction of many of these projects wore on for many years, styles began subtly to change, and, as the architect aged, his nervousness and paranoia grew. One night in 1667, in his sixty-seventh year, Borromini managed to get the serving boy charged with looking after him to leave the room. He then shot the bolt, locking the boy out, and flung about the room brandishing his sword in a nervous rage. He fell upon the blade, mortally wounding himself—but he lived long enough to write a full repentance and a brief testament. By dawn, however, he had bled to death.

Here Lies begins with the newly deceased architect’s arrival on the shores of Mount Purgatory as imagined by Dante Alighieri in the second volume of his epic poem, The Commedia. Despite the estrangement of death, Borromini soon realizes that to get up the mountain and be admitted to Paradise, he will have to write a confessional testament. In it he will first have to purge himself of the reluctance to repent in Ante-purgatory, then of each of the seven capital vices—one upon each the seven levels of the mountain of purgation—and finally be baptized in the waters of the Lethe and Eunoe rivers in Terrestrial Paradise at the mountain’s peak by a mysterious savior-lady before he can move on to Paradise proper. These, therefore, are the three sections, or movements, of the novel: Anteroom, Capital, and Terrestrial Paradise.

The guiding structure of the topics and chapters in Here Lies follows the system and structure of Dante’s Purgatory. However, the novel’s seemingly free-form style was also suggested by the Florentine’s epic poem. The journey that Dante’s pilgrim undertakes in The Commedia is, for him, a straight line through the infernal regions, past the center of the Earth, then upward toward the heavens. However, given the terrain—the funnel of hell and its reverse, the mountain of purgatory—the journey actually takes on the form of a spiral as the Pilgrim treks downward from Golgotha, the site of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, past Satan’s pull at the Earth’s core, then up the mountain on the other side of the world to the garden where humankind first fell from grace and where ethics were born in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. From there the Pilgrim flies upward into the heavens, seat of the non-directional, infinite deity. Thus Borromini’s testament, as I have fashioned it in my novel, is a kind of spiraling oration; the architect plows forward, endlessly returning to the same topics, yet always moving a little further on in each until he wears his voice out seeking the silence of beatification and artistic perfection. It’s as if his soul, through this spiraling flow of words—so much like the double-helix of our DNA and the concave and convex contours of the architect’s churches—were doing its best to work its way into the movement of the sun and the other stars, the flow and flux of the universe.
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Reading Progress

May 10, 2021 – Started Reading
May 10, 2021 – Shelved
May 10, 2021 – Finished Reading

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