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2020/21 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

ARTF2200 Borromini and the Roman Baroque: Skill, Knowledge, and Material’s Potential

20 creditsClass Size: 25

Module manager: Richard Checketts

Taught: Semester 2 (Jan to Jun) View Timetable

Year running 2020/21

Pre-requisite qualifications

At least 20 credits from any ARTF-coded module or appropriate equivalent in a relevant discipline. In the latter case, students are advised to get in touch with the module leader to discuss eligibility prior to enrolment.

This module is approved as a discovery module

Module summary

This module will attend to the work of the architect Francesco Borromini within the broader artistic, cultural, and political contexts of seventeenth-century Rome. Centrally, we will engage with two interlinked sets of questions – first around conceptions of the nature and value of materials in this period, and second around the emergence of new ways of thinking about skill and knowledge, both in architecture and more widely. Moving between Borromini’s work and its larger contexts, we will consider the changing economics and politics of architecture and urban development in Rome in this period, from conflicts over land-use and demolition, to the healthy market for rubble, to the emergence of new models of property speculation. We will examine in detail, using a range of primary sources, the complex networks of artisans and others who came together to form the cantiere (the workshops/building sites), both in the sourcing, transportation, and transformation of materials, and in the organisation, payment, and changing status of the workforce. Within and beyond the workshop, materials were in this period contentious. The articulations of different ways of knowing materials – questions about who ‘owns’ such knowledge – were often central to much more wide-ranging social shifts and tensions. Ideas about the ‘richness’ or ‘poverty’ of materials figured also in debates about their presence in the religious settings that formed many of Borromini’s projects, as well as against the broader backdrop of early-modern architecture’s relation to antiquity. And more widely in the culture, the materials of architecture assumed a special significance as the subject of debates – crossing between science, religion, and (more or less directly) politics – around different conceptions of the origin, nature, and transformative properties of matter. Through a number of interlinked approaches, we will consider the ways in which Borromini’s architecture might need to be understood, in its own terms, as alive to these questions. Borromini’s architecture entertains a sense that materials are not fixed and stable entities, but rather that they are always in relation – that they are activated as they come to proximity with other materials, that they are changed as they move from light to shade, and as they appear and disappear through the shifts in our own position as spectators. One of the key aims of this module is to build a discussion of the wider practical, intellectual, and social ramifications of an idea, at a particular historical conjuncture, that the material fabric in which we exist is always ‘potential’.


The objective of the module is to engage historically, and through a range of different artistic and cultural contexts, with one of the central figures of the Roman Baroque. Secondly, the module aims to initiate a broader critical reflection on the potential of an architectural and cultural history grounded in specific questions of knowledge, skill, and materiality.

Learning outcomes
By the end of the module students should have a good understanding of Borromini’s work, the wider contexts in which it was formed, and some of the important methodological and historiographical issues bearing on this field of enquiry. With a view centrally to the coherent formulation of independent research, students will be able to draw on, evaluate, and make connections between a range of different kinds of sources – whether primary or secondary, and whether from within the discipline of art/architectural history, or other areas of scholarship. This will entail the ability to identify, articulate (in writing), and think critically about different ways of approaching architecture as both a material and a cultural construction.


The module is based on ongoing research, so the syllabus will change year to year. As a guide – and following an introductory discussion of Borromini’s works in Rome, and of the contours of the critical approaches the Baroque – the themes addressed might include the following:

- Bodies of knowledge: tracing practical skills and reading theory
- The economics and politics of urbanism in Rome
- The Baroque cantiere: moving, transforming, and making materials
- Substance, surface, and ‘movement’ in Roman Baroque architecture
- Labour and the contract: constructing skills and their values
- The workshop and its documents: materials’ properties and materials as property
- Excavating architecture: the culture of the classical ruin
- The Primitive Church: Christian archaeology, and ‘poor’ materials
- Natural history collections Rome and the chronology of materials: architecture in time

Teaching methods

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours180.00
Total Contact hours20.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)200.00

Private study

Students will be required to read and make notes on complex texts in preparation for detailed class discussions. They will be expected to think independently and creatively about how each of the readings relates to the broader themes of the module.

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Students’ progress will be monitored through their contribution to seminar discussions in each class, and through assessed coursework submitted in week 5 and at the end of the semester.

Methods of assessment

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Essay2,000-2,500 words40.00
Essay3,000-3,500 words60.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

Normally resits will be assessed by the same methodology as the first attempt, unless otherwise stated

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 10/08/2020 08:33:45


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