The lantern that crowns the Baroque church of Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza (1643-60) is one of the most striking features of the Roman skyline and it was the creation of one of the most original minds in the history of architecture, Francesco Borromini (1599-1667).
The lantern is crowned with a wrought-iron flame-like structure, which, according to the Iconologia (1593) by Cesare Ripa (a favourite source for 17th century artists), represents the desire for knowledge, inspired by intellect, while the flaming torches around the base of the spiral roof stand for knowledge itself. These are appropriate references for a church belonging to La Sapienza, the university of Rome.
1632 Borromini was appointed to the post of architect to the Sapienza, one of only two public posts he ever held, and commissioned to build a church. Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza, which closes the fourth side of the courtyard of the Palazzo della Sapienza, was begun during the reign of Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-44), a member of the Barberini family, whose coat of arms was made up of three bees.
This original, if eccentric, architect came up with an extremely ingenious design, which is based on two equilateral triangles, interpenetrating to form a six-pointed star on the periphery and a regular hexagon in the interior. While we know that the plan was originally intended to symbolize the heraldic bees of the Barberini family, head, body and four wings, Borromini must also have had in mind that the six-pointed star is the star of David, the accepted symbol of wisdom and therefore appropriate for the church of the Sapienza.
The decoration of the interior of the church began in 1659 during the papacy of Alexander VII (r. 1655-67), a member of the Chigi family, whose coat of arms consisted of three mounds surmounted by an eight-pointed star. The coat arms is to be seen all over the exquisitely beautiful dome, where the Chigi star alternates with the six-pointed star of David.