Federico Borromeo was born in Milan as the second son of Giulio Cesare Borromeo, Count of Arona, and Margherita Trivulzio. The family was influential in both the secular and ecclesiastical spheres; Charles Borromeo was his cousin.
He studied theology and law in Pavia and in 1585 he went to Rome for higher studies, where he was strongly influenced by Saint Philip Neri, Cardinal Baronius and Cardinal Bellarmine. Borromeo was created cardinal by Pope Sixtus V in 1587, when he was only 23, and archbishop of Milan on April 24, 1595. During thirty-six years he gave the world an example of episcopal virtue, zeal, and dignity. He followed the example of his elder cousin in promoting the discipline of the clergy, founding churches and colleges at his own expense, and applying everywhere the reformed principles set by the Council of Trent.
In 1609 he founded the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a college of writers, a seminary of savants, a school of fine arts, and, after the Bodleian at Oxford, the first genuinely public library in Europe. Borromeo had the famous Saint Charles Borromeo statue erected in Arona, supported the development of the Sacro Monte of Varese (today a World Heritage site), and participated in the embellishment of the Duomo di Milano where he was to be buried.
He died in Milan in 1631. His successor in the archdiocese of Milan was his favourite pupil Cesare Cardinal Monti.
Federico Borromeo appears as a character in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), in which he is characterized as an intelligent humanist. In 1685 the citizens of Milan erected a marble statue of him next to the gates of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
- Federico Borromeo in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Biography by P. Canetta (pdf) (Italian)