How to recognize Baroque Art

The art forms known as Baroque were a product of a period spanning the seventeenth century and the early decades of the eighteenth century. Geographically, they were employed over most of Europe and Latin America, where their development and decline followed an ir-regular pattern from one country to another. Their local characteristics were likewise very varied, despite a common origin; and so too was their popularity. The reasons for these differences were both geo-graphical and historical. The Baroque grew up at the beginning of the seventeenth century in papal Rome, where, rather than a clearly defined style, it was a ten-dency, common to all the arts — in short, it was a taste, a fashion. Later it spread to the rest of Europe and to Latin America, the typical Baroque forms appearing in these parts of the world after an interval that increased with their distance from Italy. Thus Italy, while still in the forefront of artistic development in Europe at the beginning of the Baroque period, by the end of it had lost its artistic supremacy, which had passed to France, where it was to remain. By approaching the subject from its Roman beginnings, however, we can grasp its essential unity. This wave of influence did not move out from Italy into a void : instead it encountered, and fused with, local tendencies and schools. In this way many art forms of a national character were produced, each with its own peculiarities; and it was these varying and various art forms that together constituted Baroque art. The results achieved in architecture, painting, and other disciplines were in no way inferior to their Italian counterparts. In some fields, in painting, for example — and it is enough. to name Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velazquez — they were clearly superior. As far as theoretical concepts are concerned, the essential feature of Baroque art was a fundamental ambiguity. Baroque artists proclaimed themselves the heirs of the Renaissance and claimed to accept its norms, but they violated these systematically both in the spirit and in the letter. Renaissance meant equilibrium, mod-eration, sobriety, reason, logic: Baroque meant move-ment, desire for novelty, love of the infinite and the non-finite, of contrasts and the bold fusion of all forms of art. It was as dramatic, exuberant, and theatrical as the preceding period had been serene and restrained. Indeed the two movements had quite different objec-tives; and so the means used to attain them were also different, even directly opposed. Renaissance art ad-dressed itself to reason and above all sought to convince: Baroque art, on the other hand, appealed to instinct, to the senses, the imagination, and sought to captivate. It was not without effect that it came into being as the artistic instrument of the Catholic Church, bent at that time on winning back heretics or at least on consolidating the faith of believers and impressing them with its own majesty, to which end several elements of the Baroque, in various forms, were conspicuously apt.

Complex build-ings with complex embellishments: such, in a few words, is Baroque archi-tecture, and no one brought this out bet-ter than Borromini. The Church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, in Rome, is small, almost a chapel,

but the walls undulate through-out in a complicated series of convex and concave curves. Above this base rises not a round but an elliptical dome, a shape very much less easy to con-struct.

It was characteristic of Baroque architecture that, though examples are to be found almost throughout Europe and Latin America, they differ notably from one country to another. How is it, then, that they are all designated by a single term? Partly for convenience, in order to sum-marize the art of a whole period with a single word, but mainly on account of their common aesthetic origin. In Spain the term ‘Baroque’ originally denoted an irregular, oddly-shaped pearl, whereas in Italy it meant a pedantic, contorted argument of little dialectic value. It ended by becoming, in almost all European languages, a synonym for the extravagant, deformed, abnormal, unusual, absurd, and irregular; and in this sense it was adopted by eighteenth-century critics to apply to the art

► In almost all Ba-roque churches, the centre of the facade was given greater importance than the sides There were many ways of achieving this. usually by making it higher and by grouping the archi-tectural elements the portals. groups of columns. and so on. around it In S Andrea al Quirinale. in Rome. Bernini established his de-sired effect by placing before the facade an elegant. semicircular portico. crowned with a dec-orative coat-of – arms This feature demonstrates the Baroque feeling for curving lines as an inspiration of archi-tectural movement

of the preceding century, which had seemed to them conspicuously to possess such characteristics. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Swiss critic Heinrich Wolfflin and his followers gave the word a more objective meaning. Still referring to the art of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they defined as Baroque those works in which certain specific characteristics were to be seen: the use of movement, whether actual (a curving wall, a fountain with jets of water forever changing shape) or implied (a figure por-trayed as making a vigorous action or effort); the attempt to represent or suggest infinity (an avenue which stretched to the horizon. a fresco giving the illusion of a boundless sky, a trick of mirrors which altered perspectives and made them unrecognizable); the importance given to light and its effects in the conception of a work of art and in the final impact it created ; the taste for theatrical, grandiose, scenographic effects; and the tendency to disregard the boundaries between the various forms of art and to mix together architecture, painting, sculpture, and so on. In architecture two types of building most occupied the attention of the age: the church and the palace. In their different versions they respectively included cathedrals, parish churches, and monastic buildings, and town and country mansions, and above all royal palaces, these last being especially typical of the period. In addition to such individual buildings, Baroque architecture was also characterized by what is now known as town-planning, then entering upon its history: the arrangement of cities according to predetermined schemes, and the creation of great parks and gardens around residences of importance. A building can be conceived of in many different ways: as an assemblage of superimposed storeys (the present attitude); as a box defined by walls of regular shape (as Renaissance architects understood it); or as a skeletal structure, that is, one formed — according to the Gothic conception — by the various structures needed to sustain it. Baroque architects understood it as a single mass to be shaped according to a number of requirements. A verbal description of Renaissance forms might be accom-panied by the drawing of imaginary straight lines in the air with an imaginary pencil; but a man describing the

Baroque is more apt to mime the shaping out of an imaginary mass of soft plastic or clay. In short, for Baroque architects a building was to some extent a kind of large sculpture. This conception had a cardinal effect on the ground-plan — the outlines of the building as seen from above – that came to be adopted. It led to the rejection of the simple, elementary, analytical plans which were —deliberately — preferred by Renaissance architects. Their place was taken by complex, rich, dynamic designs, more appropriate to constructions which were no longer thought of as ‘built’, or created by the union of various parts each with its own autonomy, but rather as hollowed out, shaped from a compact mass by a series of demar-cations of contour. The ground-plans common to the architecture of the Renaissance were the square, the circle, and the Greek cross — a cross, that is, with equal arms. Those typical of Baroque architecture were the ellipse or the oval, or far more complex schemes derived from complicated geometrical figures. Francesco Castelli, better known by the name he adopted for himself, Borromini, designed a church with a ground-plan in the shape of a bee, in honour of the patron who commissioned it, whose family coat-of-arms featured bees; and another with walls that were throughout alternately convex and concave. One French architect went so far as to put forward ground-plans for a series of churches forming the letters which composed the name of his king, LOUIS LE GRAND, as the Sun-King Louis XIV liked to be called. Besides their complex ground-plans, the resultant curving walls were, therefore, the other outstanding characteristic of Baroque buildings. Not only did they accord with the conception of a building as a single entity, but they also introduced another constant of the Baroque, the idea of movement. into architecture, by its very nature the most static of all the arts. And indeed, once discovered, the undulating motif was not confined to walls. The idea of giving movement to an architectural element in the form of more or less regular curves and counter-curves became a dominant motif of all Baroque art. Interiors were made to curve – from the Church of S. Andrea al Quirinale by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the main creators and exponents of Roman Baroque, to that of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane or S. No alla Sapienza by Borromini, his closest rival. So too were

façades, as in almost all Borromini’s work, in Bernini’s plans for the Palais du Louvre in Paris. and typically in the work of Italian, Austrian, and German architects. Even columns were designed to undulate. Those of Bernini’s great baldacchino in the centre of St Peter’s in Rome were only the first of a host of spiral columns to be placed in Baroque churches. The Italian architect Guarino Guarini actually evolved, and put to use in some of his buildings, an ‘Undulating order’, in the form of a complete system of bases, columns, and entablatures distinguished by continuous curves.

In their search for new forms. Baroque architects also stud-ied structural as-pects which had previously been rela-tively neglected The dome illustrated. with its interlacing arches (perhaps de-rived from Islamic examples) and its suggestion of a ‘three – dimensional theorem’, carries to the extreme the quest for a complex form based on a single principle.

As in the painting of this period. light was considered a fundamental ele-ment in architecture The strong contrasts between brightly lit and dark areas was a principal feature of Baroque buildings and was used to create a dramatic atmosphere, as for example where a relatively dark church was illumi-nated at the far end from its main doorway

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Baroque is that it is second only to Gothic as a truly popular European style in the sense that it could be used freely and to excel-lent effect by a very large number of architects. In Jakob Prandtauer’s abbey at Melk, in Austria, the design of the façade is again based on lateral towers, which are higher and closer together than is customary.

In the New World. the Baroque style from the Iberian peninsula encoun-tered the decorative traditions of the indigenous peoples. resulting in build-ings that were not merely ornate but encrusted with em-bellishments as if they were the richly chased work of silversmiths — hence their description as Plateresque (‘plata’ means silver). Lorenzo Rodriguez’s lavishly decorated Sanctuary, built in 1755 beside the cathedral in Mexico City, is a characteristic example.


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