Beginnings of Baroque Art and Architecture
The Term: Baroque
The origin of the term Baroque is a bit ambiguous. Many scholars think it was derived from the Portuguese barrocco, meaning an imperfect or irregularly shaped pearl. And some, like the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought it was derived from the Italian barocco, a term used to describe an obstacle in formal logic in the medieval period. In growing usage the term originally contained negative connotations, the artwork within its cadre viewed as bizarre and sometimes ostentatious. But in 1888 Heinrich Wölfflin's Renaissance und Barock (1888), the term was officially used as a simple descriptive to denote the distinct artistic style.
Rather than having a single moment of inception, the Baroque period brought together a number of innovative developments in the late 1500s as it was informed by the different and rival painting styles of Caravaggio, the Bolognese School led by Annibale Carracci, and the architecture of Giacomo Della Porta. A deciding factor in the formation of the movement's intensity and scope was the patronage of the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation.
Following the 1527 Sack of Rome, and in efforts to oppose the growth of Protestantism, the Counter-Reformation sought to re-establish the Church's authority. In 1545, Pope Paul III convoked the first Council of Trent, which gathered church dignitaries and theologians to establish doctrine and to condemn contemporary heresies. The Council held 25 sessions under the leadership of Pope Paul III and his successors, Pope Julius III and Pope Pius IV, until 1563. Visual art and architecture became part of the reform campaign, as the Council established guidelines for art that included depicting religious subjects like the Immaculate Conception, the Annunciation, and the Assumption of the Virgin that were exclusive to Catholic dogma, in order to reposition the church's importance in the public eye. However, these guidelines also meant that artists could be called to task if any church official deemed their works depicting religious subjects as offensive. One of the earliest examples occurred when Venetian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese was brought before the Inquisition to defend his Last Supper (1573), for which he was accused of including "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities." When the piece was renamed The Feast in the House of Levi, alluding to a Gospel setting where sinners were present, the work was considered acceptable.
The Protestant Reformation was opposed to the use of images for religious worship, but the Counter-Reformation argued that such art had a didactic purpose and called for a new kind of visual representation that was simple but dramatic, realistic in depiction, and clear in narrative. The movement's leaders professed that art should be easily understood and strongly felt by common people with the effect of encouraging piety and an awe-inspiring sense of the church. While the church and its dignitaries had been notable art patrons since the Gothic era, a new program of patronage was intentionally spurred throughout Europe. New religious orders that were part of the reform movement like the Jesuits, the Capuchins, and the Discalced Carmelites, were officially encouraged to become important patrons of art. This new Baroque style spread throughout Europe, primarily supported by the Catholic Church led by the Pope in Rome and Catholic rulers in Italy, France, Spain, and Flanders. It was further disseminated by powerful religious orders through their extensive network of monasteries and convents.
Giacomo Della Porta
The architect Giacomo Della Porta came from a family of Italian sculptors and was a student, and later collaborator of both Michelangelo and the leading Mannerist architect in Rome, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola. He worked with Barozzi on the building of the Church of the Gesù (1584) and, following the older man's death in 1573, completed the project with a reinterpreted design. His façade both reduced the number of architectural elements, while simultaneously clustering those elements that remained around the entrance. As a result the façade conveyed a feeling of dynamic tension that the visitor would feel before being enveloped by the vast space of the interior. Though the architect's façade was relatively simple in comparison to the much more ornate Baroque churches that followed, the church launched the Baroque style and also became the model for Jesuit churches throughout the world into the 20th century.
In painting, the works of the anti-Mannerist Bolognese School led by Annibale Carracci were the first to be promoted as part of the Counter-Reformation. Carracci along with his brother Agostino and Ludovico, their cousin, had launched the Accademia dei Desiderosi, a small art academy that emphasized prior Renaissance aesthetic ideals of proportion, the use of figure drawing, and precise observation to create realistic but heroic figures in emotionally compelling scenes. His work attracted the attention of the noted art patron Cardinal Odoardo Farnese who called him to Rome and commissioned him to paint the Palazzo Farnese's gallery ceiling to celebrate the wedding of the Cardinal's brother.
The resulting fresco ceiling Loves of the Gods (1597-1601) influenced the Baroque movement, as Carracci pioneered the quadro riportato technique that framed each scene as if it were an easel painting arranged on a ceiling. He also employed quadratura, or painting illusionistic architectural features, as seen in his painted figures of Atlas and classical male nudes, which resemble sculptures. The work influenced Giovanni Lanfranco, Guercino, Pietro de Cortona, Carlo Maratta, and Andrea Pozzo, all of whom became noted quadrature and trompe l'oeil ceiling painters. Carracci also had a noted influence upon future landscape and history painting as seen in the works of the French painters Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, and the French Baroque style.
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, known simply as Caravaggio, has sometimes been dubbed "the father of Baroque painting" because of his pioneering approach. Trained in Milan in the dominant Mannerist style, he quickly evolved his own technique using chiaroscuro, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and tenebrism, intensifying the contrast into dark atmospheric scenes with some elements highly lit as if by a spotlight. His mastery of tenebrism, meaning "dark, mysterious," was such that he was often credited with inventing the technique. His radical realism, by which he painted his subjects as they actually were, flaws and all, was equally innovative and made his works controversial, as did his preference for disturbing subjects.
Caravaggio became the most famous artist in Rome with his paintings of the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) and the Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel. He was subsequently given a great number of religious commissions, though a number of them, including his Conversion of Saint Paul (1600-1601) and Death of the Virgin (1601-1606), were subsequently rejected by patrons who found his realism too shocking. Nonetheless his work became so influential that subsequent generations that adopted his style were called Caravaggisti or tenebrosi. His work influenced many great Baroque painters, including Peter Paul Rubens, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Jose Ribiera, and Rembrandt van Rijn.
Marked by grandeur and an emphasis on movement and drama, the High Baroque began around 1625 and lasted until around 1700. Gian Lorenzo Bernini led and dominated the era, defining the Baroque style in sculpture. His patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Rome, and Bernini's early sculptures were created for the Cardinal's Borghese Palace. Works like his The Rape of Proserpina (1621-22) and his Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) emphasized dramatic realism, intense emotion, and movement, and as art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote, they "inaugurated a new era in the history of European sculpture."
When Cardinal Scipione Borghese later became Pope Urban VIII, Bernini also became the most important architect in Rome, as seen by his being named Chief Architect of St. Peter's in 1629. His Baldachin and the colonnade he designed around St. Peter's Square (1656-1667) exemplified the High Baroque style in architecture. As art historian Maria Grazia Bernardini wrote, he was "the great, principal protagonist of Baroque art, the one who was able to create undisputed masterpieces, to interpret in an original and genial fashion the new spiritual sensibilities of the age, to give the city of Rome an entirely new face, and to unify the [artistic] language of the times."
Bernini's chief rival in architecture was Francesco Borromini, whose Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1624-1646) employed undulating walls, an oval tower, and a radically innovative oval design for the church beneath an oval dome. Ceiling painting, employing quadratura and trompe l'oeil, also became a noted feature of the High Baroque and was exemplified by Giovanni Battista Gaulli's The Triumph of the Name of Jesus in the Church of Gesù (1669-1683) and Andrea Pozzo's Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius (1688-1694), both in Rome. Pozzo also authored Perspectiva Pictorium et Architectorum (Rules and Examples of Perspective Proper for Painters and Architects). Published in two volumes, first in 1693, then 1698, it influenced artists and architects throughout Europe into the 1800s.
Baroque Art and Architecture: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Spanish Baroque was noted for its distinctive style, as a somber and, even sometimes, gloomy mood prevailed in Spanish culture. The Eighty Year War (1568-1648) where the Spanish sought unsuccessfully to maintain control of the Netherlands, and the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) where the Spanish Armada, attempting to invade England, was defeated, drained Spanish finances and created an economic crisis. At the same time, Catholicism was informed by the severity of the Inquisition. In architecture the grandeur and wealth of the church was emphasized, as the Jesuits, an order noted for both its intellectual advocacy for the Counter-Reformation and its Christian proselytization, evolved an extreme use of ornament to accentuate religious glory. An early noted example was Pedro de la Torre's San Isidro Chapel (1642-1669), which combined an ornamented exterior with a simple interior that used light effects to convey a feeling of religious mystery. The emphasis upon Baroque decoration became even more dominant as seen in Fernando de Casa Novo's Obradoiro (1738-1750), or the façade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelo. The façade became influential throughout Europe and the Spanish colonies in Latin America, as the Cathedral, a revered place of pilgrimage for centuries, was the most famous church in Spain.
Gilded altarpieces were a noted element of Spanish Baroque architecture, as seen in José Benito Churriguer's altarpiece of Church of San Esteban in Salamanca (1693), which employed helical columns and an extensive use of gold in an extremely elaborated surface. The resulting style, emphasizing a surface in motion, was called "entallador" and was adopted throughout Spain and Latin America.
In contrast to the architectural emphasis on Catholic splendor, Spanish Baroque painting emphasized the limitations and suffering of human existence. It was noted for its focus on realism based upon precise observation and was less interested in theatrical effects than a compelling sense of human drama. Caravaggio was an early influence on artists like Francisco Ribalta and Jusepe Ribera, though most Spanish artists took chiaroscuro and tenebrism as a departure point and evolved their own style. Ribera's later work emphasized a layer of silver tones overlaid with warm golden tones as seen in his The Holy Family with St. Catherine (1648).
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo developed the estilo vaporiso, or vaporous style, that used a delicate palette, softened contours, and a veiling effect of silver or golden light. His works were both religious subjects like The Immaculate Conception (1678), and genre paintings, where he often depicted street people, as in The Young Beggar (1645). His work was very popular, due to its elegance and sentimentality, and he cofounded the Seville Academy of Fine Art in 1660. After his death Juan de Valdes Leal became the leading painter of Seville, though his work focused on the dramatic such as The End of Worldly Glory (1672), an allegory of death, which made his work a kind of early precursor to Romanticism. Francisco de Zurbaran was dubbed "the Spanish Caravaggio" for his religious subjects like The House of Nazareth (1630), though his compositions were more severe and restrained and often focused on a solitary ascetic figure.
The leading painter of the Spanish Baroque was Diego Velázquez whose work included a number of subjects: genre works like Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618); historical paintings of contemporary events like The Surrender of Breda (1634-1634); religious works like Christ Crucified (1632); noted portraits like Portrait of Innocent X (1650) and Las Meninas (1656); and one of the few Spanish nudes, The Rokeby Venus (1644-1648), a subject which was discouraged in Catholic Spain. While he began by employing tenebrism, he evolved his own masterful technique, which employed a relatively simple color palette but emphasized tonalities and varied brushwork.
French Baroque and French Classicism
Architecture was the dominant expression of the French Baroque style. Called Classicism in France, it rejected the ornate in favor of geometric proportion and less elaborate facades. While Louis XIV invited Bernini to France to submit a design for his Palace of Versailles in 1661, the King instead chose Louis Le Vau's classical design with Charles Le Brun as decorator. As the director of the Gobelins tapestry, Le Brun's work became influential throughout Europe. The Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) (1678-1686) at Versailles included Le Brun's paintings and became the standard for royal French interiors. Similarly the gardens, arranged in geometric grids to echo and emphasize the architecture, were another notable element of Versailles.
In painting, French artists also moved toward a more classical restraint. Claude Lorrain, known simply as Claude, and Nicolas Poussin, were the most important French painters, though both worked in Rome. Claude's work emphasized landscape and the effects of light, and his subjects, whether religious or classical themes, were simply the occasion of the work but not its focus. While Poussin began painting in a Baroque style, by his mid-thirties he had begun to develop his own style, as works like his Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice (1650-1651) conveyed a calm rationality that became influential in the later development of Neoclassicism.
Other French artists, most notably Georges de la Tour, were influenced by Caravaggio's tenebrism but turned away from dramatic action and effects. Painting primarily religious subjects, he innovatively explored nocturnal light, employing geometric compositions and simplified forms to convey a calm and thoughtful spirituality. La Tour's work was influential in his time, as King Louis XIII, Henry II of Lorraine, and Cardinal Richelieu were patrons of his work. Genre painters like the Le Nain brothers also innovatively applied the Baroque style. Louis, Antoine, and Mathieu Le Nain collaborated on most of their works, and their genre scenes emphasized the realism of everyday labor, as seen in their The Blacksmith at His Forge (c. 1639) and Peasants' Meal (1642).
Russian Baroque is also called Petrine Baroque, named in honor of Peter the Great who promoted the style in rebuilding St. Petersburg, when he named it the new Russian capital in 1712. He had been inspired by French Baroque following his 1697-1698 visit to Versailles and the Chateaux of Fontainebleau. The Menshikov Palace (1711-1727) became a notable early example of Russian Baroque. Architects like Andreas Schluter, Gottfried Schadel, and Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond were leading architects of the style. Following Peter the Great's death, the style continued but became more luxurious and ornate as designed by the leading architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The style was then called Elizabethan Baroque in honor of Empress Elizabeth Petrovona and famous examples were the Smolny Cathedral (1748-1764) and the Winter Palace (1754-1762).
Flemish Baroque Painting
Painting was the distinctive component of the Flemish Baroque, and its particular character originated in historical and cultural forces. In 1585, Spanish Catholic forces recaptured Antwerp in Flanders, or modern day Belgium, and the Catholic region was split off from the Protestant Dutch Republic. As a result, Flemish artists painted both Counter-Reformation religious subjects and landscapes, still lifes, and genre works that still drew upon the Northern European tradition.
Peter Paul Rubens led the development of Flemish Baroque painting. His High Baroque style, known for its rich color, sensual exuberance, and movement informed both his religious painting as in Descent from the Cross (1614) and his non-religious subjects like the Judgment of Paris (1636). His female nudes of mythological and Biblical women were particularly renowned and influential, as they combined sensuality with a complexity of allegory and allusion. Rubens' most noted student was Anthony van Dyck who became famous later primarily for his portraits, marked by a courtly elegance. In 1630 he was appointed court painter to the Princess of Orange in 1630 and, due to royal connections, became the painter for the English court and was knighted by Charles I, the King of England, in 1632. Flemish artists also painted genre scenes, and the best known were Adriaen Brouwer, Jacob Jordaens, and David Teniers the Younger.
The Dutch Golden Age
The Dutch Golden Age was the only example of the Baroque style employed in a Protestant area, and, as a result, took a very different approach in both architecture and painting. The Dutch Golden Age began around 1648 with the end of the Thirty Years War, as the Dutch Republic, which had seceded from Spain in 1588, finally achieved independence. In the decades that followed the Republic, fueled by its domination of world trade, became an economic powerhouse with a rising middle class. Dutch Baroque architecture primarily drew upon the works of the Venetian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (often referred to as Dutch Palladianism), while retaining some Gothic elements to create a restrained monumental style. Dutch painting emphasized scenes of everyday life, secular subjects, and pioneered developments in landscape, still life, and genre painting. Religious subjects were most often depicted in printmaking to illustrate Biblical texts. At the same time, a number of Dutch leading artists, including Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Salomon van Ruysdael painted in the Baroque style, employing chiaroscuro and tenebrism. This can be seen in Rembrandt's Night Watch (1642).
Later Developments - After Baroque Art and Architecture
The Baroque period came to an end with the emergence of Rococo in Paris around 1720. Some scholars refer to Rococo as "Late Baroque," yet it took on a very light-hearted and entertaining style bound to courtly life. Nonetheless Baroque artists continued to be influential in the Rococo period, as Rubens influenced Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
As the Rococo period was followed by the Neoclassical style within fifty years many Baroque artists became obscure and overlooked. Rubens and Rembrandt were rediscovered in the 1800s, as Rubens influenced the Romantics Théodore Géricault, and Eugène Delacroix, and Rembrandt influenced the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Claude's landscape paintings influenced J.M.W. Turner, and Velázquez was a significant influence upon Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, and Francis Bacon.
Caravaggio, too, was rediscovered, but not until the mid-1900s, and his work has subsequently influenced photographers, filmmakers, and artists. A revival of interest in Bernini's architectural work is noted by a number of contemporary architects, including I. M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Frank Gehry. Gehry called him, "one of my greatest influences." Similarly, contemporary artists including Jenny Saville, Lisa Yuskavage, and John Currin, reflect the continuing impact of the works of Rembrandt and Rubens.
- Caravaggio was an Italian Late-Renaissance and Baroque painter who is considered a master of chiaroscuro. He is known for his hot temper and for making powerful portraits and religious scenes.
- Peter Paul Rubens was a seventeenth-century Baroque painter of richly-toned allegories, historical cycles, and religious scenes. His works are often populated by fleshy female nudes and figures in dramatic, twisting postures.
- Following in the footsteps of Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi's Baroque paintings were some of the most dramatic and dynamic.
- Bernini redefined sculpture with iconic works capturing key moments of pleasure and narative.
- The seventeenth-century Dutch artist is among the premier master painters in Western civilization. Rembrandt's art was characterized by his sweeping Biblical narratives, stunning attention to detail, and masterful use of chiaroscuro, the painterly application of light and shadow.
- Claude Lorrain was a Baroque French painter who spent much of his life in Italy. Lorrain was widely celebrated for his landscapes and set the example for the genre for many artists.
- The Spanish legend Diego Velazquez was one of the leading figures in the Baroque period. Known as a master of detail and light, Velazquez's work has been a significant influence on generations of artists and movements, from Realism to Surrealism.
- The Dutch Anthony Van Dyck revolutionized portrait painting in Britain, moving it away from the stiff and formal conventions.
Do Not Miss
- The Rococo was a far reaching artistic movement associated with ornate decoration that included architecture, painting, sculpture, music, interior design, landscape design, and theater.
- The High Renaissance, the epitome of Italian art before the modern era was the exemplified in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael - among others.
- Emphasizing drama and depth, the Renaissance techniques of Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato allowed artists like Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt to illuminate visual narratives out from the shadows.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
First published on 28 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly