What Is Baroque?
Baroque and post-Baroque are terms used to describe a particular style of art and architecture that flourished in Europe from the close of the 16th Century to the late 18th Century. This style was much concerned with vivid colors, hidden light sources, luxurious materials, elaborate, contrasting textures, and drama and illusion. But the art of the period was so varied that it is impossible to supply a simple set of rules or criteria for it.
In architecture the buildings were designed to stimulate faith in church and state. Each element in the design contributed to the central culminating feature. Precision and elegance were thought less important than vitality and movement. Unity and harmony were essential. Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) is known as the father of Baroque. In 1607, he designed the facade of St. Peter’s Rome. The colonnade was the work of the brilliant Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).
The Baroque influence soon became international and rapidly developed into two separate forms—free, active architecture in Roman Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, and more restrained but impressive buildings in protestant areas such as England, The Netherlands and parts of Northern Europe. During the post-Baroque period (about 1700-1780) a particular style known as Rococo developed which refined the flamboyant Baroque to suit elegant 18th Century tastes.
The Baroque style of architecture was a result of doctrines adopted by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1545–63, in response to the Protestant Reformation. The first phase of the Counter-Reformation had imposed a severe, academic style on religious architecture, which had appealed to intellectuals but not the mass of churchgoers. The Council of Trent decided instead to appeal to a more popular audience, and declared that the arts should communicate religious themes with direct and emotional involvement.
Baroque churches were designed with a large central space, where the worshipers could be close to the altar, with a dome or cupola high overhead, allowing light to illuminate the church below. The dome was one of the central symbolic features of baroque architecture illustrating the union between the heavens and the earth, The inside of the cupola was lavishly decorated with paintings of angels and saints, and with stucco statuettes of angels, giving the impression to those below of looking up at heaven.
Another feature of baroque churches are the quadratura; tromp-l’oeil paintings on the ceiling in stucco frames, either real or painted, crowded with paintings of saints and angels and connected by architectural details with the balustrades and consoles. Quadratura paintings of Atlantes below the cornices appear to be supporting the ceiling of the church. Unlike the painted ceilings of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, which combined different scenes, each with its own perspective, to be looked at one at a time, the Baroque ceiling paintings were carefully created so the viewer on the floor of the church would see the entire ceiling in correct perspective, as if the figures were real.
The interiors of baroque churches became more and more ornate in the High Baroque, and focused around the altar, usually placed under the dome. The most celebrated baroque decorative works of the High Baroque are the Chair of Saint Peter (1647–53) and the Baldachino of St. Peter (1623–34), both by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Baldequin of St. Peter is an example of the balance of opposites in Baroque art; the gigantic proportions of the piece, with the apparent lightness of the canopy; and the contrast between the solid twisted columns, bronze, gold and marble of the piece with the flowing draperies of the angels on the canopy.
The twisted column in the interior of churches is one of the signature features of the Baroque, it gives both a sense of motion and also a dramatic new way of reflecting light. The cartouche was another characteristic feature of baroque decoration. These were large plaques of carved of marble or stone, usually oval and with a rounded surface, which carried images or text in gilded letters, and were placed as interior decoration or above the doorways of buildings, delivering messages to those below. They showed a wide variety of invention, and were found in all types of buildings, from cathedrals and palaces to small chapels.
Baroque architects sometimes used forced perspective to create illusions. For the Palazzo Spada in Rome, Borromini used columns of diminishing size, a narrowing floor and a miniature statue in the garden beyond to create the illusion that a passageway was thirty meters long, when it was actually only seven meters long. A statue at the end of the passage appears to be life-size, though it is only sixty centimeters high. Borromini designed the illusion with the assistance of a mathematician.