The Baroque is a period of artistic style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music.
The style began around 1600 in Rome, Italy and spread to most of Europe. The popularity and success of the Baroque style was encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church, which had decided at the time of the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant Reformation, that the arts should communicate religious themes in direct and emotional involvement. The aristocracy also saw the dramatic style of Baroque architecture and art as a means of impressing visitors and expressing triumph, power and control. Baroque palaces are built around an entrance of courts, grand staircases and reception rooms of sequentially increasing opulence.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word baroque is derived from the Portuguese word “barroco”, Spanish “barroco”, or French “baroque”, all of which refer to a “rough or imperfect pearl”, though whether it entered those languages via Latin, Arabic, or some other source is uncertain. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition, thought the term was derived from the Spanish barrueco, a large, irregularly-shaped pearl, and that it had for a time been confined to the craft of the jeweller. Others derive it from the mnemonic term “Baroco”, a supposedly labored form of syllogism in logical Scholastica. The Latin root can be found in bis-roca.
In informal usage, the word baroque can simply mean that something is “elaborate”, with many details, without reference to the Baroque styles of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The word “Baroque”, like most periodic or stylistic designations, was invented by later critics rather than practitioners of the arts in the 17th and early 18th centuries, and was initially used in a derogatory sense, to underline the excesses of its emphasis. In particular, the term was used to describe its eccentric redundancy and noisy abundance of details, which sharply contrasted the clear and sober rationality of the Renaissance. Although it was long thought that the word as a critical term was first applied to architecture, in fact it appears earlier in reference to music, in an anonymous, satirical review of the première in October 1733 of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, printed in the Mercure de France in May 1734. The critic implied that the novelty in this opera was “du barocque”, complaining that the music lacked coherent melody, was filled with unremitting dissonances, constantly changed key and meter, and speedily ran through every compositional device.
In modern usage, the term “Baroque” may still be used, usually pejoratively, describing works of art, craft, or design that are thought to have excessive ornamentation or complexity of line, or, as a synonym for “Byzantine”, to describe literature, computer software, contracts, or laws that are thought to be excessively complex, indirect, or obscure in language, to the extent of concealing or confusing their meaning.
The word was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) in his Renaissance und Barock (1888); Wölfflin identified the Baroque as “movement imported into mass,” an art antithetic to Renaissance art. He did not make the distinctions between Mannerism and Baroque that modern writers do, and he ignored the later phase, the academic Baroque that lasted into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat Baroque as a respectable study until Wölfflin’s influence had made German scholarship pre-eminent.
The Baroque originated around 1600, several decades after the Council of Trent (1545–63), by which the Roman Catholic Church answered many questions of internal reform, addressed the representational arts by demanding that paintings and sculptures in church contexts should speak to the illiterate rather than to the well-informed. This turn toward a populist conception of the function of ecclesiastical art is seen by many art historians as driving the innovations of Caravaggio, brothers Agostino and Annibale Carracci, all of who were working (and competing for commissions) in Rome around 1600.
The appeal of Baroque style turned consciously from the witty, intellectual qualities of 16th century Mannerist art to a visceral appeal aimed at the senses. It employed an iconography that was direct, simple, obvious, and theatrical. Baroque art drew on certain broad and heroic tendencies in Annibale Carracci and his circle, and found inspiration in other artists like Correggio and Caravaggio and Federico Barocci, nowadays sometimes termed ‘proto-Baroque’. Germinal ideas of the Baroque can also be found in the work of Michelangelo. Some general parallels in music make the expression “Baroque music” useful: there are contrasting phrase lengths, harmony and counterpoint have ousted polyphony, and orchestral color makes a stronger appearance. Even more generalized parallels perceived by some experts in philosophy, prose style and poetry, are harder to pinpoint.
Though Baroque was superseded in many centers by the Rococo style, beginning in France in the late 1720s, especially for interiors, paintings and the decorative arts, the Baroque style continued to be used in architecture until the advent of Neoclassicism in the later 18th century. See the Neapolitan palace of Caserta, a Baroque palace (though in a chaste exterior) whose construction began in 1752.
In paintings Baroque gestures are broader than Mannerist gestures: less ambiguous, less arcane and mysterious, more like the stage gestures of opera, a major Baroque art form. Baroque poses depend on contrapposto (“counterpoise”), the tension within the figures that move the planes of shoulders and hips in counterdirections. See Bernini’s David.
The dryer, less dramatic and coloristic, chastened later stages of 18th century Baroque architectural style are often seen as a separate Late Baroque manifestation, for example in buildings by Claude Perrault. Academic characteristics in the neo-Palladian style, epitomized by William Kent, are a parallel development in Britain and the British colonies: within interiors, Kent’s furniture designs are vividly influenced by the Baroque furniture of Rome and Genoa, hierarchical tectonic sculptural elements, meant never to be moved from their positions, completed the wall decoration. Baroque is a style of unity imposed upon rich, heavy detail.
The Baroque was defined by Heinrich Wölfflin as the age where the oval replaced the circle as the center of composition, that centralization replaced balance, and that coloristic and “painterly” effects began to become more prominent. Art historians, often Protestant ones, have traditionally emphasized that the Baroque style evolved during a time in which the Roman Catholic Church had to react against the many revolutionary cultural movements that produced a new science and new forms of religion— Reformation. It has been said that the monumental Baroque is a style that could give the Papacy, like secular absolute monarchies, a formal, imposing way of expression that could restore its prestige, at the point of becoming somehow symbolic of the Counter-Reformation.
Whether this is the case or not, it was successfully developed in Rome, where Baroque architecture widely renewed the central areas with perhaps the most important urbanistic revision.
The Baroque era is sometimes divided into roughly three phases for convenience
- Early Baroque, c.1590–c.1625
- High Baroque, c.1625–c.1660
- Late Baroque, c.1660–c.1725
Late Baroque is also sometimes used synonymously with the succeeding Rococo movement.
Baroque in Painting
Baroque painting is the painting associated with the Baroque cultural movement. The movement is often identified with Absolutism, the Counter Reformation and Catholic Revival, but the existence of important Baroque art and architecture in non-absolutist and Protestant states throughout Western Europe underscores its widespread popularity.
Baroque painting encompasses a great range of styles, as most important and major painting during the period beginning around 1600 and continuing throughout the 17th century, and into the early 18th century is identified today as Baroque painting. In its most typical manifestations, Baroque art is characterized by great drama, rich, deep colour, and intense light and dark shadows, but the classicism of French Baroque painters like Poussin and Dutch genre painters such as Vermeer are also covered by the term, at least in English. As opposed to Renaissance art, which usually showed the moment before an event took place, Baroque artists chose the most dramatic point, the moment when the action was occurring: Michelangelo, working in the High Renaissance, shows his David composed and still before he battles Goliath; Bernini’s baroque David is caught in the act of hurling the stone at the giant. Baroque art was meant to evoke emotion and passion instead of the calm rationality that had been prized during the Renaissance.
Among the greatest painters of the Baroque period are Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez, Poussin, and Vermeer. Caravaggio is an heir of the humanist painting of the High Renaissance. His realistic approach to the human figure, painted directly from life and dramatically spotlit against a dark background, shocked his contemporaries and opened a new chapter in the history of painting. Baroque painting often dramatizes scenes using chiaroscuro light effects; this can be seen in works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Le Nain and La Tour. The Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck developed a graceful but imposing portrait style that was very influential, especially in England.
The prosperity of 17th century Holland led to an enormous production of art by large numbers of painters who were mostly highly specialized and painted only genre scenes, landscapes, Still-lifes, portraits or History paintings. Technical standards were very high, and Dutch Golden Age painting established a new repertoire of subjects that was very influential until the arrival of Modernism.
Baroque in Sculpture
In Baroque sculpture, groups of figures assumed new importance and there was a dynamic movement and energy of human forms— they spiraled around an empty central vortex, or reached outwards into the surrounding space. For the first time, Baroque sculpture often had multiple ideal viewing angles. The characteristic Baroque sculpture added extra-sculptural elements, for example, concealed lighting, or water fountains. Aleijadinho in Brazil was also one of the great names of baroque sculpture, and his master work is the set of statues of the Santuário de Bom Jesus de Matosinhos in Congonhas. The soapstone sculptures of old testament prophets around the terrace are considered amongst his finest work.
The architecture, sculpture and fountains of Bernini (1598–1680) give highly charged characteristics of Baroque style. Bernini was undoubtedly the most important sculptor of the Baroque period. He approached Michelangelo in his omnicompetence: Bernini sculpted, worked as an architect, painted, wrote plays, and staged spectacles. In the late 20th century Bernini was most valued for his sculpture, both for his virtuosity in carving marble and his ability to create figures that combine the physical and the spiritual. He was also a fine sculptor of bust portraits in high demand among the powerful.
Baroque in Architecture
In Baroque architecture, new emphasis was placed on bold massing, colonnades, domes, light-and-shade (chiaroscuro), ‘painterly’ color effects, and the bold play of volume and void. In interiors, Baroque movement around and through a void informed monumental staircases that had no parallel in previous architecture. The other Baroque innovation in worldly interiors was the state apartment, a sequence of increasingly rich interiors that culminated in a presence chamber or throne room or a state bedroom. The sequence of monumental stairs followed by a state apartment was copied in smaller scale everywhere in aristocratic dwellings of any pretensions.
Baroque architecture was taken up with enthusiasm in central Germany (see, e.g., Ludwigsburg Palace and Zwinger Dresden), Austria and Russia (see, e.g., Peterhof). In England the culmination of Baroque architecture was embodied in work by Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, from ca. 1660 to ca. 1725. Many examples of Baroque architecture and town planning are found in other European towns, and in Latin America. Town planning of this period featured radiating avenues intersecting in squares, which took cues from Baroque garden plans. In Sicily, Baroque developed new shapes and themes as in Noto, Ragusa and Acireale “Basilica di San Sebastiano”.
Another example of Baroque architecture is the Cathedral of Morelia Michoacan in Mexico. Built in the 17th century by Vincenzo Barrochio, it is one of the many Baroque cathedrals in Mexico. Baroque churches are also seen in the Philippines, which were built during the Spanish period.
Francis Ching described Baroque architecture as “a style of architecture originating in Italy in the early 17th century and variously prevalent in Europe and the New World for a century and a half, characterized by free and sculptural use of the classical orders and ornament, dynamic opposition and interpenetration of spaces, and the dramatic combined effects of architecture, sculpture, painting, and the decorative arts.
Baroque in Theater
In theatre, the elaborate conceits, multiplicity of plot turns and a variety of situations characteristic of Mannerism (Shakespeare’s tragedies, for instance) were superseded by opera, which drew together all the arts into a unified whole.
Theatre evolved in the Baroque era and became a multimedia experience, starting with the actual architectural space. In fact, much of the technology used in current Broadway or commercial plays was invented and developed during this era. The stage could change from a romantic garden to the interior of a palace in a matter of seconds. The entire space became a framed selected area that only allows the users to see a specific action, hiding all the machinery and technology – mostly ropes and pulleys.
This technology affected the content of the narrated or performed pieces, practicing at its best the Deus ex Machina solution. Gods were finally able to come down – literally – from the heavens and rescue the hero in the most extreme and dangerous, even absurd situations.
The term Theatrum Mundi – the world is a stage – was also created. The social and political realm in the real world is manipulated in exactly the same way the actor and the machines are presenting/limiting what is being presented on stage, hiding selectively all the machinery that makes the actions happen.
The films Vatel, Farinelli, and the staging of Monteverdi’s Orpheus at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, give a good idea of the style of productions of the Baroque period. The American musician William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have performed extensive research on all the French Baroque Opera, performing pieces from Charpentier and Lully, among others that are extremely faithful to the original 17th century creations.
Baroque in Music
The term Baroque is also used to designate the style of music composed during a period that overlaps with that of Baroque art, but usually encompasses a slightly later period.
It is a still-debated question as to what extent Baroque music shares aesthetic principles with the visual and literary arts of the Baroque period. A fairly clear, shared element is a love of ornamentation, and it is perhaps significant that the role of ornament was greatly diminished in both music and architecture as the Baroque gave way to the Classical period.
The application of the term “Baroque” to music is a relatively recent development, although it has recently been pointed out that the first use of the word “baroque” in criticism of any of the arts related to music, in an anonymous, satirical review of the première in October 1733 of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, printed in the Mercure de France in May 1734. The critic implied that the novelty in this opera was “du barocque,” complaining that the music lacked coherent melody, was filled with unremitting dissonances, constantly changed key and meter, and speedily ran through every compositional device.
However this was an isolated reference, and consistent use was only begun in 1919, by Curt Sachs, and it was not until 1940 that it was first used in English (in an article published by Manfred Bukofzer).
Many musical forms were born in that era, like the concerto and sinfonia. Forms such as the sonata, cantata and oratorio flourished. Also, opera was born out of the experimentation of the Florentine Camerata, the creators of monody, who attempted to recreate the theatrical arts of the Ancient Greeks. An important technique used in baroque music was the use of ground bass, a repeated bass line. Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell is a famous example of this technique.
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