The cultural production of the 17th and early 18th centuries in the West is often described as Baroque, a convenient blanket term. However, this term is problematic because the period encompasses a broad range of developments, both historical, and artistic, across an expansive geographical territory. Although its origin is unclear, the term may have come from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning an irregularity shaped pearl. Use of the term baroque emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries when critics disparaged the Baroque period’s artistic production, in large part because of the perceived deficiencies in comparison to the art of the period preceding it. Over time, this negative connotation faded, and the term is now most often used as a general designation of the period. Some scholars use Baroque to describe a particular style that emerged during the 17th century. It was a style of complexity and drama that is usually associated with Italian art of the period. The dynamism and extravagance of this Baroque style contrast with the rational order of classicism. Not all artists adopted this style during the Baroque period.
In our study, because of the diversity of styles in the various cultures of the period, Baroque will be used to describe the characteristics associated with a particular culture, such as, Italian Baroque or Dutch Baroque.
One historian claims that between 1562 and 1721, all of Europe only had peace for four years. The major conflict was the Thirty Years War that was rooted in conflict between militant Catholics and Protestants that grew into secular, dynastic, and nationalistic reasons. The result was a major restructuring of Europe. The formation of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (the Dutch Republic), Sweden and France expanded their authority; Spain’s and Denmark’s power diminished. The building of nation-states was underway. In addition to the reconfiguring territorial boundaries, the Treaty of Westphalia in essence granted freedom of religious choice throughout Europe. The treaty thus marked the abandonment of the idea of a united Christian Europe, which was replaced by the practical realities of secular political systems. By the 17th century, European societies began to coordinate their long distance trade more systematically. The allure of expanding markets, rising profits, and access to a wider range of goods contributed to the relentless economic competition between countries. Much of the foundation for worldwide mercantilism - extensive voyaging and geographic exploration, improved cartography, and advances in shipbuilding - was laid in the previous century. In fact by the end of the 16th century, all major trade routes had been established.
In the 17th century changes in financial systems, lifestyles, and trading patterns, along with expanding colonialism, fueled the creation of a worldwide marketplace. The Dutch founded the bank of Amsterdam in 1609, which eventually became the center of European transfer banking. By establishing a system in which merchant firms held money on account, the bank relieved traders of having to transfer precious metals as payment. As a result trading became more complex and could involve many parties rather than simple exchanges between two or three parties. Many new goods became available. Coffee from island colonies, tea from china, and sugar exploded in popularity. Sugar, along with tobacco, and rice, were slave crops, and the slave trade expanded to accommodate demand for these goods. Africans were enslaved and imported to European colonies and the Americas to provide the labor for producing these commodities.
The worldwide mercantile system permanently changed the face of Europe. The prosperity such trading generated, affected social and political relationships, necessitating new rules of etiquette and careful diplomacy. With increased disposable income, more of the newly wealthy spent money on art (among other things), expanding the number of possible sources of patronage. By 1700, the growth of the moneyed class had contributed significantly to the emergence of Rococo, a decorative style associated with the wealthy and aristocratic. 17th Century Italian Baroque
What to do about the considerable appeal of Protestantism in the succeeding century occupied the Catholic Church even into the 17th century. With the popes and clergy still continuing as major patrons of the arts, as in the previous centuries, much of Italian Baroque art was aimed at propagandistically restoring Catholicism’s predominance and centrality. Whereas Italian Renaissance artists often had reveled in the precise, orderly rationality of classical models, Italian Baroque artists embraced a more dynamic and complete aesthetic. During the 17th century, dramatic theatricality, grandiose scale, and elaborate ornateness, all used to spectacular effect, characterized Italian Baroque art and architecture. Papal Rome’s importance as the cradle of Italian Baroque art further suggests the role art played in supporting the aims of the Church. Protestant objection to using images in religious worship was firmly resisted by the Catholic Church, insisting on their necessity for teaching the laity. Therefore Italian Baroque art commissioned by the Church was not merely decorative but didactic as well.
The popes of the late 16th and 17th centuries contributed much to reestablishing the preeminence of the Catholic Church. They were responsible for building what is the modern city of Rome. The papal treasury commissioned art and architecture that embodied the renewed energy of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and communicated to its populace.
The facade designed by Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) at the turn of the century for the Roman church of Santa Susanna, stands as one of the earliest manifestations of the Baroque spirit. The facade emphasizes verticality and dramatizes the major features. The facade’s tall central section projects forward from the horizontal lower story and the scroll buttresses that connect the two levels are narrower and set at a sharper angle. The elimination of an arch framing the pediment over the doorway further enhances the designs vertical thrust. Strong shadows cast by Santa Susanna’s vigorously projecting columns and pilasters mount dramatically toward the stressed central axis. The recessed niches, which contain statues, heighten the sculptural effect.
The drama of Santa Susanna’s facade appealed to Pope Paul V (1605-1621), who commissioned Maderno in 1606 to complete Saint Peter’s in Rome. As the symbolic seat of the papacy, Saint Peter’s radiated enormous symbolic presence, and needed to be finished.
In many ways Maderno's facade of Saint Peter’s is a gigantic expansion of the elements of Santa Susanna’s first level. But the compactness and verticality of the smaller church’s facade are not as prominent because the expansive width in Saint Peter’s counterbalances them. The preexisting core of an incomplete building restricted Maderno, so he did not have the luxury of formulating a totally new concept for Saint Peter’s. His design for the facade was also never fully executed. The two outside bell tower bays were not part of Maderno’s original plan. Hence, had the facade been constructed according to the architect’s initial design, it would have established greater verticality and coherence.
Maderno’s plan also departed from the central plans designed by Bramante and Michelangelo during the Renaissance. Seventeenth century clergy rejected a central plan for Saint Peter’s because of its association with pagan buildings, such as the Pantheon. Paul V commissioned Maderno to add three nave bays to the earlier nucleus. The longitudinal plan reinforced the symbolic distinction between clergy and laity and provided space for the processions of ever growing assemblies. Lengthening the nave, unfortunately, pushed the dome further back from the facade and the effect Michelangelo had planned - a structure pulled together and dominated by its dome is not readily visible. When viewed at close range, the dome hardly emerges above the facades soaring frontal plane; seen from far back, it appears to have no drum. Visitors must move back quite a distance from the front to see the drum and dome together and experience the effect Michelangelo intended.
The design of Saint Peter’s was finally completed (except for details) by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Bernini was an architect, painter, and sculptor, and one of the most important and imaginative artists of the Italian Baroque era. He also designed its most impressive single project; the monumental piazza (plaza; 1656-1667) in front of Saint Peter’s. In much the same way Michelangelo was forced to reorganize the Capitoline Hill, Bernini had to adjust his design to some preexisting structures on the site - and an ancient obelisk the Romans brought from Egypt (which Pope Sixtus V had relocated to the piazza in 1585 as part of the pope’s vision of Christian triumph in Rome) and a fountain Maderno designed. He used these features to define the long axis of a vast oval embraced by colonnades joined to Saint Peter’s facade by two diverging wings. Four rows of huge Tuscan columns make up the two colonnades, which terminate in severely classical temple fronts. The dramatic gesture of embrace that the colonnades make as viewers enter the piazza symbolizes the welcome the Catholic Church gave its members during the Counter-Reformation. Bernini himself referred to his design of the colonnade as appearing like the welcoming arms of the Church. Beyond their symbolic purpose, the colonnades served the functional purpose of providing pilgrims with easy access to the piazza. The wings that connect Saint Peter’s facade with the oval piazza flank a trapezoidal space. The diverging wing counteracts the natural perspective and tends to bring the facade closer to the observers and emphasizing its height. A Baroque transformation expanded the compact and central designs of Bramante and Michelangelo into a dynamic complex of axially ordered elements that reach out and enclose spaces of vast dimension. By sheer scale and theatricality, the completed Saint Peter’s presented the Catholic Church in an awe inspiring and authoritative vision.
Long before he began planning the piazza, Bernini had been at work on the interior of Saint Peter’s. His first commission, completed between 1624 and 1633, called for the design and erection of the gigantic bronze baldacchino under the great dome. The canopy like structure (baldacchino is Italian for “silk from Baghdad,” such as for a cloth canopy) stands almost 100 feet high (the height of an average eight story building), has both functional and symbolic purposes. It marks the high altar and the Tomb of Saint Peter. It visually bridges human scale to the lofty vaults above. It also provides a dramatic presence at the crossing. Its columns create a visual frame for the elaborate sculpture representing the throne of Saint Peter’s (Cathedra Petri) at the far end. The structure’s symbolic character speaks of the power of the Catholic Church and Pope Urban VIII. The fluted and wreathed columns recall those of the ancient baldacchino that once straddled the same spot and evoked the past to reinforce the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church. At the top of the columns, four colossal angels stand guard at the upper corners of the canopy. Forming the canopy’s apex are four serpentine brackets that elevate the orb and the cross that since the time of Constantine represented the Church’s triumph. The baldacchino also features numerous bees, symbols of the Barberini family the Pope’s family, and gives recognition to the patron.
The construction of the baldacchino was itself an awesome feat. Each of the bronze columns was cast in five sections using the lost wax method from wooden models. Although Bernini did some of the actual production of the columns himself, much of the work was contracted out to experienced founders and sculptors. The bronze for the huge structure was acquired by dismantling the portico of the Pantheon - ideologically appropriate given the church’s rejection of paganism.
Bernini devoted much of his prolific career to the adornment of Saint Peter’s where his works combine sculpture and architecture. Although he was a great architect, Bernini’s fame rests primarily with his sculpture, which like his architecture, expresses the Italian Baroque spirit. Bernini’s David, predates his work at Saint Peter’s and was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. This marble statue aims at catching the figure’s split second action and differs markedly from the figures of David presented by Donatello, Verrocchio, and Michelangelo. Bernini shows David with his muscular legs widely and firmly planted, and is beginning the violent, pivoting motion that will launch the stone from the sling. Bernini selected the most dramatic of an implied sequence of poses, so observers have to think simultaneously of the continuum and of this tiny fraction of it. This is not the kind of sculpture that can be inscribed in a cylinder or confined in a niche; its indicated action demands space around it. Nor is it self sufficient in the Renaissance sense, as its pose and attitude direct the the viewer’s attention beyond it to its surroundings. David’s intense gaze is a far cry from the placid expression on Donatello’s David.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa also displays the expansive quality of Italian Baroque art and its refusal to limit itself to firmly defined spatial settings. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is in the Cornaro Chapel of the Roman Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. For this Chapel, Bernini utilized the full capabilities of architecture, sculpture, and painting to charge the entire area with palpable tension. He accomplished this by drawing on his considerable knowledge of the theater he derived from writing plays and producing stage designs. The marble sculpture that serves as the focus of this chapel depicts Saint Teresa, who was a nun of the Carmelite order and one of the great mystical saints of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. Her conversion occurred after the death of her father, when she fell into a series of trances, saw visions, and heard voices. Feeling a persistent pain, she attributed it to the fire-tipped arrow of Divine love that an angel thrust repeatedly into her heart. In her writings, Saint Teresa described this experience as making her swoon in delightful anguish. The whole chapel became a theater for the production of this mystical drama. The niche in which it takes place appears as a shallow proscenium (the part of a stage in front of the curtain) crowned with a broken Baroque pediment and ornamented with polychrome marble. On either side of the chapel, sculpted relief portraits of the Cornaro family behind draped praying desks attest to the piety of the patrons (Cardinal Federico Cornaro and his relatives) Bernini depicted the saint in ecstasy, unmistakably a mingling of spiritual and physical passion, swooning back on a cloud, while the smiling angel aims his arrow. The entire sculptural group is made of white marble, and attests to Bernini’s supreme technical virtuosity in creating different textures; clouds, rough monk’s cloth, gauzy material, smooth flesh, and feathery wings. Light from a hidden window of yellow glass pours down on bronze rays that suggest the radiance of Heaven (whose painted representation covers the vault). The passionate drama of Bernini’s sculpture correlated with the ideas disseminated earlier by Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuit Order in 1534 and was canonized as Saint Ignatius in 1622. In his book Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius argued that the recreation of spiritual experiences for viewers would do much to increase devotion and piety. Thus, theatricality and sensory impact were useful vehicles for achieving Counter Reformation goals. Architecture
Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) took Italian Baroque architecture to even greater heights. A new dynamism appeared in the little church of San Carlo alle Quartto Fontane(Saint Charles of the Four Fountains), where Borromini went far beyond any of his predecessors or contemporaries in emphasizing the building’s sculptural qualities. Although Maderno incorporated sculptural elements in his designs for the facades of Saint Susanna and Saint Peter’s, they still develop along relatively lateral planes. Borromini set his whole facade in motion, forward and back, making a counterpoint of concave and convex elements on the two levels. He emphasized the three dimensional effect with deeply recessed niches. The facade is not the traditional flat frontispiece that defines a buildings outer limits, it is a pulsating, engaged component inserted between interior and exterior space, designed not to separate but to provide a fluid transition between the two. This functional interrelation of the building and its environment is underlined by the curious fact that it has not one but two facades. The second is a narrow bay crowned by its own small tower, turns away from the facade and, following the curve of the street, faces an intersection. The upper facade was completed seven years after Borromini’s death, and historians are not sure to what degree the present design reflects his original intention.
The interior is not only an ingenious response to an awkward site but also a provocative variation on the theme of a centrally planned church. In plan, San Carlo looks like a hybrid of a Greek cross and an oval, with a long axis between entrance and apse. The side walls move with an undulating flow that reverses the facades motion. Vigorously projecting columns define the space into which they protrude as much as they accent the walls attached to them. This molded interior space is capped by a deeply coffered oval dome that seems to float on the light entering through the windows hidden at the base. Rich variations on the basic theme of the oval, dynamic relative to the static circle, create an interior that appears to flow from entrance to altar, unimpeded by the segmentation so characteristic of Renaissance buildings. Guarino Guarini
The heir to Borromini’s architectural style was Guarino Guarini (1624-1683), a priest, mathematician, and architect who spent the last 17 years of his life in Turin converting that provincial Italian town into a showcase of architectural theories that later swept much of Europe. In his Palazzo Carignano, Guarini effectively applied Borromini’s principle of undulating facades. The facade is divided into three units, the central one curving like San Carlo and flanked by two block like wings. This lateral three part division was characteristic of Baroque palazzi and is probably based on the observation that the average person instinctively can recognize up to three objects in a unit. A greater number would require the viewer to count each object individually. A tripartite organization of extended surfaces thus allowed artists to introduce a variety into their designs without destroying structural unity. It also permitted added emphasis on the central axis. Guarini did this by punching out deep cavities in the middle of the convex central block. Hr enhanced the variety of his design with richly textured surfaces (all executed in brick) and pilasters, which further subdivide his units into three bays each. High and low reliefs create shadows of different intensities and add a decorative effect.
Guarini’s mathematical talents must have guided him when he designed the extraordinarily complex dome of the Chapel of the Santissima Sindone (Holiest Shroud), a small central plan building attached to the Turin Cathedral. A view into the dome reveals a display of geometric elements appearing to move in kaleidoscope fashion around a circular focus containing a painting of the bright dove of the Holy Spirit. Here the architect transformed the traditional dome in a series of segmented intersecting arches. The pristine clarity of the unmodified shape of the Renaissance “dome of Heaven,” is gone and replaced with the dynamism of the Baroque.
The styles of Borromini and Guarini moved across the Alps and inspired architects in Austria and Southern Germany in the late 17th and 18th centuries. These styles were very popular in Catholic regions of Europe and the New World, especially Brazil.
Although sculpture and architecture provided the most obvious means of manipulating space and creating theatrics, painting also was capable of much. One of the greatest of the Baroque painters was Michelangelo Merisi, known as, Caravaggio (1573-1610) after the northern Italian town he came from, developed a unique style that had tremendous influence throughout Europe. His out spoken disdain for the classical masters drew bitter criticism from many painters who denounced him as the “antichrist of painting. Giovanni Pietro Bellori, the most influential critic of the age felt that Caravaggio’s refusal to emulate the models of his distinguished predecessors threatened the whole tradition of Italian painting that had reached its peak in Raphael. Yet despite this criticism and the problems of Caravaggio’s troubled life, he received many commissions, both public and private, and numerous artists paid him the supreme compliment of borrowing from his innovations. His influence on artists outside of Italy was immense. In his art, Caravaggio injected naturalism into both religious and classics, reducing them to human dramas played out in the harsh and dingy settings of his time and place. His unidealized figures selected from the fields and the streets were, however, effective precisely because of the Italian public’s familiarity with such figures.
Conversion of Saint Paul, painted for the Cerasi Chapel in the Roman Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The saint to be is depicted flat on his back with his arms thrown up toward a light that has no obvious source. An old hostler seems preoccupied with caring for the horse. At first glance there is little here to suggest a momentous spiritual event is taking place. This appears to be a mere stable event, not a great miracle. Although Caravaggio departed from the traditional depictions of such religious scenes, the eloquence and humanity with which he imbued his paintings impressed many.
Caravaggio also employed other formal devices to compel the viewer’s interest and involvement in the event. In Conversion of Saint Paul, he used perspective and a chiaroscuro intended to bring viewers as close as possible to the scene’s space and action, almost as if participating in them. The sense of inclusion is augmented by the low horizon line. Caravaggio designed Conversion of Saint Paul for presentation on the chapel wall, positioned at the viewer’s eye level as they stand at the chapel entrance. The sharply lit figures are meant to be seen as emerging from the dark of the background. The stark contrast of light and dark was a feature of Caravaggio’s style that first shocked then fascinated his contemporaries. Caravaggio’s use of dark settings enveloping their occupants, which profoundly influenced European art. Caravaggio's painting technique has been called tenebrism. The wordcomes from the Italian word tenebroso, or “shadowy” manner. Although tenebrism was widespread in 17th century art, it was especially strong in Spain and the Netherlands. The tenebrism in Caravaggio's work usually had great meaning. In Conversion of Saint Paul the light is divine revelation converting Paul to Christianity.
In 1603, Caravaggio produced a large scale painting, Entombment, for the Chapel of Pietro Vittrice at Santa Maria in Vallicella in Rome. This work includes all the hallmarks of Caravaggio’s distinctive style: the plebeian figures, the stark use of light and dark, and the invitation of the viewer to participate in the scene. The action takes place in the foreground. The artist positioned the figures on a stone slab whose corner appears to extend into the viewer’s space; suggesting that Christ’s body will be laid directly in front of the viewer.
This moving composition also had theological implications. With Counter-Reformation concerns, this image gives visual form to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the transformation of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ), and was rejected by Protestants. By depicting Christ’s body as though it were physically present during the Mass, Caravaggio visually articulated the abstract theological concept.