An elaborate style of European art and architecture characterised by dramatic lighting and theatrical movement.
Prevalent from the early 1600s to around 1750, the style originated in Italy, later spreading throughout Europe, particularly in France, Spain and Austria, appearing in painting, sculpture and architecture. Leaders of the movement included Caravaggio and Bernini in Rome, Sir Peter Paul Rubens in Northern Europe and Sir Anthony Van Dyck in the UK.
The Counter Reformation
The theatrical grandiosity of the Baroque style arose in Italy during the early 1600s, against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation. Some believe the term ‘Baroque’ was lifted from the Portuguese word barroco, the name for an irregularly shaped pearl, in reference to the indulgent, yet chaotic language the art came to exemplify. The style emerged alongside the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a time when the Catholic Church felt threatened by rising Protestantism and sought ways to reassert the visual power of religious iconography. Catholic Emperors and Monarchs became prolific patrons within the arts, encouraging artists to produce ostentatious art with a visual power that could inspire overwhelming awe and wonder in the wider public, through the illustration of Catholic scripture. Contemporary writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) reflected on the style, writing, 'I would define the Baroque as that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that border on self-caricature. The Baroque is the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources.'
Some of the earliest Counter-Reformation artists were members of the Bolognese School, including Annibale Carracci and Giovanni Lanfranco, who painted sculptural heroic figures and illusionistic architectural features, while pioneering ambitious tromp l’oeil painting effects to create seemingly endless space. The Bolognese School came to influence various French Baroque painters, particularly Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.
Baroque paintings were often made as public art commissions, appearing in wall paintings and frescoes, often situated on the ceilings and vaults of churches and palaces. As the style reached its peak in the early to mid-seventeenth century it often featured swirling movement, strong diagonals, stark lighting and carefully studied foreshortened figures in space. The vivid sense of depth in these works conveyed the intensity of deep, dark interiors or vast voids of sky opening out overhead.
In Rome, Caravaggio arose as a major Baroque painter during the early 1600s, commonly known today as 'the father of Baroque painting.' His highly stylised paintings featured emotionally charged subjects, often with macabre content to heighten the potency of their message. His theatrical style also packed a visual punch with stark chiaroscuro lighting and dramatic tenebrism, as if his scenes were lit on a stage by white light. This sense of theatricality was made real by careful anatomical study, as Caravaggio noted, '…there can be nothing …better than to follow nature.' His style proved hugely influential, shaping the next generation of Baroque painters throughout Europe including Sir Peter Paul Rubens in Flanders, Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome, Rembrandt van Rijn in the Netherlands and Diego Velázquez in Spain, who gradually veered towards vernacular subjects.
Baroque Sculpture and Architecture
The Baroque style spread into sculpture during the mid-seventeenth century, in a period often referred to as the High Baroque. Much like Baroque painting, sculpture was defined by tempestuous movement, theatrical gestures and an overwhelmingly large scale. Gian Lorenzo Bernini rose to prominence in the 1620s and became the most famous sculptor in Rome, producing many sculptures for the Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s palace including The Rape of Proserpina, 1621-22 and Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, which continued Caravaggio’s sense of powerful emotional drama. He also extended into architecture, designing the colonnade around St Peter’s Square in Rome, completed in 1667. Architect Francesco Borromini came hot on the heels of Bernini, famously creating the Church of San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane, 1624-46, featuring an innovative oval design and decorative curved walls.
Baroque sculpture and architecture became prominent in Spain, with decorative styles emphasising the wealth and power of the Church, as seen in Pedro de la Torre’s San Isidro Chapel, 1642-69 and José Benito de Churriguera ’s (1665-1725) gilded altarpieces, with shimmering, flickering surfaces that seem caught in motion. In France, too, the Baroque style was predominantly architectural, yet it was less elaborate and ornate as designers revealed a preference for elegant geometry and order, as seen in Louis XIV’s famous Palace of Versailles in 1661, designed by Louis Le Vau.
Towards the mid eighteenth-century the Baroque had evolved into the Rococo style, more indulgent and decorative. It replaced the Baroque’s tense drama with a sense of playful whimsy. When the fashion for elaborate decoration was replaced with Neo-classical restraint and order towards the end of the century the Baroque style fell out of favour, only to arise again in the nineteenth century as European Romanticists including Theodore Gericault, J.M.W. Turner and Eugene Delacroix revived the heightened, emotional drama of the past.