Essential themes of the baroque

Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

This discussion of the nature of baroque culture by Barbara Borngässer and Rolf  Toman is an extract from the Introduction to Baroque Architecture Sculpture Painting, 1998. The photographs are my own.

 Theatrum Mundi: Life as a Synthesis of the Arts

Rarely has the spirit of the baroque been more powerfully evoked than it is in the work of the Spanish poet Calderon de la Barca.  In his allegorical play El Gran Theatro del Mundo [The Great Theater of the World], first performed in 1645, he transposes the classical idea of “life as play” to his own times.  The concept suggests individuals conducting themselves as actors before God and his heavenly hosts; the play they are performing is an enactment of their own lives and their stage is the world.

The metaphor of “the world as stage” was prevalent throughout the baroque period, from the end of the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century.  The idea incorporated notable contradictions that could be identified both on stage and “behind the scenes.”  Reality and appearance, grandeur and asceticism, power and weakness stood as the constant yet oppositional characteristics of the era.  In a world convulsed by social upheaval, war, and religious conflict, the image of the vast play seemed to provide acertain stability.  At the same time, the flamboyance of baroque rulers, whether popes or kings, seems to have served an additional political purpose: their grand ceremonies might be seen as representing the stage directions for this “world theater” and the mirror of a higher, presumably God-given, order.

The fine arts as much as the performing arts seem to have served two clear functions during the period: they were designed to impress, even to dazzle, the citizens while communicating a specific ideology.  The arts provided the setting for the unfolding drama and helped to create the ideal of a perfectly ordered world.  Consider in this context, for example, the artistic perspectives deployed in the ceiling paintings of baroque churches and palaces which open up a realm above the architectural space that appears to give access to the heavenly spheres themselves.

 It was not always possible, however, to ignore the contradictions of contemporary life, and these conflicts are to some extent represented in baroque art.  The ostentatious displays of material wealth contrasted with a deeply held faith, and the uninhibited sensual pleasures of life was imbued with an awareness of the inevitability of death….

 Baroque art tends in the first instance to make a sensual appeal to the viewer: with theatrical pathos, illusionistic devices, and the interplay of different forms the artist seeks to impress, to convince, and to arouse an internal response.  This may explain why the style is often experienced as extravagant, showy, or even pretentious.  Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Italian writer Francesco Milizia was already describing the baroque forms of Borromini’s architecture as “an exaggerated expression of the bizarre, or the ridiculous taken to extremes.”  The baroque has frequently been derided in the twentieth century.  The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, for example, complained in the 1920s about the insubstantiality of the style……Perhaps our present era, apparently much attracted to surface charm, will achieve a new attitude to this fascinating period in art history……….


SS. Luca e Martina, Rome, 1635-50 by Pietro da Cortona.

SS. Luca e Martina, Rome, 1635-50 by Pietro da Cortona.

 Baroque as a Concept of Style and as a Historical Era

Contempt for the baroque….was in fact evident even as it was beginning to emerge as a clearly defined style.  In the late nineteenth century, before it had been designated as a specific style, the word “baroque” had been in general use as a pejorative term to indicate anything considered ludicrous, bizarre, florid, ill-defined and confused, artificial and affected….

The negative image of baroque was a florid, even ridiculous style was pushed dogmatically by academics schooled in concepts of aesthetic value that were firmly rooted in a reverence for classical antiquity.  Scholars like..Johann Joachim Winckelmann, for example, saw the baroque period as representing merely “feverish frenzy.” Although Jacob Burchhardt, like Winckelmann, for example, favored the classical idiom, he was the first to examine the architecture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as more than an isolated and anomalous phenomenon, stressing its links to the forms of the Renaissance.  While he described the transition form the Renaissance to baroque as the “degeneration of a dialect,” his work allowed a more discriminating appraisal of the art of this period and represents the earliest serious study of its components.  In 1875 he confessed that: “My respect for the baroque is increasing by the hour, and I am ready to recognise it as the true conclusion and ultimate end of living architecture.”  It was a remarkable change of attitude.

[Discussion of the acceptance of baroque as a subject worthy of academic research.]

The church and the Elephant and Obelisk by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Piazza S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.

The church and the Elephant and Obelisk by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Piazza S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.

 Pathos and Drama

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga provided a clear summary of the essential elements of baroque culture in his Dutch Culture of the Seventeenth Century: “Splendour and dignity, the theatrical gesture, strictly applied regulations, and a closed educational system were the rule; obedient reverence to church and state was the ideal.  The rule of monarchy was worshipped: each individual state advocated autonomy and and ruthlessly self-interested nationalistic policies.  Public life in general was conducted in an elevated language that was taken entirely seriously.  Pageantry and display predominated in spectacular cermonial events.  The restoration of faith took graphic form the highly resonant, triumphal imagery of Rubens, the Spanish painters and Bernini.”………..

While life at the baroque court was regulated by rigid ceremony, festivities, although based on definite ground rules, offered an outlet for jollity and high spirits.  No era witnessed more sumptuous festivities.  Versailles dictated the style, which was imitated by every court in Europe: festivities lasting whole days and nights combined all the arts in a vast synthesis as opera, ballet, and fireworks set new standards of entertainment.  Halls decorated with mythological images, gardens, and expanses of water were ideal settings, constantly being transformed into new vistas by illusionistic and mechanical tricks.  For a few days the whole household slipped into a world of deities and heroes……

Elephant at the base of Elephant and obelisk, 1665-67 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  Piazza S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.

Elephant at the base of Elephant and Obelisk, 1665-67 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Piazza S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.

 Rhetoric and Concettismo

The overly flamboyant reputation of baroque art should not obscure the fact that it was subject to strict rules.  Just as ceremony influenced the behavior of individuals towards one another, the rules of rhetoric determined the structure of discourse, and of works of art.  Rhetoric as inherited from the classical tradition described “the art of measured speech,” a style of discourse which formed part of education from classical antiquity until the end of the eighteenth century.  It offered a guide to communication between speaker and listener and provided rules for interpreting what was said.  It established that the audience must be addressed in the appropriate manner and on a specific subject which had to be clearly explained in order to persuade the listeners after they had weighed up the various issues.  This process might include use of such manipulative contrivances as emotionalism, provocation, and alienation.  It was precisely these three elements which proved to be of exceptional usefulness in the reading of baroque art.  These rhetorical devices applied just as much to the structure of the image abd the construction of the scenes in a cycle of historical frescos as in sculpture…”to delight and move,” was the aim of both a successful speech and of a well-constructed work of art……

 The artist himself was rarely in a position to work on concetti or ideas, yet this was a way to rise above the rank of mere craftsman.  Hermann Bauer defined concetti as “the transformation of a thought through several stages,” “the route from the object to its significance (as a metaphor)”; this was a “constituent” element in the baroque work of art.

Church of La Maddalena, Piazza della Maddalena, Rome, 1735.  The facade has been restored.  A good example of the Roman late Baroque.

Church of La Maddalena, Piazza della Maddalena, Rome, 1735. The facade has been restored. A good example of the Roman late Baroque.

 The “Last Things”

 Let us return to Calderon’s “World Theater.”…

When the curtain comes down, only “the last four things” remain – death, judgment, heaven, and hell.  The allegorical representation of these concepts occupied the whole baroque age and supplied the concetto for its most moving works of art.


Rolf Toman, Ed., Baroque Architecture Painting Sculpture, Könemann, Germany, 1998, ISBN – 3-89508-917-6, translated by Paul Aston, Phil Greenhead and Christine Shuttleworth.  Editor of English edition Catherine Bindman.  Introduction by Barbara Borngässer and Rolf Toman, pp. 7-11.

Gesu, Rome, 1568-84.  Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta.  The epitomy of Roman Counter-Reformation architecture.

Gesu, Rome, 1568-84. Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta. The epitomy of Roman Counter-Reformation architecture.

3 thoughts on “Essential themes of the baroque

  1. Ela Szlufik-Szczesna (rose verdure)

    Reading with the greatest pleasure! As to the baroque rhetoric because of the national duty :-) must mention Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski


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