Dare to Break the Rules

Started: 1584
Ended: 1723

In 1527 Europe, religion had the power to direct and inform the content and climate of society’s art output. A backlash against the Protestant Reformation was compelled by the Catholic Church to re-establish its importance and grandeur within society. Artists, following suit, revived Renaissance ideals of beauty, infusing into the era’s artwork, music and architecture. A revived nod to classicism further enhanced a new extravagance and penchant for the ornate. Marked by its innovative techniques and details this highly embellished style became known as Baroque as it delivered a new visual language into an art world that had been toned down.

The Calling of St Matthew by Caravaggio, 1599-1600, oil on canvas. San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy

Baroque spread throughout Europe led by the Pope and Catholic rulers in Italy, France, Spain and Flanders. It spread further with powerful religious orders and their extensive network of monasteries and convents.

Baroque brought religious imagery back into the public eye after being banned for their glorification of the ethereal and ideology. The leaders of the Baroque movement declared that art should be easily understood and strongly felt by all people not just the great and the good by encouraging piety and an awe, or perhaps fear, of the church.

Baroque churches were a pivotal example of the renewed emphasis on the glory of Catholicism with designs that incorporated large central spaces with a dome or cupola high overhead, allowing the light of God to illuminate the space below. The dome became a central feature of Baroque architecture illustrating the unity between heaven and earth. Intricate interiors and ornamentation allowed for the feeling of immersion within the elevated and sacred space.

Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi , 1620-21, oil on canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The defining characteristics of Baroque are: real or implied movement, a representation of infinity, an emphasis on light and its effects, and a focus on the theatrical. A number of techniques were introduced and developed by Baroque artists to accomplish these effects including quadro reportato, trompe l’oeill and quadrature. This allowed a significant burring of the boundaries between painting, sculpture and architecture which was signature of the baroque movement.

With Baroque came a new era of European sculpture, led by the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, with its emphasis on sensual richness, intense emotion, dramatic realism and movement. Figures took on a new importance, often spiralling outwards from a central vortex to reach into the surrounding space enabling it to be seen from a multitude of perspectives.

A key component of Baroque artwork was the treatment of light and dark to create dramatic tension, a technique known as chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro was further evolved by Caravaggio into tenebrism, a technique used to intensify the contrast within dark atmospheric scenes to spotlight particular elements.

Baldachin by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, 1624-33, bronze gilded marble. St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy

The origins of the term Baroque are ambiguous. Some academics argue it was derived from the Portuguese word for an imperfect and irregularly shaped pearl, barrocco. Others say it is the Italian barocco meaning an obstacle in formal knowledge. Originally it was used negatively, viewing the artwork within its cadre as bizarre and ostentatious. In 1888 the term was officially used as a descriptive of a distinct artistic style.

Baroque brought together several innovations and developments, rather than having single moment of inception, thus in the late 1500s as the different and often rival styles of Caravaggio, the architecture of Giacomo Della Porta and the Bolognese School came together. The formation of the Baroque movement’s intensity and scope was supported by the patronage of the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation. Following the 1527 Sack of Rome, and the efforts of Protestantism, the Counter-Reformation sought to re-establish the Church’s authority. In 1545, Pope Paul III convoked the first Council of Trent, which gathered church dignitaries and theologians to establish doctrine and condemn contemporary heresies.

Visual art and architecture became part of the reform campaign, as the Council established guidelines for art that included the depiction of such religious subjects as the Immaculate Conception, the annunciation and the Assumption of the Virgin that were exclusive to the dogma of Catholicism, and thus reposition the importance of the church in the public eye. These guidelines meant any artist could be called to task if any church official found offence in works depicting religious subjects. Artists such as Veronese, a Venetian Renaissance painter, were brought before the Inquisition to defend their work.

Flora by Rembrandt, 1634, oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

The Protestant Reformation opposed the use of art for religious purposes, but the Counter-Reformation argued that such art had a didactic purpose and called for a new kind of visual art that was simple and dramatic, realistic and clear in its narrative. Religious art should be easily understood so it could be strongly felt by the people encouraging piety and an awe-inspiring sense of church. Patronage of the Baroque movement was spurred throughout Europe, involving new religious orders like the Jesuits, Capuchins and Discalced Carmelites. Primarily supported by the Catholic Church and Rome the baroque movement spread through Italy, France, Spain and Flanders. Powerful religious orders disseminated it further through their extensive network of monasteries and convents.

The architect Giacomo Della Porto came from a family of Italian sculptors and studied under, and later collaborated with Michelangelo and Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola. Della Porta and Barozzi worked on the building of the Church of the Gesù. Following Barozzi’s death in 1573, Della Porta completed the project with a reinterpreted design. His façade reduced the number of architectural elements whilst clustering those elements that remained around the entrance, creating a feeling of dynamic tension to the visitor before being enshrouded by the cast space of the interior. Although relatively simple in comparison to the later ornate works of Baroque churches, the building of the Church of Gesù launched the Baroque style and became the model of for Jesuit churches throughout the world into the 20th century.

Leda and Swan by Peter Paul Rubens, 1598-1600, oil on panel. Fogg Art Museum, Massachusetts, USA

The paintings of the anti-Mannerist Bolognese School were the first to be promoted as part of the Counter-Reformation. Annibale Carracci and his brother and cousin had launched a small art academy that emphasized prior Renaissance aesthetic ideal so proportion, the use of figure drawing and precise observation to create realistic and heroic figures in compelling and dramatic scenes. Carracci was called to Rome by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese with the commission to paint the palazzo Farnese’s gallery ceiling to celebrate the wedding of the Cardinal’s brother. The fresco ceiling of Loves and Gods influenced the Baroque movement, as Carracci pioneered the quadro riportato technique that framed each scene as if it were an easel painting. He also used quadrature to paint illusionistic features. The influence of Carracci the work of artists such as Andrea Pozzo, Giovanni Lanfranco and Pietro de Cortona. His influence upon future landscape and historic painting can be noted in the works of French artists such as Nicolas Poussin and the French Baroque style.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, 1647-52, marble, stucco and paint. Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy

Caravaggio has been dubbed the father of Baroque painting because of his pioneering approach. Trained in the dominant Mannerist style in Milan he evolved his own styles and techniques using chiaroscuro, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and tenebrism, intensifying the contrast into dark atmospheric scenes with some elements spotlighted and highly lit. His mastery of tenebrism was such that he has been credited with inventing the technique. His flaws and all realism were equally innovative and made his works controversial as did his preference for disturbing subjects. He was the most famous artist of his time in Rome with his paintings of the Martyrdom of saint Matthew and the Calling of Saint Matthew. He was subsequently given many religious commissions, including the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Death of the Virgin which were subsequently rejected as too shocking by his patrons. His work was influential over subsequent Baroque artists who became known as Caravaggisti, artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn and Jose Ribiera.

The grandeur and emphasis on movement and drama of High Baroque began around 1625 until 1700. Bernini dominated the era, defining the Baroque style in sculpture. Cardinal Scipione Borghese was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Rome and many of Bernini’s early sculptures were commissioned for the Borghese Palace. When the Cardinal became Pope Urban VIII, Bernini was named Chief Architect of St Peter’s in 1629. His Baldachin and the colonnade he designed around St Peter’s Square were exemplary of the High Baroque style in architecture. Bernini’s chief rival in architecture was Borromini, whose Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane employed undulating walls, an oval tower and an innovative oval design for the church beneath the dome.

The Campo Vaccino, Rome by Claude Lorrain, 1636, oil on canvas. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, UK

Spanish Baroque was noted for its sombre and often gloomy distinctive style. The Eighty Year war and the Anglo-Spanish war had drained Spain financially and left the country in economic crisis. Catholicism was informed by the Inquisition. In architecture the grandeur and wealth of the church was emphasized as the Jesuits, noted for intellectual advocacy for the Counter-reformation and its proselytization, evolved an extreme use of ornamentation to celebrate religious glory. Gilded altarpieces were a noted element of Spanish Baroque architecture, such as José Benito Churrigeur’s altarpiece of Church of san Esteban with its helical columns and extensive use of gold. The resulting style, emphasizing the motion of a surface was called entallador and became popular throughout Spain and Latin-America.

In contrast to architecture’s emphasis on Catholic splendour, Spanish Baroque painting focused on the limitations and suffering of human existence. Its realism was based upon precise and detailed observation and a compelling sense of human drama. Caravaggio was an early influence on artists such as Jusepe Ribera, but most Spanish artists took chiaroscuro and tenebrism as a starting point and developed their own style. The leading artist of Spanish Baroque was Diego Velázquez whose work included a variety of subjects such as genre work, historical painting, religious work, and portraiture. While he initially used tenebrism hew evolved his own technique using a simple colour palette and emphasising tonality and a varied brushwork style.

Don Sebastian de Morra by Diego Velázquez, 1645, oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

French Baroque was dominated by architecture. Referred to as Classicism in France, it rejected the ornate for geometric proportion and less elaborate facades. Louis XIV chose the architect Louis Le Vau to design the classical Place of Versailles and Charles Le Brun as decorator. The Galerie des Glaces at Versailles included Le Brun’s paintings and became the standard for Royal French interiors. The gardens were arranged in geometric grids to echo and emphasize the architecture.

In painting, the French artists favoured a more classical restraint. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain were the most influential of the French painters although they both worked in Rome. Claude placed emphasis on landscape and the effects of light and his subjects, religious or classical, were simply the occasion of the work not the focus. Poussin’s work conveyed a calm rationality and was a strong influence on the later development of Neoclassicism.

Petrine Baroque, named in honour of Peter the Great of Russia who promoted the style in rebuilding St. Petersburg, named the Russian capital in 1712. Following the Czar’s visit to Versailles and the Chateaux Fontainebleau in 1697-98, he was inspired by French Baroque.

Galerie des Glaces, Versailles by Mansart and Le Brun, 1678-1684. Paris, France

Flemish Baroque is distinguished by its painting, and its character originated in historical and cultural forces. The Spanish Catholic forces recaptured Antwerp in Flanders in 1585 and the catholic religion was separated from the Protestant Dutch Republic. Flemish artists painted both Counter-Reformation religious subjects and landscapes, still lifes, and genre works inspired by the Northern European traditions. The artist Peter Paul Rubens led Flemish Baroque painting and its development. His High Baroque style is known for its rich colours, sensual exuberance, and movement formed both his religious and non-religious paintings.

The only Baroque style employed in a Protestant area, the Dutch Golden Age, took a different approach to both architecture and painting. Beginning with the end of the Thirty-Year War in 1648, the Dutch Golden Age emerged with the independence of the Dutch Republic. Dutch Baroque drew upon the works of the Venetian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio while retaining some Gothic elements to create a restrained but monumental style. Dutch painting focused on scenes of daily life, secular subjects, landscapes, still life and genre painting. Religious subjects were depicted in printmaking as illustrations to biblical texts. Leading Dutch artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer employed the Baroque styles of chiaroscuro and tenebrism.

©JG Farmer 2019

2 thoughts on “Dare to Break the Rules

  1. Beautiful photos and great history shared. I wish I had time to travel. I love the ancient cities and buildings. I enjoyed the journey with you and thank you for sharing your words and your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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