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Baroque / Baroque Revival architecture

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See also: Baroque FURNITURE ......... William and Mary Baroque style FURNITURE

Baroque - 1600-1750

Relevant 17th century historical events:

Etymology: "Baroque" means "curious, odd, or strange" in French. The Portuguese "barroco" means "a large irregular pearl." The term "Baroque" was initially used with a derogatory meaning, to underline the excesses of its emphasis, of its eccentric redundancy, its noisy abundance of details, as opposed to the clearer and sober rationality of the Renaissance.

Definition: a European style of architecture and decoration which developed in the 17th cent. in Italy from late Renaissance and Mannerist forms, and culminated in the churches, monasteries, and palaces of southern Germany and Austria in the early 18th cent.

Religious origin: Baroque was the dominant style of European art between Mannerism and Rococo. This style originated in Rome and is associated with the Catholic Counter-Reformation, its salient characteristics -- overt rhetoric and dynamic movement -- being well suited to expressing the self-confidence and proselytizing spirit of the reinvigorated Catholic Church.

The Baroque originated around 1600. The canon promulgated at the Council of Trent (1545ó63), by which the Roman Catholic Church addressed the representational arts by demanding that paintings and sculptures in church contexts should speak to the illiterate rather than to the well-informed, is customarily offered as an inspiration of the Baroque, which appeared, however, a generation later. This turn toward a populist conception of the function of ecclesiastical art is seen by many art historians as driving the innovations of Caravaggio and the Carracci brothers, all of whom were working (and competing for commissions) in Rome around 1600.

In Italy, Baroque was the Catholic art of the popes (in opposition to the art of the Protestant north where no images were allowed).

Bernini, in Italy, was one of the great Baroque architects.

Spread: In the 17th century, Rome was the artistic capital of Europe, and the Baroque style soon spread outwards from it, undergoing modification in each of the countries to which it migrated, as it encountered different tastes and outlooks and merged with local traditions:

Art: Caravaggio, El Greco, Diego Velazquez, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt. See also: Putto

Music: The term Baroque also is 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. Opera was born during the Baroque era.

Composers: J. S. Bach, G .F. Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Domenico Scarlotti, and Georg Philipp Telemann.

Stained glass:  For examples, see Segovia Cathedral, Spain

Baroque characteristics:

Mirrors: Mirrors began to appear in the this century, e.g., the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Architects: Gianlorenzo Bernini, Carlo Moderno, Francesco Borromini, François Mansart, Jules Hardouin, Charles LeBrun. Christopher Wren


England's introduction to the Baroque style occurred after the Great Fire in 1666 destroyed most of London. Charles II set out to rebuild London in grand style and appointed Christopher Wren (1632-1723) as surveyor to his court. Wren had traveled to Paris in 1665 and returned to England with countless engravings depicting the ornate French Baroque style. The grandiose nature of the French Baroque style had impressed the king; however, it was ill-suited for London.

Through Wren's achievements, an English national style was established, and he was knighted for his architectural accomplishments. Wren's interpretation of the high Baroque style supplanted excessive ornamentalizing with classic Palladianism.

See also William and Mary Style furniture (1685-1725)

Renaissance VS. Baroque

The Renaissance and the Baroque eras: It's the difference between a calm game of chess and juggling daggers and torches while riding a unicycle playing a kazoo. Renaissance architecture was intellectual, based on geometry, logic, symmetry, and simplicity. Baroque style was populist, appealing to a wide audience through hyped-up emotion and multimedia special effects.

Both styles commandeered the columns, entablature, arches, and domes of Roman antiquity. Renaissance architects used them to emphasize stability and stasis, while Baroque masters like Bering and Bromine twisted columns into corkscrews. They set classical elements in motion, breaking pediments to make lines swoop.

While Renaissance facades tend to look flat, with shallow surface planes, Baroque exteriors seem fluid, weaving in and out like a broken-field runner. It's the difference between an ice cube and a waterfall.

Baroque extravagance came about when Renaissance restraint started looking boringly mechanical. Another factor was that, after the Reformation, Protestant churches were stripped of furbelows, pared down to Calvinist purity. When the Catholic church made a comeback and launched an ambitious building program, it promoted the opposite of minimalism. Church officials enlisted all the drama of music, painting, sculpture, and over-the-top architecture to create a mystical atmosphere and enhance devotion. Deprivation was out; ostentation was in.

The word Baroque derives from the Portuguese "barocco," an irregular pearl. Rather than a perfect sphere, the premier Baroque form was an oval - elliptical like the orbit of the planets that had just been sketched by astronomer Johann Kepler. Other scientific advances popping up at warp speed may have influenced the style. When Isaac Newton formulated his laws of motion, architects devised buildings with revved-up spaces that seemed to move. Curved walls undulate; contours recede and project. And just as Galileo scanned the heavens with his telescope from the bell tower at Saint Mark's Square, frescoed ceiling vaults dissolved all earthly boundaries, seeming to stretch to infinity.

The vast scale, rich materials, dramatic lighting, and heavy ornamentation of Baroque buildings had a propagandist goal. Seventeenth century architecture gave visual form to the power of church and monarch monarch, who ruled by divine right. "Un roi, une foi, une loi" (one king, one faith, one law) was the rule. In no uncertain terms, royal palaces and equally splendid churches proclaimed, "We're number one."

Baroque Architecture and Catholicism

The age of the Baroque has been identified with the Catholic reaction to the advance of Protestantism. Although it extends much more widely in time and place than seventeenth-century Italy and is by no means only a manifestation of religious change, Baroque art doubtless had papal Rome as its birthplace.

Between the pointificates of Paul III from 1534 to 1549 and of Sixtus V in the 1580s, the popes led a successful military, diplomatic, and theological campaign against Protestantism, wiping out many of its gains in central and southern Europe.

The great Council of Trent which met in the early 1540s and again in the early 1560s, was sponsored by the papacy in an effort to systematize and harden orthodox Catholic doctrine against the threat of Protestant persuasion. The Councii firmly resisted Protestant objection to the use of images in religious worship, insisting on their necessity in the teaching of the laity.

This implied separation of the priest from an unsophisticated congregation was to be reflected in architecture as well, the central type of church plan being rejected in favor of the long church and of other plans that maintained the distinction between clergy and laity.

Interrupted for a while, the building program begun under Paul III (with Michelangelo's Capitoiine Hill design) was taken up again by Sixtus V, who had augmented the papal treasury and who intended to construct a new and more magnificent Rome, an "imperial city that had been subdued by Christ and purged of paganism."

Sixtus was succeeded by a number of strong and ambitious popes - Paul V, Urban VIII, Innocent X, and Alexander VlI - the patrons of Bernini and Borromini and the builders of the modern city of Rome, which bears their Baroque mark everywhere.

The energy of the Catholic Counter-Reformation transformed into art related throughout Catholic countries and even into Protestant lands, which found a response to it in their own art.

Importance of decoration in Baroque architecture

We are too much used to looking at decoration as something that may or may not be added to architecture.

In fact all architecture is both structure and decoration, decoration for which the architect himself, or the sculptor, the painter, the glass-painter may be responsible. But the relation of decoration to structure varies in different ages and with different nations:

Baroque architects of the seventeenth century had to accept the claims of the sculptor and painter and, in fact, were sculptors and painters. Instead of the Gothic relation of superordinate and subordinate, there is now a cooperation of all the arts. In the works of Bernini and Borromini, what binds architectural, ornamental, sculptural, and pictorial effects into indivisible unity is the decorative principle common to all.

Now this decorative creed could leave no room in the minds of patrons and artists of the Baroque to be squeamish about honesty in the use of materials. As long as the effect was attained, what could it matter whether you attained it with marble or with stucco, with gold or with tin, with a real bridge or a sham bridge such as we find sometimes in English parks? Optical illusion is, in fact, among the most characteristic devices of Baroque architecture.


  • "An Outline of European Architecture," by Nikolaus Pevsner. Pelican Books, 1975.
  • "Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Tenth Edition," by Richard G. Tansey and Fred S. Kleiner. Harcourt Brace College Pub. 1996
  • "The Annotated Arch," by Carol Strickland. Pub. by Andrews McMeel
The greatest of the Baroque sculptor-architects was Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who designed both the baldachin with spiral columns above the altar of St. Peter’s in Rome and the vast colonnade fronting that church.

Baroque architecture as developed by Bernini, Carlo Maderno, Francesco Borromini, and Guarino Guarini emphasized massiveness and monumentality, movement, dramatic spatial and lighting sequences, and a rich interior decoration using contrasting surface textures, vivid colours, and luxurious materials to heighten the structure’s physical immediacy and evoke sensual delight.

Spanish Churrigueresque

Baroque tenets were enthusiastically adopted in staunchly Roman Catholic Spain, however, particularly in architecture. The greatest of the Spanish builders, José Benito Churriguera, shows most fully the Spanish interest in surface textures and lush detail. He attracted many followers, and their adaptations of his style, labeled Churrigueresque, spread throughout Spain’s colonies in the Americas and elsewhere.

Baroque Architecture examples:

Baroque Revival 1885-1914
Nineteenth century revival of European Baroque style

Widely adopted in Great Britain and the British Empire from about 1885 until World War I, particularly for government, municipal and commercial buildings.

In France, Baroque Revival is known as Second Empire, a style imported to the U.S, including Buffalo.

Baroque Revival examples from Buffalo architecture:

Photos and their arrangement © 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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