The word “Baroque”, like most period or stylistic designations, was invented by later critics rather than practitioners of the arts in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It is a French translation of the Portuguese word “Barroco” (meaning an irregular pearl, or false jewel—notably, an ancient similar word, “Barlocco” or “Brillocco”, is used in Roman dialect for the same meaning—and natural pearls that deviate from the usual, regular forms so they do not have an axis of rotation are known as “baroque pearls”).
Alternatively, it may derive from the now obsolete Italian “Baroco” (meaning, in logical Scholastica, a syllogism with weak content). A common definition, before the term Barocco was used, called this genre simply the style of The Flying Forms.
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. It was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) in his Renaissance und Barock (1888); Wölfflin identified the Baroque as “movement imported into mass,” an art antithetic to Renaissance art.
He did not make the distinctions between Mannerism and Baroque that modern writers do, and he ignored the later phase, the academic Baroque that lasted into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat Baroque as a respectable study until Wölfflin’s influence had made German scholarship pre-eminent.
In modern usage, the term “Baroque” may still be used, usually pejoratively, to describe works of art, craft, or design that are thought to have excessive ornamentation or complexity of line, or, as a synonym for “Byzantine”, to describe literature, computer programs , contracts, or laws that are thought to be excessively complex, indirect, or obscure in language, to the extent of concealing or confusing their meaning. A “Baroque fear” is deeply felt, but utterly beyond daily reality.
Baroque – Baroque visual art
A defining statement of what Baroque signifies in painting is provided by the series of paintings executed by Peter Paul Rubens for Marie de Medici at the Luxembourg Palace in Paris (now at the Louvre) , in which a Catholic painter satisfied a Catholic patron: Baroque-era conceptions of monarchy, iconography, handling of paint, and compositions as well as the depiction of space and movement.
There were highly diverse strands of Italian baroque painting, from Caravaggio to Cortona; both approaching emotive dynamism with different styles. Another frequently cited work of Baroque art is Bernini’s Saint Theresa in Ecstasy for the Cornaro chapel in S. Maria della Vittoria, which brings together architecture, sculpture, and theater into one grand conceit .
The later Baroque style gradually gave way to a more decorative Rococo, which, through contrast, further defines Baroque.
Baroque – Baroque literature and philosophy
Baroque actually expressed new values, which often are summarised in the use of metaphor and allegory, widely found in Baroque literature, and in the research for the “maraviglia” (wonder, astonishment — as in Marinism), the use of artifices. If Mannerism was a first breach with Renaissance, Baroque was an opposed language.
The psychological pain of Man — a theme disbanded after the Copernican and the Lutheran revolutions in search of solid anchors, a proof of an “ultimate human power” — was to be found in both the art and architecture of the Baroque period. A relevant part of works was made on religious themes, since the Roman Church was the main “customer.”
Virtuosity was researched by artists (and the virtuoso became a common figure in any art) together with realism and care for details (some talk of a typical “intricacy”).
The privilege given to external forms had to compensate and balance the lack of content that has been observed in many Baroque works: Marino’s “Maraviglia”, for example, is practically made of the pure, mere form. Fantasy and imagination should be evoked in the spectator, in the reader, in the listener. All was focused around the individual Man, as a straight relationship between the artist, or directly the art and its user, its client. Art is then less distant from user, more directly approaching him, solving the cultural gap that used to keep art and user reciprocally far, by Maraviglia.
But the increased attention to the individual, also created in these schemes some important genres like the Romanzo (novel) and let popular or local forms of art, especially dialectal literature, to be put into evidence. In Italy this movement toward the single individual (that some define a “cultural descent”, while others indicate it was a possible cause for the classical opposition to Baroque) caused Latin to be definitely replaced by Italian.
In English literature, the metaphysical poets represent a closely related movement; their poetry likewise sought unusual metaphors, which they then examined in often extensive detail. Their verse also manifests a taste for paradox, and deliberately inventive and unusual turns of phrase.
Baroque – Baroque sculpture
In Baroque sculpture, groups of figures assumed new importance, and there was a dynamic movement and energy of human forms— they spiralled around an empty central vortex, or reached outwards into the surrounding space. For the first time, Baroque sculpture often had multiple ideal viewing angles. The characteristic Baroque sculpture added extra-sculptural elements, for example, concealed lighting, or water fountains.
The architecture, sculpture and fountains of Bernini (1598–1680) give highly-charged characteristics of Baroque style. Bernini was undoubtedly the most important sculptor of the Baroque period. He approached Michelangelo in his omnicompetence: Bernini sculpted, worked as an architect, painted, wrote plays, and staged spectacles. In the late 20th century Bernini was most valued for his sculpture, both for his virtuosity in carving marble and his ability to create figures that combine the physical and the spiritual. He was also a fine sculptor of bust portraits in high demand among the powerful.
Baroque – Bernini’s Cornaro chapel: the complete work of art
A good example of Bernini’s work that helps us understand the Baroque is his St. Theresa in Ecstasy (1645–52), created for the Cornaro Chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Bernini designed the entire chapel, a subsidiary space along the side of the church, for the Cornaro family.
He had, in essence, a brick box shaped something like a proscenium stage space with which to work. Saint Theresa, the focal point of the chapel, is a monochromatic marble statue (a soft white) surrounded by a polychromatic marble architectural framing concealing a window to light the statue from above. In shallow relief, sculpted figure-groups of the Cornaro family inhabit in opera boxes along the two side walls of the chapel.
The setting places the viewer as a spectator in front of the statue with the Cornaro family leaning out of their box seats and craning forward to see the mystical ecstasy of the saint. St. Theresa is highly idealized in detail and in an imaginary setting. St. Theresa of Avila, a popular saint of the Catholic Reformation, wrote narratives of her mystical experiences aimed at the nuns of her Carmelite Order; these writings had become popular reading among lay people interested in pursuing spirituality.
She once described the love of God as piercing her heart like a burning arrow. Bernini literalizes this image by placing St. Theresa on a cloud in a reclining pose; what can only be described as a Cupid figure holds a golden arrow (the arrow is made of metal) and smiles down at her. The angelic figure is not preparing to plunge the arrow into her heart— rather, he has withdrawn it. St. Theresa’s face reflects not the anticipation of ecstasy, but her current fulfillment, which can only be described as orgasmic.
The blending of religious and erotic was intensely offensive to both neoclassical restraint and, later, to Victorian prudishness; it is part of the genius of the Baroque. Bernini, who in life and writing was a devout Catholic, is not attempting to satirize the experience of a chaste nun, but to embody in marble a complex truth about religious experience— that it is an experience that takes place in the body. Theresa described her bodily reaction to spiritual enlightenment in a language of ecstasy used by many mystics, and Bernini’s depiction is earnest.
The Cornaro family promotes itself discreetly in this chapel; they are represented visually, but are placed on the sides of the chapel, witnessing the event from balconies. As in an opera house, the Cornaro have a privileged position in respect to the viewer, in their private reserve, closer to the saint; the viewer, however, has a better view from the front. They attach their name to the chapel, but St. Theresa is the focus. It is a private chapel in the sense that no one could say mass on the altar beneath the statue (in 17th century and probably through the 19th) without permission from the family, but the only thing that divides the viewer from the image is the altar rail. The spectacle functions both as a demonstration of mysticism and as a piece of family pride.