The term ‘Baroque’ is loosely used to describe a movement that originated in late 16th-century Italy. It became a dominant style of architecture, sculpture and painting in Europe and Latin America in the 17th and 18th centuries, and many of its key elements remain popular today. Although architectural interpretations of Baroque varied across countries and continents, the movement is best characterised by its vivid theatrical style. Its integrated, sensuous approach, combining music, painting, poetry and sculpture, was closely linked with Catholic theology, and the grandiosity of Baroque churches served to demonstrate the wealth and prominence of the Vatican.
The bright, sensuous majesty of Baroque architecture contrasted strongly with the orderly, defined approach of High Renaissance architects in the previous era. In place of static uniformity, Baroque embraced textural contrasts, the interplay between light and shadow, warm Mediterranean colours and voluptuous materials, all arranged so as to delight and inspire their beholders. The dominant characteristics of the new free-flowing style were reflected in the use of the term ‘Baroque’ itself; a moniker that was initially a thinly-disguised critique of the movement. The word is thought to be derived from the Italian barocco, originally used by Mediaeval philosophers to describe a convoluted or logically contorted idea and later denoting abnormality, absurdity and extravagance. Although the last term is certainly justified, Baroque architectural techniques are responsible for some of the most highly-prized buildings in the world.
Masterpieces of Baroque
Many of the Europe’s treasured architectural landmarks were designed in the Baroque style. San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, with its intricate statues and undulating exterior designed by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), is widely regarded as a triumph of the style. The opulent Palace of Versailles, commissioned in the 1660s by Louis XIV, is seen as one of the greatest achievements of French Baroque. With its soft rose-pink exterior, small arches and expansive u-shaped structure looking out onto landscaped gardens, the Palace is a striking example of secular Baroque.
In Vienna, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s Baroque Karlskirche was commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and built between 1716 and 1737. Karlskirche’s soaring and intricately engraved pillars frame an elegant dome, while its brilliant white, gold and azure frontage were designed to serve as a spiritual beacon after the devastation of the plague.
Protestant and Catholic Baroque
Baroque architecture is closely bound up with the patronage and religious tenets of the Catholic Church, but its influence spread rapidly to Protestant countries such as England and the Netherlands. Within the Catholic heartland of Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal and Bavaria, Baroque architecture leant toward more lucid, colourful forms, whilst Protestant examples of Baroque tended to exude a more sober majesty. In the Vatican itself, St. Peter’s Square with its broad terracotta curves and 140 saintly statues reflects a bold celebration of the divine. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, meanwhile, was intended as a reconciliation between its Gothic predecessor and what its architect Christopher Wren termed “a better manner of architecture”.
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