Baroque

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In Europe distorted by the Counter-Reformation, the growing absolutism of courts and monarchies, as well as the renewed tenacity of the Church in the aftermath of the Council of Trent, lay the foundations for a 360-degree cultural upheaval. During the 1600s and for almost all of the 1700s, the continent experiences the effects of this new conception of the world which has its roots in Rome and which influences all areas of knowledge, art and literature.

The term baroque – probably deriving from the Portuguese barroco, precious stone or pearl with an irregular shape – was used for the first time by neoclassicist critics at the end of the 1700s to denigrate this style, perceived as exaggerated, capricious and extravagant. Although in the collective imagination the word mainly suggests gold decorations and opulent paintings, in reality the Baroque pervades the entire culture of the period: from music, to sculpture, passing through science, philosophy, literature and architecture.

Rome: the capital of the Counter-Reformation

The origin of this cultural renewal can be identified in Rome after the Council of Trent. In response to the Lutheran Reformation, which had effectively split the old continent in two, the Catholic Church not only decided to strengthen its grip on the faithful, but to affirm its greatness through an impressive cultural program: new approaches to the art that aim to move away from the classical and rational style of the Renaissance, focusing everything on amazement, expressiveness and, not by chance, on the glory of Catholic saints. Rome undergoes a real rearrangement: splendid marbles decorate the squares and buildings, which are also restored and reinvented, while new palaces arise in line with new trends.

From Rome, the new style was rapidly spread by the Church throughout the continent. Religious commissions are undoubtedly the most numerous, especially in the first phase. In some ways, art represents an instrumentum regni, a way to exalt the greatness of Rome and persuade the souls of Catholic supremacy against the reformed heretics.

The characteristics of Baroque art

In the papal capital, the new buildings begin to deviate from the previous classical taste, including curved and sinuous lines as well as conceiving the internal volumes in order to welcome the light.

In painting and sculpture, this current aims to move human affections, or the soul and feelings. The works are made in the name of a realistic and sensitive rendering of the image, with an often dramatic and almost theatrical approach. We can see this trend in the works of Caravaggio and in the marble sculptures of Bernini. The decorative aspect of the works was of great importance in this period, with a clear preference for perspective illusions. The Baroque style, although not homogeneous over the two centuries it includes, is characterized by a strong interpenetration of the arts which results in monumental, articulated creations which make use of light and space, with both real and imaginary architectures. In addition to Caravaggio, we can see this passion for theatricality and drama exaggerated in works such as Carlo Dolci’s Santa Rosa da Lima (1668), now in the Palatine Gallery, or in the strength of women portrayed by Artemisia Gentileschi.

In sculpture, the Baroque tradition that has one of its greatest exponents in Bernini has Giambologna as its spiritual father, who interpreted Michelangelo’s strength in the Mannerist period through new forms, always under the banner of virtuosity. The statues are projected outwards, towards the viewer, both physically and emotionally. If during the Renaissance sculpture wanted to depict reality, Baroque statuary aims instead to affect the observers emotionally.

In music there is a similar evolution. During the 1500s, thanks to a group of Florentine intellectuals who called themselves Camerata de’ Bardi, the foundations were laid for opera and melodrama, fusing music, singing and theatre. In 1600, on the occasion of the wedding of Maria de’ Medici with the King of France Henry IV, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice was staged, officially consecrating the birth of melodrama. This new musical genre will have enormous success during the almost two centuries of life of the Baroque, precisely by virtue of its ability to generate emotions, through the richness of the scenes, the clothes and the virtuosity of the singers.

Although generally linked to art, this historical and cultural movement will actually also influence science and philosophy, as we can find in the work of Galileo Galilei, father of the so-called experimental scientific method, or the writings of Immanuel Kant.

Towards the end of the 1700s, the opulence and capriciousness of the Baroque began to be opposed by a more rational taste which, once again, turned its gaze towards classical antiquity: Neoclassicism.

Photo: Judith beheading Holofernes, 1614-1620, Artemisia Gentileschi

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