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Like Gothic, baroque is at once a qualitative term and a historical concept. In everyday discourse, the term baroque is used pejoratively to mean over-wrought, complex, and excessive. At the same time, Baroque describes a cultural movement of the seventeenth century, defined by characteristic styles in the visual arts, music, and literature. Its most common usage is as a reference to the period spanning around 1580 to 1720–1750, depending on the art form. As an overall aesthetic concept, a quality, a sensibility, or a style, baroque is notoriously difficult to analyze, because its two applications are in many ways inextricable and interdependent. The most fruitful understanding of baroque demands an overview of both the concept's development and the aesthetic ideals of the Baroque period itself.
History of the Term
Over the past two centuries the term baroque has undergone a number of transformations that reflect not only changing fashions in aesthetics but shifts in critical theory as a whole. Even its etymology has been disputed. The most popularly cited derivation, acknowledged during the eighteenth century when the term was first used, is from the Spanish barrueco, and Portuguese barroco, from the Latin veruca, or wart, referring to the irregularly shaped pearls favored in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century jewelry design; barroco is still used among jewelers today. Another derivation, suggested by Benedetto Croce during the 1920s, is baroco, a mnemonic term devised during the fourteenth century for a complex figure in formal logic. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian writers would use the phrase argomento in baroco to designate the pedantic, convoluted thinking of late-medieval logic. The tradition of two derivations is understandable because they are in fact similar in connotation. By the mid-eighteenth century, baroque or barocco had become a convenient, and always derogatory, term for the grotesque, bizarre, excessive, or absurd, applied indiscriminately to artistic, architectural, and musical styles. This is largely because of the classicist bias of much contemporary aesthetics. In 1746, the French philosopher Noël-Antoine Pluche distinguished musique baroque (mutable, speedy, audacious, artificial, technically demanding of the performer) from musique chantante (unforced, melodic in a manner attuned to the human voice, natural and artless). He also described performances, as well as the music itself, as baroque (Spectacle de la nature, 1746, vol. 7). Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de la musique (1778) defines baroque music as dissonant, confusingly intricate, and with impetuous changes in tempo and harmony. Meanwhile, in Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie (1772), baroque referred to bizarre forms of architecture. Interestingly enough, what is now called Baroque art—that is, postRenaissance art—was severely criticized during the eighteenth century. Millizia, in his Dizionario delle Belle Arti e del Disegno (1797), applies the term in its sense of “bizarre” to the work of architects such as Francesco Borromini and Guarino Guarini.
Baroque as a Period Style
The art historian Jakob Burkhardt (1855) was the first to designate Baroque as an artistic style associated with a particular historical period. Continuing the term's tradition of opprobrium, he defined the baroque as “a corrupt dialect” of the Renaissance. Indeed, some art historians under the influence of Burkhardt and his fellow partisans of the Italian High Renaissance, Croce and Bernard Berenson, used baroque as a generic aesthetic concept meaning the decadent, grotesque late stage of a given style, without reference to a particular historical period. Thus Roman Baroque was occasionally used to refer to late antiquity, and Gothic Baroque, for the expressive distortions of fifteenth-century German art.
Baroque was finally rescued from opprobrium by Heinrich Wölfflin in Renaissance und Barock (1888), a study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century architectural form. Wölfflin insisted on eliminating the term's pejorative associations in an effort to clarify seventeenth-century style. Baroque style, according to Wölfflin, was not decadent but “a great phenomenon”: an inevitable shift from the classical stability, harmony, and clarity of the High Renaissance to a heavy, unarticulated, massiveness, shot through with light, dissonance, and movement. By 1915, in Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, Wölfflin had definitively isolated the distinction between Renaissance and baroque style, in painting and sculpture and architecture, according to his famous formal dichotomies: linear/painterly, plane and recession, closed form/open form, multiplicity/unity, clearness and unclearness. This theory of stylistic evolution based on opposing forces is strikingly similar to Friedrich Nietzsche's proposal of Dionysian and Apollonian principles in Die Geburt der Tragödie (1870). Wölfflin's pairs of opposites are meant as absolute, inevitable polarizations in all of art, and are not limited to a particular time period. Thus, his comparisons of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, prints, and sculptures isolate patterns of evolution in the essentials of representation: lines and shadows, composition, the treatment of space, which operate independently of differences among native traditions, or modes appropriate to the work's subject matter or context. Instead, his deterministic notion of style is historicized in a more global, abstract manner, claiming that Baroque style arose from larger historical and social forces and visualizing a new zeitgeist. [See Wölfflin.] Thereafter, studies in seventeenth-century art continued in the wake of Wölfflin's rehabilitation of the Baroque. The term lost its pejorative associations, as well as its original meaning, over the centuries; it has become a loose definition of the period between Mannerism and Rococo, spanning the late sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth century. As a historical phenomenon, the Baroque began to be defined more fully in relation to both psychological and social concepts. Erwin Panofsky, in his lecture “What Is Baroque?” (1935), defined its stylistic tendencies as a transformation of the formal, emotional, and even religious conflicts of the High Renaissance and Mannerism into “subjective emotional energy” (Panovsky, 1995). The limits of the Baroque, for Panofsky, extend to the industrial revolution. [See Panofsky.] Some scholars have treated the Baroque as a purely Italian phenomenon, driven by the evangelical demands of Catholic institutions in a spirit of renewal and reform. Others have reintroduced the element of classicism, which Wölfflin omits, reclaiming for the Baroque academically inclined artists such as the Carracci brothers and Nicolas Poussin. More recently, with the increase of specialization within the discipline, art historians have taken Baroque as a given, focusing their scholarly view on specific examples of Baroque art to trace local traditions rather than the character of the baroque in general. Two notable exceptions are Germain Bazin (1968) and John Rupert Martin (1977), who offer surveys of Baroque art as a whole by integrating art of several cultures in several media. Bazin's bold, all-embracing strategy, organizing his discussion around “principles,” “styles,” “modes” and “themes,” is exhilarating but ultimately confusing. “Principles,” for example, includes not only philosophical and aesthetic issues but different social institutions and milieus; Baroque “style” encompasses Gothic, Mannerist, and Classical as well as baroque. Martin follows this brilliant example in a more lucid manner, taming the unruly concept by organizing his discussion around larger themes such as “space,” “time,” and “light,” as well as naturalism, allegory, and antiquity. In the history of music, the definition of Baroque as a historical period has been fairly straightforward, presumably because it demarcates the evolution of specific, easily identifiable forms and structures. The most important structural change is a shift toward chordal harmony,
the splitting of equal-voiced counterpoint into a treble line carrying the melody and an accompanying continuo. This was accompanied by a free use of dissonance; greater variation in rhythm, now liberated from the precision and consistency of the Renaissance tactus; and the use of measures to regulate patterns of beats. New forms based on these structural changes include recitative and opera, the concerto, the prelude, and the fugue. There is general consensus about the beginnings of Baroque (about 1580), though more dispute about its end, or emergence into the “classical” period in the mid-eighteenth century. The progress of Baroque as a period concept in literary studies has been far more troubled. In Renaissance und Barock, Wölfflin had encouraged the application of the term to literature, comparing the opening stanzas of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532) and Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1575). He evokes the shift in these verses from the light and easy grace of the Renaissance to seriousness and dignity—pompous, rustling splendor as an analogy to changes in pictorial and architectural form. His association of style and zeitgeist was likewise popular among scholars in other fields, and made them especially receptive to his ideas. Taking their cue from his formal dichotomies, literary scholars began applying the concept of Baroque to literature during the 1920s. In some cases, the term was adopted as easily as in art history. The success of Baroque as an arthistorical concept in Germany prompted literary scholars to accept the term readily. Scholars of Spanish literature likewise adopted the term fairly quickly, encompassing specific tendencies of the native tradition such as cultista and conceptismo, in contrast to a more sober classical style. The term was slower to win approval in England, where period designations tend to correspond to political eras (e.g., Elizabethan, Jacobean), which in turn overlap stylistic modes such as “metaphysical.” This was also the case in France, where, as is clear from the critical writings of the eighteenth century, there has always been a strong classicist disapproval of the Baroque aesthetic. Nonetheless, on an international scale, the entry of Baroque into the field of literature has created a tradition of thorny debate, revealing the enormous difficulty of adapting an art-historical term to literary studies. Several generations of scholars have proposed and refined various definitions of Baroque poetry, prose, and drama, as well as arguing the merits and problems of the term itself. Many critics have attempted to consider a unified Baroque style throughout the arts, whereas others have remarked on the inadequacy of this endeavor, focusing instead on the origins of Baroque style within literary tradition itself, or on themes and subject matter, rather than styles, common to Baroque literature and visual arts. The literary debate flourishing since the postwar period suggests that no specific style can be appropriately applied across the arts. What has proved far more useful in literary studies is the art-historical approach to the Baroque as an agglomeration of styles and modes, whereby the various arts are subsumed under a more general discussion of Baroque culture. Such is the case with surveys by Peter Skrine (1978) and Giancarlo Maiorino (1990), who associate works of literature with visual art according to similarities of theme, mode, and subject. In general, the term's enormous convenience as a historical designation, even a catchphrase, has outweighed and perhaps resolved its past problems of definition and scope. Carl Friedrich's (1952) survey of Baroque culture, arts, politics, and war anticipates the approach of most contemporary scholars, for whom Baroque is not only a seventeenth-century cultural movement, but a sensibility. Indeed, since the early 1970s, the unwieldy nature of the concept has proved an asset rather than a liability: Baroque has become an appealing subject for the interdisciplinary approach popular in late-twentieth-century critical methodology. The art-historical model of Baroque permits an analysis of various styles,
produced by often widely divergent artists in various media, who nonetheless share certain themes, modes, and preoccupations.
Political and Social Origins of the Baroque
Since the 1920s, studies of the origins and character of the Baroque have inevitably addressed religion and cultural history as well as elements of style. Wölfflin's use of the zeitgeist model has been replaced—or rather, refined—to analysis of the relation between the arts and specific religious and political institutions during the seventeenth century. The most persistent theory associates Baroque arts with the Counter-Reformation, which demanded great emotional intensity in the arts as a way of inspiring religious faith. In comparative studies, Richard Crashaw and Gianlorenzo Bernini are commonly invoked as representatives of this trend; yet, this association does not account for the many other artists, poets, and patrons who were neither Catholic nor concerned with religious subject matter. Another useful but limited theory links the development of the Baroque with the cultivation of the arts at the absolutist courts. More recently, market and patronage studies have explored cultivation of the arts among the rising bourgeoisie, the development of secular genres to suit this new audience, the influence of academies in France and Italy on the nature of artists' styles and careers, and the changing social status of artists and poets, who no longer needed to be members of court in order to practice and find an audience for their work. A crucial element of Baroque is its international flavor. Extraordinary economic expansion enabled an unprecedented degree of cultural exchange among the new nation-states. Both Bernini and Peter Paul Rubens, for example, developed an enormously successful style that earned them the status of international celebrities. This sensuous and grandiloquent manner, enlivening classical models with naturalistic observation, eroticism, and raw emotion, was equally well suited to allegorical, mythological, religious, and political art. Painting and sculpture in this mode became a desirable commodity among aristocratic and royal patrons throughout Europe and England. An important factor in the dissemination of Baroque styles was the rise of art collecting. In addition to the aristocracy, bourgeois collectors began to acquire paintings, prints, and drawings in record numbers. Drawing in particular became a valued medium in its own right, as an index of an artist's personal style, direct, free, and untrammeled by detail and finish. (This is also true of the preparatory oil sketch, which Rubens promoted through his own practices.) Meanwhile, the increase in the publication and sales of prints gave both artists and amateurs greater access to a variety of styles, and abetted the international spread of local traditions. Rembrandt's collection of prints, paintings, and plaster casts of antique sculpture offered such an abundance of visual material that he once famously remarked that he had no need to visit Italy. Another fruitful area of historical analysis links the Baroque arts with an expanding knowledge of the world engendered by new developments in science, exploration, and technology. The inventions of the telescope and the microscope increased the awareness of an infinitude beyond the limits of the visible world. Galileo's confirmation of Copernican theory established an Earth in motion along with other planetary bodies, inspiring a preoccupation with the transience of human life. The pendulum clock and the spiral watch spring, invented by Christiaan Huygens, created a systematic regulation of time by which institutions could function and individuals could live and work. Finally, voyages of discovery during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought the artifacts of new cultures into the environment of the wealthy European. Accordingly, Baroque artists explored formal and thematic means of articulating this expanded awareness of space, time, and motion. One common aim was to dissolve as much as possible the
barrier between the work of art and the real world, pushing their media to the limits of physical possibility. Painters employed sophisticated trompe l'oeil devices to make their two-dimensional works spring to life, and sculptures were designed in the round to interact directly with the observer's space. Architects expanded their manipulation of space and scale into entire environments. In theater, stage design was coordinated with the surrounding space rather than isolated by a proscenium. The access to foreign cultures made possible by broadening geographic horizons inspired a trend toward exotic fantasy that would find expression in the fine and decorative arts. At the same time, the interest in geographic expansion was nourished by the prospering cartography business; in the Netherlands, for example, maps hung alongside pictures in every home. Another new Baroque theme was the passage of time. This is strikingly evident in the sense of arrested movement captured in painting and sculpture. The aesthetic of sponaneity, in fact, can be seen as responsible for the new valuation of the sketch as a work of art in its own right. Likewise, artists developed new subjects illustrating the themes of transitoriness and mutability, such as still life and landscape, the four seasons, and allegories of vanity. Finally, the dramatic power of light was exploited to an unprecedented degree, central to both the tenebrous dramas of Michelangelo da Caravaggio and the reflecting pools and mirrors of Versailles.
The theoretical movement with the greatest influence on the aesthetics of the period was the great interest among philosophers in emotions and behavior, what might be called Baroque psychology. Central to these philosophical inquiries is the theory of the affections, or passions, developed during the late sixteenth century. The concept of the affections is based on an Aristotelian concept of fear, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on as discrete separate states. The affections are animal spirits and vapors that live in varying combinations in the body. Internal or external sensations stimulate the body to alter the spirits; hence, a new “affection” or “passion” results. An important text for this theory is René Descartes's Passions of the Soul (1649), which validated many ideas already in circulation regarding the passions. Thomas Hobbes writes in Leviathan (1651) that the passions are essential for human life, being evidence of man's “perpetual and restless desire of power.” From the late sixteenth century onward, arousing the affections became the main objective of the arts. Artists sought to transport their audiences to a higher level of feeling, whether religious or political awe, amusement, astonishment, or terror. Effects of wonder and surprise dominated the visual, dramatic, and literary arts: masques, with their eye-popping extravagance and sudden “turns” or revelations; the statues suddenly appearing around a bend in fantasy-garden; the elaborate conceits and spasms of emotion in metaphysical poetry; and the enveloping sound of Venetian polychoral music. Baroque theory, expressed in the form of didactic essays, lectures and handbooks, and biographies, linked all the arts through the long-standing humanist theory of ut pictura poesis. Theorists emphasized the importance of audience, viewer, or reader response, recommending various modes and devices best suited to stirring the passions. To some extent, this involved a rejection of Mannerism or maniera, which by 1600 had taken on a pejorative sense of “mannered” and divorced from nature. In general, the aim of art, to echo Aristotle, was to instruct and delight—that is, to give abstract ideals the most persuasively physical form. An important aid favored by writers on art and literature alike was the emblem book. Since the late sixteenth century, these visual repositories of moral and spiritual themes were produced all over Europe. Much of their immense appeal was in providing a pictorial repertoire of philosophical, amorous, and political formulas, which could acquire physical authority and emotional resonance through the transforming arts of poetry, painting, and sculpture.
One commonly noted feature of Baroque aesthetics is a bifurcation of emotional intensity (often associated with Counter-Reformation ideals) and the balance and restraint of classicism, one of several theoretical problems in discussions of the term. Yet, many seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury writers encouraging emotional expression in painting were deeply committed to a classicist aesthetic. In fact, the study of the affections, that is, an interest in emotional immediacy, dovetailed with the continued reverence for antiquity, still an ideal as it had been during the Renaissance. During the seventeenth century, theory emphasized making classical models more dramatically present and psychologically acute. Didactic writings stressed the importance of copying ancient sculpture (often included in the rubric “drawing from life”) as an ideal of beauty and heroism on which to build stirring dramas. There was an established canon of Roman antique sculptures, which artists used over and over in different ways according to their tastes. Antiquities, like nature itself, were to be copied and then improved upon; the artist's task was to bring them to colorful life. Two characteristic essays stressing the practical and theoretical aspects of antique models are Rubens's “On the Imitation of Statues” (published by De Piles in 1708), and Giovanni Bellori's L'idea del pittore, dello scultore, e dell'architetto (1674), in many ways the definitive statement of classicism. Thus, theorists also emphasized the importance of invention, or the artist's own imagination, combining an eye for historical authenticity with a flair for anecdote and immediacy. The resulting powerful narratives not only captivate the viewer but ennoble the painter. Taking Leon Battista Alberti's governing principle of istoria to a new level of intensity, Baroque theorists encouraged painters to engage the viewer as vigorously as possible. Gérard de Lairesse, in his Groot Schilderboeck of 1711, recommends organizing a narrative scene so that the denouement strikes the observer “just as a cannonball, shot from a distance, hits a nearby bulwark and scatters everything in its path.” Roger De Piles, in his Cours de peinture (1708), and Samuel van Hoogstraten, in his Inleyding tot de hooghe schole der Schilderkonst (1678), express related views in their hierarchies of genres. This categorization favored the multifigured historical scene as the greatest subject for painting, permitting the greatest exploitation of the painter's choreographic and dramatic skills. At the same time, the “lesser” genres such as still life, landscape, and genre scenes, reflecting the interests and tastes of new patrons, were also opportunities to display one's talents for lively anecdote and mimetic scrutiny. This concern for vividness, linking “classical” and “emotional” modes of expression, and “high” and “low” subjects, was often manifested in the systematic study of expression. The means of expressing the passions through gesture and facial expression had already been formulated by Renaissance artists and theorists using Aristotle and the ancient rhetoricians as their guide. Both Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci had considered the study of expression to be vital to the history painter. During the Baroque period, the range of experience to be depicted in visual art was expanded. Poussin applied theories of ancient rhetoric to painting, believing that the depiction of gestures and facial expressions could move the spectator emotionally just as an orator would do. Echoing Quintilian, he claims that without the language of the body, line and color are likewise useless. Charles Le Brun, who carefully studied Descartes's treatise, created a strict codification of the passions. He illustrated his renowned lecture on expression (published in 1698) with drawings of faces. Forming a literal catalog of expressions, they are grouped in pairs that express contrasting emotions, such as hope and fear, accompanied by descriptions echoing the Cartesian system of opposites.
Naturalism and the Model of Rhetoric
Poussin's invocation of rhetorical theory, and Le Brun's classification of the passions, are similar to the adaptations of rhetoric in literature and music. Baroque poetry and prose, with their complexity, ingenious metaphors, and shifts of tone, were strongly influenced by the practices and ideas of rhetoric. Likewise, composers used systematically codified musical “figures,” such as sudden rhythmic or harmonic changes, extended ornamentation of a line or a cadence, or unexpected chromatic notes, to illustrate or emphasize the meanings of words. This close association with rhetorical models is the force behind the importance of naturalism in Baroque aesthetics. Hand in hand with the use of classical models is the repeated injunction to represent the world and its objects as they appear, as a means of persuasion. (These seemingly divergent standards, the “classicist” and the “realist,” were not necessarily in conflict as they came to be during the nineteenth century.) The Dutch theorists were particularly concerned with achieving what they called houding, fusing drawing, composition, color, and shadow to create a legible, convincing space, as Willem Goeree wrote: “receding or advancing naturally to the eye, as if it were accessible to one's feet” (Grondlegginge der Teykenkonst, 1670). Similarly, the portrayal of individual character required special concentration. Portraitists strove for more dynamic compositions along with greater psychological penetration, which also spurred the invention of caricature. Naturalistic effects likewise appealed to the passions in the other arts. In theater, realism replaced allegory, both in stage design (in the transition from a medieval flat facade to the modern illusionistic stage) and in the plays themselves. Plays became increasingly mimetic, expanding from allegories to more realistic tragedy and farce. The French concept of the three dramatic unities codified this mimetic tendency into an official mode. Similarly, in baroque music, the dominant aim of composers and performers was the expression of a text. Hence, the invention of recitative, or quasi speech, whereby the words governed the musical rhythm. Writers on music at the time acknowledged the theatricality of recitative: the singer was supposed to move the audience with the same skills as an orator.
While Baroque has settled into its current comfortable niche as a designation of a period style, the word has persisted as a pejorative term. In critical discourse, it is still used to describe an artistic style characterized by extravagance and bombast. Jean Baudrillard, in “L'effet beaubourg” (1981), uses baroque to refer to what he sees as the worst excesses of postmodern architecture. Similarly, in everyday conversation, the generic adjective baroque is used to characterize objects, institutions, systems, procedures, and rituals that strike one as convoluted and overly theatrical. Interestingly, it has overtones similar to those of gothic and byzantine. All three terms, evoking the aesthetics of the past, serve equally well to describe something excessive and tortuously complex, a fact that attests to their tenacity in our cultural imagination. See also Style.
Bazin, Germain. The Baroque: Principles, Styles, Modes, Themes. Translated by Pat Wardroper. London, 1968. Brusati, Celeste. Artifice and Illusion: The Art and Writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten. Chicago, 1995. See pp. 218–227. Bukofzer, Manfred F. Music in the Baroque Era. New York, 1947. Filipczak, Zirka Zaremba. Picturing Art in Antwerp, 1550–1700. Princeton, N.J., 1987.
Friedrich, Carl J. The Age of the Baroque, 1610–1660. New York, 1952. Haskell, Francis. Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque. Rev. enl. ed. New Haven, 1980. Lee, Rensselaer W. Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting. New York, 1967. Maiorino, Giancarlo. The Cornucopian Mind and the Baroque Unity of the Arts. University Park, Pa., 1990. Martin, John Rupert. Baroque. New York, 1977. Palisca, Claude V. Baroque Music. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1991. Panofsky, Erwin. Idea: A Concept in Art Theory. Translated by Joseph J. S. Peake. Columbia, S.C., 1968. Panofsky, Erwin. What Is Baroque? In Three Essays on Style, edited by Irving Lavin. Cambridge, Mass., 1995. A previously unpublished lecture, delivered in 1935. Pevsner, Nikolaus. Academies of Art, Past and Present. Cambridge, 1940. Pigler, A. Barockthemen, eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. Budapest, 1956. Praz, Mario. Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery. 2d ed. Rome, 1964. Skrine, Peter N. The Baroque: Literature and Culture in Seventeenth-Century Europe. New York, 1978. Steadman, John M. Redefining a Period Style: “Renaissance,” “Mannerist,” and “Baroque” in Literature. Pittsburgh, 1990. Warnke, Frank J. Versions of Baroque: European Literature in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, 1972. Wellek, René. The Concept of the Baroque in Literary Scholarship. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 5 (1946): 77–109. This entire issue contains a number of articles devoted to the baroque as a stylistic concept in various arts. Wölfflin, Heinrich. Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. 6th ed. Translated by M. D. Hottinger. London, 1932; reprint, New York, 1950. Martha Hollander
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