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The History of Baroque and Rococo Sculpture

Updated on April 4, 2014
Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini | Source

By the end of the 16th century Mannerism was in decline and new trends in sculpture were beginning to emerge. These culminated in the work of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, the greatest sculptor of the 17th century and virtually the creator of the baroque style. New kinds of seriousness in religion and religious art, which were demanded by the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, fostered the development of the new style. The center of baroque was Rome, where the patronage of the popes, especially their commissions for St. Peter's, gave Bernini and other baroque sculptors opportunities to execute works on a grand scale.

Characteristic features of Bernini's new approach to sculpture include the following:

  • He helped break down the barriers between architecture, painting, and sculpture. In the Cornaro chapel, for example, his sculptural group, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, is the centerpiece of a complex conception involving other sculptured figures, the architectural setting itself, and paintings
  • His work featured an openness and freedom of design, with fluttering draperies, outstretched limbs, and open contours
  • He preferred types of action that are not resolved within the sculpture itself. His David, for example, peers intently out into the space occupied by the viewer toward an implied Goliath
  • He used a variety of materials in one sculptural work. For the papal tombs of Urban VIII and Alexander VII, Bernini used white and colored marbles and bronze
  • An increased realism in the use of textures appeared in his work. Stone lost its stoniness and took on the qualities of flesh, hair, cloth, and the like. This is apparent even in such early works as Pluto and Proserpine and Apollo and Daphne.

The Rape of Proserpina
The Rape of Proserpina | Source

The sculpture of the period 1600–1750 moves between the full-blooded baroque style of Bernini and a more restrained classical version. The work of Bernini's two greatest contemporaries, Alessandro Algardi and François Duquesnoy, was more restrained, and their influence on 17th century sculpture was greater than his. Algardi's best-known work is the marble relief The Meeting of Pope Leo I and Attila, in St. Peter's. Other prominent Italian baroque sculptors are Melchiorre Caffà, Ercole Ferrata, Camillo Rusconi, and Giovanni Battista Foggini.

In France the baroque style flourished under Louis XIV in a toned-down classical manner that suited the tastes of the court. Most of this marble sculpture is conceived in allegorical terms with themes from classical mythology. François Girardon's delightful group Apollo Attended by the Nymphs, created for the grotto of Thetis at Versailles, is strongly classical (Hellenistic) in spirit. Pierre Puget, a more completely baroque sculptor, whose masterpiece is the Milo of Crotona, received little recognition in his lifetime.

In Spain and Latin America the emotionalism of the baroque style was combined with an intense realism, involving the use of actual cloth and hair and naturalistic color. The greatest works are extravagant gilt wood altarpieces, such as that of San Esteban, Salamanca, by José Churriguera.

Satyr Crowning a Bacchante
Satyr Crowning a Bacchante | Source

Rococo art, which developed primarily in France, was a variation of baroque rather than a radical departure from it. It lacks the high seriousness of baroque and is lighthearted, playful, sentimental, and decorative. The idealized prettiness of Étienne Maurice Falconet's marble female figures and the erotic playfulness of the small terra-cotta groups by Clodion (Claude Michele), such as Satyr Crowning a Bacchante, are typically rococo.

The development of baroque and rococo in central European churches provided the climax of the integration of architecture, sculpture, and painting that Bernini initiated. Wood and stucco were the preferred materials for the extravagant sculptural decoration of these churches. Among the best-known examples are works by Ignaz Günther and Egid Quirin Asam in Bavaria and Domenikus Zimmermann and Joseph Anton Feuchtmayr in Swabia.

Fountain sculpture is an outstanding aspect of the baroque and rococo periods in Rome. The dynamism and other elements of the baroque style encouraged extravagant fantasy and playfulness in design, as in Bernini's Triton Fountain and Fountain of the Four Rivers. The later Trevi Fountain is especially popular.


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