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Characteristics and Origin of Baroque Art and Architecture

Updated on April 25, 2013
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Baroque art and architecture is one of the major historical developments in Western art. Like other great styles, the baroque first found expression in architecture and spread from there to painting and sculpture and eventually even to music. It flourished from the latter half of the 16th century to the beginning of the 18th century, with its high-water mark probably being the decade from 1630 to 1640. In the past, some interpreters, especially in England and France, were inclined to consider the baroque as a mere perversion of the Renaissance style. This view, however, is now outdated, and in recent years there has been a widespread revival of interest in the baroque.

The richness and variety of baroque forms make it difficult to characterize the style. All artistic styles contain certain contradictions, but the baroque is particularly full of them. The word baroque, of uncertain origin, was first used in the 17th century as a term of abuse to describe art that did not meet the "classical" rational standards. Some scholars believe the term "baroque" is derived from the Portuguese barroco (an irregularly shaped pearl), and indeed the essence of the baroque style is best described in a single word: irregular.

The baroque, aptly called the art of the impossible, is characterized by movement. To some critics its main features are its ebullience, its ornateness, its somber pomp; to others, its dynamic character, its predilection for curves, its avoidance of clear outline and distinct contrast, its preoccupation with expressing states of mind, feelings, moods. The last characteristic, a concern with the inner life, caused distinctive national and regional differences in the forms of the baroque, of which the Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Austrian are particularly noteworthy.

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All baroque art was polarized around a set of feelings that had a common field of movement, intensity, tension, and force. Hence, the baroque found its richest expression in the castle and the opera, two artistic forms in which many arts have to be worked into a harmonious whole.

Historically, the baroque style began with the Jesuit mother church, Il Gesù, in Rome, designed by Giacomo da Vignola in 1568. But this remarkable creation might have remained an isolated instance had it not expressed some generally felt need of the time. Some have argued that the baroque was the style of the Catholic Counter Reformation, others that it was related to monarchical absolutism. But baroque works were created where neither of these factors existed, indicating that a more general kind of feeling must have been the basis of the style. If it is true, as one interpreter has put it, that "baroque means the unthinkable," then we can understand why baroque artists sought to accomplish the impossible task of expressing the contradictory forces and feelings of the time—materialism and spiritualism, radical naturalism and extreme formalism, the most terrifying realism and the most precious illusionism. An increasing excitement over the potentialities of human beings, engendered by the rise of modern science and the emergence of the modern state, gripped the artist in the baroque age. The power of humans, as well as their impotence, was more intensely felt than ever before. Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, made what may be the age's most revealing statement: "So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power, after Power, that ceaseth only in Death."

The baroque was one of the most productive periods in the arts, literature, and music. The sense of limitless power, checked by an overwhelming sense of cosmic relationships, produced a style that startles by its contrasts yet exhibits a singular and distinctive character.

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    • Astrid Halfling profile image

      Astrid Halfling 4 years ago

      This article is an elaborate and suffice overview of the Baroque period. I for one, am very fond of the art and music. For example, Michelangelo da Caravaggio depicted intense scenes of death and remarkable decomposition. In his works, Bacchus and Basket of Fruit; those two art pieces were morbidly interesting. The art he also created held scenes of dramatic gore.