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Baroque Architecture and Design: Use of light

Updated on January 1, 2012
Natural light illuminates the staircase at Caserta Palace near Naples, built in the 1700s for the King of Naples.
Natural light illuminates the staircase at Caserta Palace near Naples, built in the 1700s for the King of Naples. | Source
Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles
Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles | Source
The Sindone Chapel dome built by Guarini during the late 1600s.
The Sindone Chapel dome built by Guarini during the late 1600s. | Source

It was the instance of the Baroque period that light was used purposefully and extensively in interiors. The manipulation of light and light sources in this era was driven by artistic trends, like chiaroscuro, by innovations in glass production, but also by social imperatives that led to a desire for dramatic and opulent display. Baroque era architects integrated fenestration and artificial light sources that capitalized on illumination which in turn created a sense of movement and emotion in an insentient space.

The Baroque age was informed by the tensions of the Reformation and, the Counter-Reformation; the Church wanted to emphasize the specter and ceremony of its faith and could do this inside ecclesiastical structures through ornamentation and illumination. Marked examples of this would be the interiors at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome or the Vierzehnheiligen. Increased creased and concentrated wealth and power among the upper classes and aristocracy meant the construction of luxurious residences appointed with expensive and materials difficult to produce or obtain, coupled with the desire of the privileged to opulently demonstrate their wealth – an obsequious model of this being the Stupinigi Palace in Turin. Needless to say, the Baroque style was applied to both religious and secular settings.

Baroque architecture and design took cues from new innovations. The Baroque Era was one that saw increased interest in theatrical arts and stage lighting was translated into use in interior décor. As on a stage, interior lighting could be set and manipulated in such a way as to establish or even reduce focal emphasis, to increase or decrease a sense of openness and height, or even to make a space look more opulent by creating light that moved and sparkled – like candlelight reflected on mirrored walls. Furthermore, in the late 1600s, plate glass manufacture was improved by glassmakers in France who developed a “plate pouring” process that produced more refined glass plates, with better translucence, and high-quality mirrors(by coating the glass on one side with metal). Decorative elements like glass windows, mirrors and gilding were costly and certainly a demonstration of wealth.

Baroque expression in art and décor integrated artistic style of the period; Baroque era artists like Caravaggio popularized use of chiaroscuro in their paintings. This technique was replicated in interiors in the use of real or artificial illumination that could create both spotlight and shadow. Chiaroscuro was also present in the choice of interior materials, like marbles or stucco in contrasting dark and light colors or in uniform, reflective color – the alabaster dome in San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane or the stairway at Caserta Palace. Frescoes were another way to manipulate the appearance of a space by merely creating an illusion of illumination with images of sunlight and sky; quadratura and sotto in su painting, types of illusionistic trompe l’oeil, were meant to give the feeling of increased space and openness often represented as a heavenly realm or open sky, a common architectural feature in churches like Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome.

The inclusion and placement of windows allowed architects to integrate lighting into the context of the structure they designed. Natural light could be used to create emphasis towards specific parts of a space, like a row of uniform tall windows in a tambour level of a dome used to guide the viewer ‘s gaze upwards “towards the heavens,” and many Baroque era churches like Turin’s San Lorenzo are appointed this way. Ocular, lantern, lunette and other types of windows were also placed as to utilize natural light and create a visual “direction” but hidden or irregular placement of light sources could illuminate interior focal points as well. The Sindone Chapel in Turin is an example of how Baroque architects, in this case Guarini, innovatively incorporated light sources in their designs. The chapel’s cupola is supported by a multi-windowed drum and multiple windows are nestled inconspicuously in the curve of each of the arches that rise above to form the dome topped with a secondary dome lit by small hidden windows.
Sometimes windows or windowed doors could be placed in such a way in a room to provide a scenic portrait, to engage the view of elaborate gardens or landscapes that during the Baroque period were popular among the wealthy. ‘French Windows,’ long windows spanning sometimes the full wall height, could enhance views and increase amount of light coming in – sash windows might also be used, but in Britain more likely.

Architects and artists also manipulated light with fire and reflective surfaces, using candles to create specified and spectacular illumination. Elaborate chandeliers made from metal, carved wood and crystals hung from above. Candelabra and other types of candlestands like gueridons and torchiers were set around a room. Mirrors might be hung in frames or adhered in panels to the walls as they are in the Gallerie des Glaces at Versailles; Girandoles, mirrors set with candle brackets to create a “looking glass,” were also used. Enormous fireplaces with their grand chimneypieces also added to the lighting of rooms at night. Decorative accents like gilded stucco, gilded bronze ornamentation and furniture in ormolu also added to a sense of illumination.

In essence, all of the methods in which light was used during the Baroque period, whether it was natural or artificial, are part of a legacy of interior design methods that helped to establish design practices in the modern era. Manipulation or light was one element of the grandeur and drama that define the Baroque era but its definition must include the tangible manifestation of a conflicted universal sensibility inherent in the 17th and 18th centuries: light against dark, reality in opposition to illusion, grandeur versus asceticism.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      thank you a great overview :)

    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 

      8 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      Heroek - The photos are beautiful, but what do all the terms mean? And what is your background? I didn't see anything on your profile.


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