The period called “Baroque” cannot easily be classified. The work that distinguishes this period is stylistically complex and even contradictory. While Baroque was born in Rome during the final years of the sixteenth century, it was not specifically Italian. Nor was it confined to religious art. While Baroque did have ties to the Counter-Reformation, it quickly entered the Protestant North where it was applied primarily to secular subjects. It would also be difficult to claim that Baroque is “the style of absolutism,” because Baroque flourished in the bourgeois Holland no less than in the absolutist monarchies. Nor do we see the turbulent history of the era reflected in Baroque art. While the seventeenth century was one of almost continuous warfare, these wars had practically no effect on Baroque imagery. It is equally difficult to relate Baroque art to the science and philosophy of the period. While a direct link did exist in the Early and High Renaissance, when an artist could also be a humanist and scientist, this changed in the seventeenth century. During this time, scientific and philosophical thought became too complex, abstract, and systematic for the artists to share. Still, there is a subtle but an important relationship between Baroque art and science. The complex metaphysics of the humanists, which gave everything religious, meaning, was replaced by a new physics. Human awareness of the world was continuously expanding and the cosmology of such men as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo broke the ties between sensory perception and science. By placing the sun, not the earth at the center of the universe, it contradicted what our eyes told us: that the sun revolves around the earth. The worldview of visual reality was forever changed by the new science of the seventeenth century. It would be fair to say that Baroque literally saw with new eyes. Instead of considering Baroque to be the result of religious, political or intellectual developments, it would be more accurate to think of it as one among other basic features that distinguish the period. The strengthened Catholic faith, the absolutist state, and the new science were all factors that combined to give Baroque its fascinating variety.
Around 1585, the Papacy began a campaign to make Rome the most beautiful city of the Christian world. They patronized art on a large scale, which attracted many ambitious young artists. Several of them came from northern Italy and it was they who created the new style. One of the foremost painters of the time was a genius called Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio produced a new and radical kind of realism He painted directly on the canvas from the live model and he depicted the world that he knew so that his canvases are filled with ordinary people. In “The Calling of St. Matthew” (1599-1602), Caravaggio depicts his subject entirely in terms of contemporary lowlife. Yet, to identify one of the characters as Jesus, he uses dramatic light and shadow to spotlight the hand gesture of Jesus (based on Michelangelo’s Adam on the Sistine ceiling). Later, when Caravaggio moved to Naples (then under Spanish rule), his main disciple was a Spaniard named Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652). Ribera absorbed Caravaggio’s style and produced paintings of saints, prophets, and ancient beggar-philosophers that appealed strongly to the otherworldliness of Spanish Catholicism. Most of Ribera’s figures are middle aged men who possess the unique blend of inner strength and intensity. In “St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment” (1626) the dramatic composition, inspired by Caravaggio, and the raking light give the figure a powerful presence by heightening the realism and emphasizing the vigorous surface textures. Another great Baroque artist was Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) whose art contained classical and Renaissance elements and the correctness of its forms. The style of his ceiling Fresno in the gallery of the Farnese Palace (1597-1601) is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “Sistine ceiling” and Raphael’s “Galatea”. But the illusionistic scheme reflects Annibale’s knowledge of Coreggio and the great Venetians. The greatest representative of the Late Baroque was the Neapolitan painter Luca Giordano (1634-1705). He began his career as an imitator of Ribera but soon became the leading decorative painter in Italy. He absorbed a host of influences and was able to imitate other artists’ styles with ease. His work also varied in subject matter, although he was primarily a religious and mythological painter. His “The Abduction of Europa” (1686) shares the graceful style of Cortona and the rich tonalism inherited from Lanfranco.
Two of the greatest Baroque architects were Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Buildings of the period are composed of great curving forms with undulating facades, ground plans of unprecedented size and complexity, and domes of various shapes. At St. Peter’s, Rome, Bernini molded the open space of the faade into a magnificent oval piazza. In addition, the huge scale of the building can only be compared with the ancient Roman sanctuary at Palestrina. Borromini started out as an assistant to Maderno and the to Bernini himself, but he later began work as an independent architect with his reconstruction of the monastery and church of “St. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane” (1665-1667). Borromini used concave and convex surfaces to make the entire structure seem elastic. He merged architecture and sculpture in a way that had not been attempted since Gothic art.
Gianlorenzo Bernini was also one of the great Baroque sculptors. While his “David” (1623) is reminiscent of “The Laocoon Group,” what makes it Baroque is the implied presence of Goliath. Bernini’s is the most dramatic, the most realistic portrayal of “David.” The only serious rival to Bernini in sculpture was Alessandro Algardi (1596-1654) His greatest contribution was “The Meeting of Pope Leo I and Attila” (1646) at St. Peter’s, The Vatican, Rome. By varying the depth of the carving, he nearly convinces us that the scene takes place in the same space as ours. The foreground figures are in such high relief that they seem detached from the background and the stage on which they are standing projects several feet beyond its surrounding niche. This illusionism is characteristic of Baroque.
During the sixteenth century, Spain had produced great saints and writers, but no artists of the first rank. The Spanish court and most of the aristocracy preferred to employ foreign painters and held native artists in low esteem. Because of this, the main influences came from Italy and the Netherlands. The impact of Caravaggism was especially felt in Seville, the home of the most important Spanish Baroque painters before 1640. Diego Velzquez (1599-1660) was one of Spain’s greatest baroque painters. “The Maids of Honor” (1656) displays Velazquez’ mature style at its fullest. While his use of side lighting and strong contrasts of light and dark are reminiscent of Caravaggio, Velazquez’ technique is far more subtle. Velazquez explored the optical qualities of light more fully than any other painter of his time. Francisco de Zurbarn (1598-1664) stands out among the painters of Seville for his quiet intensity. Zurbarn worked almost exclusively for monastic orders and his most impressive baroque compositions are deeply moving for their direct and realistic approach to religious subject matter. The work of Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) is the most cosmopolitan, as well as accessible, of any Spanish Baroque artist. His “Virgin and Child” (1675-1680) unites the influence of the Northern artists and Italians in an image that nevertheless retains an unmistakably Spanish character.
Religion, politics, and philosophy all played a part in Baroque art. This interplay of passion, intellect, and spirituality make it one of the most compelling periods of Western art.