by Roderick Conway Morris

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Smol'ny Cathedral, St. Petersburg
Smol'ny Cathedral, St. Petersburg by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, 1748-64

Baroque: Ridiculously Sublime

By Roderick Conway Morris
TURIN 16 October 1999


'Baroque is the ultimate of the bizarre: it is the ridiculous carried to extremes,' wrote Francesco Milizia in the last years of the 18th century. He added that while Francesco Borromini had actually gone mad, several of his successors had 'gone Baroque,' a not dissimilar condition in his opinion.

This kind of reaction against the Baroque, echoed throughout Europe, ushered in more than 150 years of general disapproval of the style. In the second half of this century, however, it has steadily been rehabilitated.

It is an index of how far this process has gone that recent anniversaries of the Italian founders of the Baroque -- Algardi, Bernini, Borromini, Cortona and Juvarra -- have all been or soon will be marked by extensive special exhibitions.

These are now suitably crowned by a magnificent show, 'The Triumph of the Baroque: Architecture in Europe 1600-1750,' at Juvarra's splendid hunting lodge here, the Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi, with about 400 works by 200 artists and architects from 150 collections around the world. The show continues until Nov. 7.

A wide gulf now divides us from the Europe of the Old Regime, its intense religiosity, its autocratic governments, its convictions and assumptions. Yet the eclecticism, exuberance and the sheer over-the-top quality of the Baroque, which were lost on intervening generations, have regained their appeal.

A primary factor in hastening the transformation of Baroque from a term of opprobrium to one of positive value has been the spectacular revival of the music of the era, not to mention countless public performances in the architectural settings for which it was written. The use of period instruments, the striving for 'authenticity' and the abandonment of later, anachronistic orchestration and styles of playing and singing, have generated a new enthusiasm for these compositions when performed as much as possible 'as they were.'

A parallel willingness to accept the Baroque on its own terms can be observed in late 20th-century attitudes to Baroque art and architecture. Critics of the Baroque traditionally saw it as the Renaissance gone decadent, depraved or just plain barmy. Nowadays it is recognized again as a style, a movement in its own right, which owed much to the Renaissance, but contained many original ideas, made its own contributions to the interpretation of the classical, and even the gothic, heritage and took on an independent life of its own.

The broadness of the show's sweep is unprecedented when compared with

previous exhibitions on the subject and its accessibility greatly enhanced by being structured around some 80 historic wooden architectural models, not a few of arresting proportions and fine craftsmanship, representing buildings by many of the major Baroque architects. Some of the mammoth projects on show were never completed, or were executed in a more modest form.

Viewed over all, the Baroque was replete with paradox -- one reason it is so fascinating today. The style was born in Rome when the papacy had lost the hegemony it had once enjoyed in the West. It was created by artists who were religiously orthodox but artistically heterodox, willing to 'change the rules, abandon them and ultimately contradict them,' in the words of one of the most prominent of them, Guarino Guarini.

As a result of the efforts of these artists, Rome's image became ever grander and more imposing even as the city lost actual, temporal power. The Counter-Reformation guaranteed the spread of this architecture-as-propaganda throughout Catholic Europe. And, in time, such was the overwhelming appeal of the Baroque that variations of it were adopted by Protestant rulers and states and by Orthodox Russia.

In some cases, the enormous palaces, churches and fortresses that are among the Baroque's permanent legacy reflected genuine wealth and power, but more often than not, display far exceeded reality. There was always a high quotient of theatricality in the Baroque, and it is hardly surprising that this was the age that produced opera, a flamboyant, hybrid form that mirrored Baroque artists' and architects' love of combining fantastical, disparate and exotic elements.

Perhaps the ultimate example of Baroque-as-illusion is the Prince-Bishop's Residence at Wurzburg in Franconia. The ruler of this tiny, politically insignificant statelet built himself a palace that would have been the pride of an emperor, and commissioned Tiepolo's gigantic ceiling fresco showing the Four Continents doing obeisance to him. The whole enterprise teeters on the edge of the absurd, but transcends it, the art and architecture being of such a high order that the outcome is at the same time amusing, uplifting, majestic.

Despite its Roman origins, the language of Basic Baroque proved extraordinarily adaptable to local circumstances; it is intriguing to see the forms it took on in continental Europe, the British Isles, Scandinavia and further east.

Indeed, the demonstration of the successful assimilation of the style in Russia is the final coup de théâtre of the show. To be rendered acceptable to Russian Orthodox rulers it had to be stripped of those Roman Catholic symbols and associations that had once seemed an integral part of its very being.

This task was brilliantly confronted by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. And his huge model for the Smol'ny cathedral and monastery in St. Petersburg, commissioned by Peter the Great's daughter, Elizabeth I, in the 1740s, minutely and beautifully carved and gilded down to the last detail, is in itself one of the most breathtaking 'objets' to come down to us from the Baroque era.

The show goes on to the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Montreal (Dec. 9 to April 9); the National Gallery of Art in Washington (May 21 to Oct. 9), and the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Marseille (Nov. 17 to March 4, 2001).

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023