We may well all have heard of the term ‘baroque’ in relation to art, music and architecture, but what exactly does it refer to?
Now I’m certainly no expert and so I have (unapologetically) taken my definitions from others, but worded in a way that I hope will be easy to understand. The term itself is French, derived from the Portuguese word barroco for a ‘rough or imperfectly-shaped pearl’.
During the Renaissance, artists and architects attempted to depict perfect forms and perfect people based on classical themes. They drew their inspiration from ancient Greece with its symmetry and simplistic grace. However, by the early 16th century, a new wave of artists began to approach their subjects in a more realistic way, painting real people with ‘warts and all’, and creating buildings that were outrageously flamboyant and exuberant.
The more conservative ‘old school’ did not like this ‘modern’ approach – it was a dramatic change from the Renaissance style that came before – and so the term ‘baroque’ was initially an insult, implying buildings in this new style were ‘rough and imperfectly formed’.
More recently, architect Francis Ching describes baroque architecture as "characterized by free and sculptural use of the classical orders and ornament, dynamic opposition and interpenetration of spaces, and the dramatic combined effects of architecture, sculpture, painting, and the decorative arts". As a layman, I’m not exactly sure what that means – I need to see an example!
The style originated in Italy, the first building being the Chiesa del Gesù ('Church of Jesus') in the Piazza de Gesù in Rome (right), after which, the ‘baroque’ movement began to spread throughout Europe where it remained popular for a century and a half. Indeed, this style was encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church, which saw it as an ideal vehicle for countering the Protestant Reformation, by communicating religious themes in an overtly physical and emotional way. (I suppose it’s like comparing the opulence of the Vatican with a simple Quaker meeting house.)
In architectural terms, the emphasis was on bold façades of colonnades and domes, with chiaroscuro (‘light and shade’) being used to good effect; while interiors often evolved around monumental staircases that led in a processional sequence of increasingly rich interiors and culminated in a grand chamber, throne room or state bedroom. Needless to say, the aristocracy liked the dramatic style of baroque architecture and were quick to use it as a way of impressing their friends and showing off their wealth and power. Indeed, it is no coincidence that baroque palaces can often be found near entrances to royal residences.
In England, baroque architecture was championed by Sir Christopher Wren (St Paul’s Cathedral), Sir John Vanbrugh (Castle Howard – left – our 'neighbour' here in Yorkshire) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (who worked with Vanbrugh in Yorkshire, and built Easton Neston in Northamptonshire), between c.1660 and c.1725.
There are many wonderful examples throughout Europe, most notably in Sicily, so to see this architecture at its best, you need to visit the fabulous planned towns of Noto and Ragusa, real baroque gems, possibly on a cycling holiday to southeast Sicily.
Completely destroyed by the terrible 1693 earthquake, the Noto you see today (below) was rebuilt under the supervision of the Duke of Camastra, by three architects who had carte blanche to let their baroque creativity run wild. The result is a wonderfully eclectic mix of ornate styles and dazzling embellishments. Ragusa, a World Heritage Site in its own right, is also famed for its glorious architecture. If you also include the nearby towns of Scicli and Palazzo Acreide, it’s little wonder that this region is called the ‘Realm of the Baroque’.