Imitation, Illusion, and Baroque Marvel

Art is often a matter of illusion. In the Western world since the Middle Ages, the visual arts have developed a distinctive tendency to naturalism. An interesting early example is the depiction of marble frames on the walls of the Arena Chapel by Giotto. Throughout the centuries, in a sort of Vasarian narrative, the technical achievements of the previous generations allowed contemporary artists to develop their own original style. In many ways, the seventeenth century marks a neat change of taste as well as the development of the artistic practices. Despite the critical confusion over the concept of Baroque art, it is safe to say that this controversial period cannot be assimilated to the whimsical Mannerist style nor the later eighteenth-century classicism.

Salvator Mundi – Gianlorenzo Bernini – 1679 – marble

Especially in sculpture, the Baroque style is characterised by a full control over the material. The technical mastery of artists such as Gianlorenzo Bernini, Alessandro Algardi, and Francesco Mochi allowed them to create refined pieces while conveying a sense of vibrant grandiosity through their works. For example, Bernini’s Salvator Mundi, which he carved around the age of eighty, mixes the realistic depiction of the human body with a flamboyant drapery. While providing a decorative addition to the bust iconography, this enhances the imposing look of the figure by expanding its spatial presence. In this way, the character expresses authority and assertiveness.

The Baptism of Christ – Alessandro Algardi – 1646 – bronze

Baroque sculptors were interested in a variety of genres and formats. While Bernini’s works tend to strike for their vibrant liveliness and monumental scale, Alessandro Algardi preferred a delicate, almost classicist sense of balance. He grew up in Bologna and was particularly skilled in modelling wax and clay. Therefore, it is no surprise that when he arrived in Rome he gathered his first commissions from craftsmen specialised in silver and bronze works. Algardi’s creations are polished and extremely detailed. The seventeenth century led to a great development of the founding techniques, hence allowing for more particulars to be captured on the bronze surface. In this way, even small-size statuettes can retain the same vibrant intricacy of the major Baroque works.

Annunciation (Gabriel) – Francesco Mochi – 1605-1608 – marble

As Arnold Hauser states in his Social History of Art, Baroque’s grandeur derives from the will to impress a wide variety of viewer. Gabriele Paleotti (1522-1597) in his Discourse on Profane and Sacred Images states that art should speak to the learned viewer in the same way as to the illiterate. This is a typical trope of Christian art writing but, in relation to the Baroque style, it acquires greater importance. In fact, post-counter-reformation art aimed at strengthening the ties between the Church and its worshippers. The opposition to Luther’s diffidence toward sacred imagery took the shape of a fierce defence of the arts by the Catholic Church. Beauty and splendour should indeed honour God as much as draw people closer to the power of Rome.

Saint Andrew – François Duquesnoy – 1630-1640 – marble

Over time, the ties between Baroque art and the Counter-reformation diktats became looser. In fact, the term Baroque itself is difficult to define. Around the early eighteenth century, for example, the late-Baroque style mingles with the luxurious and sensual Rococo art, which rather emphasises the voluptuous nature of seventeenth-century art. However, the characteristic traits of this artistic period show that, despite the eighteenth and nineteenth-century harsh criticisms, Baroque has its own firm place in the pantheon of Western art history.

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Salvator Mundi

Baptism of Christ


Saint Andrew

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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