The concept of Baroque art is somewhat disputed by scholars, as it covers a period with uncertain time boundaries and its features dramatically vary according to the national context. Moreover, the artists of the period pursued dramatically different stylistic paths. Tellingly, in his Social History of Art Arnold Hauser treats the “bourgeois” Baroque art of Northern Europe and its Roman-Catholic counterpart in two separate chapters. On the other hand, even the same social setting could nurture quite different minds. Guido Reni and Caravaggio lived about the same period (the latter died much earlier following a troubled life) but their paintings could not be more different. The placid classicism of Reni’s altarpieces shows an idealised understanding of reality and religion, while his artistic counterpart favoured a stark sense of realism which showed the humanity of his subjects fully.
In this wide variety of possible scenarios, it is still possible to spot some common characteristics which make Baroque such a distinct presence in the history of Western art. Unlike their Renaissance predecessors, Baroque artists brought together an incredible variety of media, blending the boundaries between different arts to create astonishing masterpieces. In any Baroque interior, the setting is as important as the artworks displayed in it. This is true both in lay and religious architecture. In Roman palaces, for examples, each room would be organised around a specific colour scheme or theme which would determine the furniture and decorations. Stucco, polychrome marbles, gilding, frescoes and many more devices would be brought into a cohesive space which would strike the eye and move the viewer’s imagination.
Triumph of the Name of Jesus – Giovan Battista Gaulli – 1674-1679
The work of Baciccio (Giovan Battista Gaulli) on the vault of the Church of the Gesù in Rome shows the potential extent of the Baroque approach to decoration. The central space is occupied by a large fresco depicting some heavenly vision, the conceptual core being the name of Christ represented by the letters IHS. All around the moulded frame is supported by angel figures made of stucco, whose whiteness contrasts against the golden ceiling. They are three dimensional figures, actually high reliefs, and therefore help in casting the illusion that the fresco itself is not a bi-dimensional figuration. To support this impression, the painter added figures over the border of his frame, depicting damned souls falling into Hell. The painting scene penetrates the real space and pours down into the church. The idea of unifying the space through different art forms was called bel composto, and it was a key principle of decoration.
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane – Francesco Borromini – begun 1634
Control of the space played a role too. The rigidly geometric rules set by Renaissance architects began loosening up, and geniuses such as Francesco Borromini re-interpreted traditional components in new, outstanding ways. The church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane provides a clear example. The dome is not circular but oval, decorated with coffers shaped like octagons and crosses. The dome rests over undulated walls, which enlivens the space and creates a perception of variety. The space is quite small but Borromini manages to make it appear larger through the use of the plan and the effect of light pouring from the dome, amplified by the overall whiteness of the space.
Sant’Andrea al Quirinale – Gianlorenzo Bernini – begun 1658
The seventeenth century re-invents the ways to engage the viewer into an immersive artistic experience. Controlling space, Baroque artists also controlled the way this was enjoyed and perceived. It is a wondrous game of imagination, which allowed the artist to cast images of Heaven on Earth. As in the Middle Ages, art is once again an instrument of revelation, but also persuasion. Baroque art was indeed tightly connected to Europe’s political powers, who often employed art and architecture in order to cast an aspirational image of their own authority. Experience and reality come close together, to a point where it is difficult to banish the illusion that artist have skillfully cast over our eyes.