At its height of popularity throughout the seventeenth century, the ornate style of Baroque architecture was coveted and sought after by many European courtiers. This thrilling, multi-faceted period of architecture dates back to an earlier Italian and Roman style of architecture, though it wasn’t until the Catholic Church began to heavily fund and endorse such architecture during the Counter Reformation (circa 1560s to 1700s) that it truly flourished. Derived from the Portuguese word “barroco”, meaning irregular shape or pearl of non-uniform shape, baroque was always intended to evoke a sense of grandeur and awe.
Often built with a vast array of curves and grandiose features, Baroque structures created a sense of awe and splendor that was unrivaled by the contemporary styles of architecture. With its strong linear forms, churches and other structures often featured a large dome or bell tower, while symmetrical designs were habitual in palatial buildings, creating a theatrical and dynamic effect.
The Baroque style was soon transformed into a powerful means of expression in all areas of architecture, from royal mausoleums, grand chapels and immense cathedrals, to grandiose apartments and country houses. From Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Poland, to Italy and parts of the Iberian peninsula, Jesuit and Catholic influence could be seen in a lot of Baroque facades, typical of this era of religious devotion.
It wasn’t until the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century, when the Frenchman compiled the full scope of Baroque design principles under one style, that the term was truly established. While the use of Baroque went on until the mid-18th century, the dynamic and unstable political situation at the time lead to a fusion of styles between then and classicism. This unique period of artistic development was immediately renowned for its dynamic and dazzling designs, resulting in a magnified and glorified version of classical and Renaissance art that transformed architecture and interior design as we know it.
Baroque architecture continued to be seen in the palatial buildings of northern Europe during the era of the post-Napoleonic Empire. In theatres, the Baroque style experienced a lasting resurgence, particularly in the classic early operatic works of Paganini and Gluck. Meanwhile, famous Baroque works of art and literature, such a Bach’s Passions or Rubens’s Christ on the Cross, worked to further solidify the style. Flamboyant, powerful, and utterly modern, Baroque architecture is considered to be an incredibly influential period of European history and its lasting popularity continues to be seen in modern architecture.
Naturally, the language of Baroque architecture is quite different from subsequent styles such as Rococo and Neo-Classicism. It is a unique combination of the Roman and Italian Renaissance styles that are power-driven, complex, and symmetrical. Such classic Baroque elements such as broken pediments, freestanding columns, and dramatic cornices are all favourites of the baroque period. This style was bold and dynamic, with a careful attention to decoration. Everything from rose window motifs, bold architraves, and elaborate domes were wildly used in this period of architecture, as well as heavy adornment in the form of religious iconography, carvings, and other ornaments often featuring a religious reference or contextual narrative.
Baroque expressions of architecture are incredibly literal and symbolic. Take St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, for example. It has five entrances shaped like a cross, representing the spread of Christianity and the two main sides of Jesus Christ- temptation and passion, representative of the crucifixion. The grandiose designs became a way for the Catholic Church to further objectify their power and promote propaganda to bolster support for their religion. Many Baroque buildings used Catholic exaltation, such as sculptures of saints, to draw the attention of worshippers towards religious paintings or elaborate altar pieces.
Many illustrious examples of Baroque church architecture have survived to reach modern times. The Baroque façade of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, built by Francesco Borromini in the mid-seventeenth century, is one of the most famous works of the genre. Following the success of this building which features copious concave windows, lobed forms, and heavy decoration, many other professional churches of its kind were built across Europe. In France, the churches of San Sulpice in Paris, the Abbey of Fontevraud, and the churches of Meaux, and Poitiers are considered to be masterpieces of the baroque period.
Transition to Modern Styles
During the mid to late eighteenth century, the rococo style took over from the declining Baroque era. Rococo architecture featured cubed volumes, receding structures, light colours, and delicate, curved ornaments. This style employed a lighter, more graceful form of the baroque, but was far more elaborate and decorative, featuring much scenographic play of light and shadow. While Baroque architecture went out of fashion, it left its imprint in the most varied architectures of all European countries, making it the most popular and grandiose style of architecture in Europe.
In spite of its decline, Baroque architecture still lives on in the present-day. Through the stunning paintings of artists like Peter Paul Rubens and dramatic theatrical costume designs of the seventeenth century, Baroque design can be seen in many different forms throughout the world today. Contemporary examples such as the façade of the Royal Palace in Madrid and the meticulously sculpted interiors of Chambord in France display a clear continuation of the Baroque style. Modern architects also often look to older Baroque examples when designing new buildings and features.
Baroque architecture and design have been both praised and criticized throughout its life time. While some countries such as Spain and Portugal embraced it with open arms and filled their Capital cities with these lavish structures to demonstrate their power and prestige, others were not so enthused. Critics viewed it as excessive use of ornamentation and overpowering in design, sentiments that still continue to haunt this period of architecture today. That being said, it still holds a major significance in the development of modern architecture, especially with regards to its use of theatrical design and intricate sculptures.
The Baroque architecture period left the world with an important and lasting legacy. An ornate and complex style infused into Northern European and Latin cultures alike, it is no wonder it is still seen in extant works all over the world today. From dramatic, unassuming façades of churches to modern-day Rococo influences, Baroque was a period of art and architecture that continues to evolve and capture the hearts of all onlookers.