Age of Magnificence

Palacio do Raio

What was Baroque?

If you’re in London this summer don’t miss Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence. This exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum showcases the dominant European artistic style of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries

What was baroque? Most of all, it was exuberant. As the exhibition catalogue explains, baroque art ‘did not stand shyly by, hoping to be noticed. Paintings, sculpture and decorative arts swirled with vigorous action and strong feelings.’

The baroque – whether expressed in architecture, painting or sculpture – had a flamboyance that would have even Graham Norton pursing his lips. Why so? Part of the explanation lies with artistic patrons. The commanding baroque style expressed the growing power of princely courts and the aims of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Rome, 1651

Monarchs, following the lead of Louis XIV of France, wanted an art and architecture that trumpeted their power. It’s no accident that the most grandiose projects of the age were the work of ambitious and powerful princes. Republics (like Holland) and weak, crisis-ridden monarchies (like England) were not major centres of the baroque.

Baroque style was also taken up with enthusiasm by the Roman Catholic Church as it sought to roll back the Protestant Reformation, the great doctrinal revolt of the sixteenth century. Protestantism was deliberately sober in form. The reformers looked down upon visual showiness. Scripture was the key to salvation. The Catholic Church retaliated by taking the opposite tack: lavish display was one of the best ways in which the untutored masses could be brought to understand the majesty of God.

Like the Church, baroque was international. It was, the exhibition organisers claim, the first global style. It coincided with the earliest overseas European empires, so some of the finest examples can be found in South America, in India, and in the Far East.

A sample of what’s on offer can be found at the exhibition’s website. You’ll be stunned by the opulence on show. You may also, like me, be repelled by the selfishness of Europe’s ruling elite.

Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence runs at the V&A until 19 July 2009.

Chris Evans

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