Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence

In 2009 an exhibition Baroque, Style in the Age of Magnificence 1620-1800, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, provided a unique opportunity to discover the fascinating world of Baroque. It borrowed a number of important pieces from National Trust Properties that helped delve deeper into this age of magnificence and learn more about the beautiful gardens, decorative arts, architecture and social history of Baroque at first hand.
The exhibition conjured up the majesty of Baroque interiors with a range of objectives including works by Rubens and Bernini as well as furniture from Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. It explored one of the central concepts of Baroque, the ’total work of art’, through which painting, sculpture and architecture come together to create an overwhelming and magnificent experience, designed to engage the senses and celebrate divine and royal power.
Baroque was the first style to have a significant global impact. It spread form Italy and France to the rest of Europe. Then it travelled to Africa, Asia, and South and Central America via the colonies, missions and trading posts of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and other Europeans. The style was disseminated through the worldwide trade in fashionable goods, through prints, and also by travelling craftsmen, artists and architects.
Chinese carvers worked in Indonesia, French silversmiths in Sweden, Italian furniture makers in France. Sculpture was sent from the Philippines to Mexico as well as to Spain. London-made chairs went all over Europe and across the Atlantic. The French royal workshops turned out luxury products in the official French style that were both desired and imitated by fashionable society across Europe. But Baroque also changed as it crossed the world, adapting to new needs and local tastes.
Style in the Age of Magnificence
Baroque was the leading fashionable style in Europe for a hundred years from the mid 17th century. The period saw not only the establishment of great European empires ruled by absolute monarchs buth also the growing power of the Roman Catholic Church. It was opulent and impressive, dramatic and moving, but also very serious in its purpose. Baroque artists and designers worked in many media and art forms, from painting and sculpture to architecture, interior decoration, gardens and the ephemeral world of theatre and public events.
The patronage of the Roman Catholic Church was fundamental to Baroque. Promoted by generations of popes, cardinals, priests, missionaries, worshippers and lay-patrons, the style spread to the four corners of the globe. Baroque architecture was pioneered in papal Rome by Pietro da Cortona, Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. The new style was vigorous and imaginative but never out of control. Borromini’s oval ground plans were based on a dynamic geometry of triangles and circles. The same geometry lay behind the city plans of Baroque Rome.
Human figures played a leading role in all the various art forms, from painting and architecture through to musical instruments and tableware. Allegorical, sacred and mythological beings took over the whole work, turning it into a drama in which the actors strove to convey particular messages and to engage the emotions of the viewer. These figures were put into the service of both faith and dynastic ambition – in emotionally wrought religious paintings, and in heroic portraits of rulers, their heads held high above a mass of billowing drapery.
Throughout Europe, politically significant occasions were marked with public celebrations. These occasions had real national and international importance. Rituals such as coronation or state funeral marked regime change. Celebration – of royal birthdays and marriages, military victories and visits by foreign dignitaries – drew attention to new developments in the nation’s public life.
Music was central to public and domestic life in the Baroque. Baroque music is formal, highly celebrated, richly decorated. It voices the power and wealth of its patrons, just as it fills the spaces of Baroque architecture. Popes and emperors could express their splendour, in church and palace, with the spectacular performance by hundreds of musicians of works commissioned for the venue, or state occasion.
The exhibition featured The First Global Style, Art and Performance, Architecture and Performance, Marvellous Materials, The Theatre, The Square, Sacred Spaces, Secular Spaces. Supporting events included talks, conferences and a special series of concerts by students and professors from the Royal College of Music.
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to the brochure Baroque Style in the Age of Magnificence, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 4 April – 19 July 2009. This text follows a visit to the exhibition in May 2009.