Baroque architecture is the building style of the Baroque era, begun in late 16th-century Italy, that took the Roman vocabulary of Renaissance architecture and used it in a new rhetorical and theatrical fashion, often to express the triumph of the Catholic Church. It was characterized by new explorations of form, light and shadow, and dramatic intensity. Common features of Baroque architecture included gigantism of proportions; a large open central space where everyone could see the altar; twisting columns, theatrical effects, including light coming from a cupola above; dramatic interior effects created with bronze and gilding; clusters of sculpted angels and other figures high overhead; and an extensive use of trompe-l’oeil, also called “quadratura,” with painted architectural details and figures on the walls and ceiling, to increase the dramatic and theatrical effect.
Whereas the Renaissance drew on the wealth and power of the Italian courts and was a blend of secular and religious forces, the Baroque was, initially at least, directly linked to the Counter-Reformation, a movement within the Catholic Church to reform itself in response to the Protestant Reformation. Baroque architecture and its embellishments were on the one hand more accessible to the emotions and on the other hand, a visible statement of the wealth and power of the Catholic Church. The new style manifested itself in particular in the context of the new religious orders, like the Theatines and the Jesuits who aimed to improve popular piety.
The architecture of the High Roman Baroque can be assigned to the papal reigns of Urban VIII, Innocent X and Alexander VII, spanning from 1623 to 1667. The three principal architects of this period were the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini and the painter Pietro da Cortona and each evolved his own distinctively individual architectural expression.
Dissemination of Baroque architecture to the south of Italy resulted in regional variations such as Sicilian Baroque architecture or that of Naples and Lecce. To the north, the Theatine architect Camillo-Guarino Guarini, Bernardo Vittone and Sicilian born Filippo Juvarra contributed Baroque buildings to the city of Turin and the Piedmont region.
A synthesis of Bernini, Borromini and Cortona’s architecture can be seen in the late Baroque architecture of northern Europe which paved the way for the more decorative Rococo style.
By the middle of the 17th century, the Baroque style had found its secular expression in the form of grand palaces, first in France—with the Château de Maisons (1642) near Paris by François Mansart—and then throughout Europe.
During the 17th century, Baroque architecture spread through Europe and Latin America, where it was particularly promoted by the Jesuits.
Precursors and features of Baroque architecture
Michelangelo’s late Roman buildings, particularly St. Peter’s Basilica, may be considered precursors to Baroque architecture. His pupil Giacomo della Porta continued this work in Rome, particularly in the façade of the Jesuit church Il Gesù, which leads directly to the most important church façade of the early Baroque, Santa Susanna (1603), by Carlo Maderno.
Distinctive features of Baroque architecture can include:
in churches, broader naves and sometimes given oval forms
fragmentary or deliberately incomplete architectural elements
dramatic use of light; either strong light-and-shade contrasts (chiaroscuro effects) as at the church of Weltenburg Abbey, or uniform lighting by means of several windows (e.g. church of Weingarten Abbey)
opulent use of colour and ornaments (putti or figures made of wood (often gilded), plaster or stucco, marble or faux finishing)
large-scale ceiling frescoes
an external façade often characterized by a dramatic central projection
the interior is a shell for painting, sculpture and stucco (especially in the late Baroque)
illusory effects like trompe l’oeil (an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three dimensions.) and the blending of painting and architecture
pear-shaped domes in the Bavarian, Czech, Polish and Ukrainian Baroque
Marian and Holy Trinity columns erected in Catholic countries, often in thanksgiving for ending a plague
Baroque and colonialism
Though the tendency has been to see Baroque architecture as a European phenomenon, it coincided with, and is integrally enmeshed with, the rise of European colonialism. Colonialism required the development of centralized and powerful governments with Spain and France, the first to move in this direction. Colonialism brought in huge amounts of wealth, not only in the silver that was extracted from the mines in Bolivia, Mexico and elsewhere, but also in the resultant trade in commodities, such as sugar and tobacco. The need to control trade routes, monopolies, and slavery, which lay primarily in the hands of the French during the 17th century, created an almost endless cycle of wars between the colonial powers: the French religious wars, the Thirty Years’ War (1618 and 1648), Franco–Spanish War (1653), the Franco-Dutch War (1672–1678), and so on. The initial mismanagement of colonial wealth by the Spaniards bankrupted them in the 16th century (1557 and 1560), recovering only slowly in the following century. This explains why the Baroque style, though enthusiastically developed throughout the Spanish Empire, was to a large extent, in Spain, an architecture of surfaces and façades, unlike in France and Austria where we see the construction of numerous huge palaces and monasteries. In contrast to Spain, the French, under Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683), the minister of finance, had begun to industrialize their economy, and thus, were able to become, initially at least, the benefactors of the flow of wealth. While this was good for the building industries and the arts, the new wealth created an inflation, the likes of which had never been experienced before. Rome was known just as much for its new sumptuous churches as for its vagabonds.
A number of ecclesiastical buildings of the Baroque period in Rome had plans based on the Italian paradigm of the basilica with a crossed dome and nave, but the treatment of the architecture was very different from what had been carried out previously. One of the first Roman structures to break with the Mannerist conventions exemplified in the Gesù, was the church of Santa Susanna, designed by Carlo Maderno. The dynamic rhythm of columns and pilasters, central massing, and the protrusion and condensed central decoration add complexity to the structure. There is an incipient playfulness with the rules of classic design, but it still maintains rigor.
The same concerns with plasticity, massing, dramatic effects and shadow and light is evident in the architectural work of Pietro da Cortona, illustrated by his design of Santi Luca e Martina (construction began in 1635) with what was probably the first curved Baroque church façade in Rome. These concerns are even more evident in his reworking of Santa Maria della Pace (1656–68). The façade with its chiaroscuro half-domed portico and concave side wings, closely resembles a theatrical stage set and the church façade projects forward so that it substantially fills the tiny trapezoidal piazza. Other Roman ensembles of the Baroque and Late Baroque period are likewise suffused with theatricality and, as urban theatres, provide points of focus within their locality in the surrounding cityscape.
Probably the most well known example of such an approach is Saint Peter’s Square, which has been praised as a masterstroke of Baroque theatre. The piazza, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is formed principally by two colonnades of free standing columns centred on an Egyptian obelisk. Bernini’s own favourite design was his oval church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale decorated with polychome marbles and an ornate gold dome. His secular architecture included the Palazzo Barberini based on plans by Maderno and the Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi (1664), both in Rome.
Bernini’s rival, the architect Francesco Borromini, produced designs that deviated dramatically from the regular compositions of the ancient world and Renaissance. His building plans were based on complex geometric figures, his architectural forms were unusual and inventive and he employed multi-layered symbolism in his architectural designs. Borromini’s architectural spaces seem to expand and contract when needed, showing some affinity with the late style of Michelangelo. His iconic masterpiece is the diminutive church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, distinguished by a complicated plan arrangement that is partly oval and partly a cross and so has complex convex-concave wall rhythms. A later work, the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, displays the same playful inventiveness and antipathy to the flat surface, epitomized by an unusual “corkscrew” lantern above the dome.
Following the death of Bernini in 1680, Carlo Fontana emerged as the most influential architect working in Rome. His early style is exemplified by the slightly concave façade of San Marcello al Corso. Fontana’s academic approach, though lacking the dazzling inventiveness of his Roman predecessors, exerted substantial influence on Baroque architecture both through his prolific writings and through a number of architects he trained, who would disseminate the Baroque idioms throughout 18th-century Europe.
The 18th century saw the capital of Europe’s architectural world transferred from Rome to Paris. The Italian Rococo, which flourished in Rome from the 1720s onward, was profoundly influenced by the ideas of Borromini. The most talented architects active in Rome—Francesco de Sanctis (Spanish Steps, 1723) and Filippo Raguzzini (Piazza Sant’Ignazio, 1727)—had little influence outside their native country, as did numerous practitioners of the Sicilian Baroque, including Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, Andrea Palma, and Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia.
The last phase of Baroque architecture in Italy is exemplified by Luigi Vanvitelli’s Caserta Palace, reputedly the largest building erected in Europe in the 18th century. Indebted to contemporary French and Spanish models, the palace is skillfully related to the landscape. At Naples and Caserta, Vanvitelli practiced a sober and classicizing academic style, with equal attention to aesthetics and engineering, a style that would make an easy transition to Neoclassicism.
In the north of Italy, the monarchs from the House of Savoy were particularly receptive to the new style. They employed a brilliant triad of architects—Guarino Guarini, Filippo Juvarra, and Bernardo Vittone—to illustrate the grandiose political ambitions and the newly acquired royal status of their dynasty.
Guarini was a peripatetic monk who combined many traditions (including that of Gothic architecture) to create irregular structures remarkable for their oval columns and unconventional façades. Building upon the findings of contemporary geometry and stereometry, Guarini elaborated the concept of architectura obliqua, which approximated Borromini’s style in both theoretical and structural audacity. Guarini’s Palazzo Carignano (1679) may have been the most flamboyant application of the Baroque style to the design of a private house in the 17th century.
Fluid forms, weightless details, and the airy prospects of Juvarra’s architecture anticipated the art of Rococo. Although his practice ranged well beyond Turin, Juvarra’s most arresting designs were created for Victor Amadeus II of Sardinia. The visual impact of his Basilica di Superga (1717) derives from its soaring roof-line and masterful placement on a hill above Turin. The rustic ambiance encouraged a freer articulation of architectural form at the royal hunting lodge of the Palazzina di Stupinigi (1729). Juvarra finished his short but eventful career in Madrid, where he worked on the royal palaces at La Granja and Aranjuez.
Among the many who were profoundly influenced by the brilliance and diversity of Juvarra and Guarini, none was more important than Bernardo Vittone. This Piedmontese architect is remembered for an outcrop of flamboyant Rococo churches, quatrefoil in plan and delicate in detailing. His sophisticated designs often feature multiple vaults, structures within structures and domes within domes.
The Baroque style was introduced in Malta in the early 17th century, possibly by the Bolognese architect and engineer Bontadino de Bontadini, who was responsible for the construction of the Wignacourt Aqueduct between 1612 and 1615. The earliest Baroque structures in Malta were the decorative elements within the aqueduct, such as the Wignacourt Arch and several fountains.
Baroque architecture became popular after Francesco Bounamici designed the Church of the Jesuits in Valletta in 1635. In the subsequent decades, many churches, public buildings, city gates, palaces and other structures were constructed or rebuilt in this style. New churches were built in the Baroque style, while older ones were rebuilt or redecorated. Examples include the interior of Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, which was completely redesigned by Mattia Preti in the 1660s, and the Church of Our Lady of Victories, which had its façade rebuilt in 1752.
The architect Lorenzo Gafà designed many Baroque churches between the 1660s and the 1700s, including the Church of St. Lawrence in Birgu (1681–97), St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina (1696–1705) and the Cathedral of the Assumption in Victoria, Gozo (1697–1711).
The most monumental Baroque building in Malta is Auberge de Castille, which was rebuilt in 1741–45 by Andrea Belli. Other examples of secular Baroque architecture in Malta include Hostel de Verdelin (c. 1650s), parts of Fort Manoel (1723–33), the Mdina Gate (1724) and the Castellania (1757–60).
The Baroque style remained popular in Malta until the late 18th and early 19th century, when the neoclassical style was introduced. However, traditional Maltese architecture continued to have significant Baroque influences.
As Italian Baroque influences penetrated across the Pyrenees, they gradually superseded in popularity the restrained classicizing approach of Juan de Herrera, which had been in vogue since the late 16th century. As early as 1667, the façades of Granada Cathedral (by Alonso Cano) and Jaén Cathedral (by Eufrasio López de Rojas) suggest the artists’ fluency in interpreting traditional motifs of Spanish cathedral architecture in the Baroque aesthetic idiom.
In contrast to the art of Northern Europe, the Spanish art of the period appealed to the emotions rather than seeking to please the intellect. The Churriguera family, which specialized in designing altars and retables, revolted against the sobriety of the Herreresque classicism and promoted an intricate, exaggerated, almost capricious style of surface decoration known as the Churrigueresque. Within half a century, they transformed Salamanca into an exemplary Churrigueresque city. Among the highlights of the style, the interiors of the Granada Charterhouse offer some of the most impressive combinations of space and light in 18th-century Europe. Integrating sculpture and architecture even more radically, Narciso Tomé achieved striking chiaroscuro effects in his Transparente for the Toledo Cathedral.
The development of the style passed through three phases. Between 1680 and 1720, the Churriguera popularized Guarini’s blend of Solomonic columns and composite order, known as the “supreme order”. Between 1720 and 1760, the Churrigueresque column, or estipite, in the shape of an inverted cone or obelisk, was established as a central element of ornamental decoration. The years from 1760 to 1780 saw a gradual shift of interest away from twisted movement and excessive ornamentation toward a neoclassical balance and sobriety.
Two of the most eye-catching creations of Spanish Baroque are the energetic façades of the University of Valladolid (Diego Tomé, 1716-1718) and Hospicio de San Fernando in Madrid (Pedro de Ribera, 1722), whose curvilinear extravagance seems to herald Antonio Gaudí and Art Nouveau. In this case as in many others, the design involves a play of tectonic and decorative elements with little relation to structure and function. The focus of the florid ornamentation is an elaborately sculptured surround to a main doorway. If we remove the intricate maze of broken pediments, undulating cornices, stucco shells, inverted tapers, and garlands from the rather plain wall it is set against, the building’s form would not be affected in the slightest.
Spanish America and territories
The combination of the Native American and Moorish decorative influences with an extremely expressive interpretation of the Churrigueresque idiom may account for the full-bodied and varied character of the Baroque in the American colonies of Spain. Even more than its Spanish counterpart, American Baroque developed as a style of stucco decoration. Twin-towered façades of many American cathedrals of the 17th century had medieval roots and the full-fledged Baroque did not appear until 1664, when a Jesuit shrine on Plaza des Armas in Cusco was built. Even then, the new style hardly affected the structure of churches.
To the north, the richest province of 18th-century New Spain—Mexico—produced some fantastically extravagant and visually frenetic architecture known as Mexican Churrigueresque. This ultra-Baroque approach culminates in the works of Lorenzo Rodriguez, whose masterpiece is the Sagrario Metropolitano in Mexico City. Other fine examples of the style may be found in remote silver-mining towns. For instance, the Sanctuary at Ocotlán (begun in 1745) is a top-notch Baroque cathedral surfaced in bright red tiles, which contrast delightfully with a plethora of compressed ornament lavishly applied to the main entrance and the slender flanking towers.
The true capital of Mexican Baroque is Puebla, where a ready supply of hand-painted ceramics (talavera) and vernacular gray stone led to its evolving further into a personalised and highly localised art form with a pronounced Indian flavour. There are about sixty churches whose façades and domes display glazed tiles of many colours, often arranged in Arabic designs. The interiors are densely saturated with elaborate gold leaf ornamentation. In the 18th century, local artisans developed a distinctive brand of white stucco decoration, named “alfenique” after a Pueblan candy made from egg whites and sugar.
The Peruvian Baroque was particularly lavish, as evidenced by the monastery of San Francisco at Lima (1673). While the rural Baroque of the Jesuit Block and Estancias of Córdoba in Córdoba, Argentina, followed the model of Il Gesu, provincial “mestizo” (crossbred) styles emerged in Arequipa, Potosí, and La Paz. In the 18th century, architects of the region turned for inspiration to the Mudéjar art of medieval Spain. The late Baroque type of Peruvian façade first appears in the Church of Our Lady of La Merced in Lima. Similarly, the Church of La Compañia in Quito suggests a carved altarpiece with its richly sculpted façade and a surfeit of spiral salomónica.
Earthquake Baroque is a style of Baroque architecture found in the Philippines, which suffered destructive earthquakes during the 17th century and 18th century, where large public buildings, such as churches, were rebuilt in a Baroque style. Similar events led to the Pombaline architecture in Lisbon following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and Sicilian Baroque in Sicily following the 1693 earthquake.
Portugal and Portuguese Empire
The Palace of Brejoeira, a prime example of northern Portuguese Baroque architecture
Mafra National Palace, a jewel of Portuguese Baroque architecture
The interior of the São Roque Church in Lisbon, Portugal illustrates the rich Baroque architecture in its chapels, including the chapel of St. John the Baptist, adorned in gold, the most expensive in the world.
Nothwithstanding a prodigality of sensually rich surface decoration associated with Baroque architecture of the Iberian Peninsula, the royal courts of Madrid and Lisbon generally favoured a more sober architectural vocabulary distilled from 17th-century Italy. The royal palaces of Madrid, La Granja, Aranjuez and Mafra were designed by architects under strong influence of Bernini and Juvarra. In the realm of church architecture, Guarini’s design for Santa Maria della Divina Providenza in Lisbon was a pace-setter for structural audacity in the region (even though it was never built).
In Portugal, the first fully Baroque church was the Church of Santa Engrácia, in Lisbon, designed by royal architect João Antunes, which has a Greek cross floorplan and curved facades. Antunes also designed churches in which the inner space is rectangular but with curved corners (like the Menino de Deus Church in Lisbon), a scheme that is found in several 18th-century churches in Portugal and Brazil. The court of John V, on the other hand, favoured Roman baroque models, as attested by the work of royal architect Ludovice, a German who designed the Royal Palace of Mafra, built after 1715.
By the mid-18th century, northern Portuguese architects had absorbed the concepts of Italian Baroque to revel in the plasticity of local granite in such projects as the surging 75-metre-high Torre dos Clérigos in Porto. The foremost centre of the national Baroque tradition was Braga, whose buildings encompass virtually every important feature of Portuguese architecture and design. The Baroque shrines and palaces of Braga are noted for polychrome ornamental patterns, undulating roof-lines, and irregularly shaped window surrounds.
Brazilian architects also explored plasticity in form and decoration, though they rarely surpassed their continental peers in ostentation. The churches of Mariana and the Rosario at Ouro Preto are based on Borromini’s vision of interlocking elliptical spaces. At São Pedro dos Clérigos, Recife), a conventional stucco-and-stone façade is enlivened by “a high scrolled gable squeezed tightly between the towers”.
Even after the Baroque conventions passed out of fashion in Europe, the style was long practised in Brazil by Aleijadinho, a brilliant and prolific architect in whose designs hints of Rococo could be discerned. His church of Bom Jesus de Matozinhos at Congonhas is distinguished by a picturesque silhouette and dark ornamental detail on a light stuccoed façade. Although Aleijadinho was originally commissioned to design São Francisco de Assis at São João del Rei, his designs were rejected, and were displaced to the church of São Francisco in Ouro Preto instead.
Kingdom of Hungary
In the Kingdom of Hungary, the first great Baroque building was the Jesuit Church of Trnava (today in Slovakia) built by Pietro Spozzo in 1629–37, modelling the Church of the Gesu in Rome. Jesuits were the main propagators of the new style with their churches in Győr (1634–1641), Košice (1671–1684), Eger (1731–1733) and Székesfehérvár (1745–1751). The reconstruction of the territories devastated by the Ottoman Empire was carried out in Baroque style in the 18th century. Intact Baroque townscapes can be found in Győr, Székesfehérvár, Eger, Veszprém, Esztergom and the Castle District of Buda. The most important Baroque palaces in Hungary were the Royal Palace in Buda, Grassalkovich Palace in Gödöllő, and Esterházy Palace in Fertőd. Smaller Baroque edifices of the Hungarian aristocracy are scattered all over the country. Hungarian Baroque shows the double influence of Austrian and Italian artistic tendencies as many German and Italian architects worked in the country. The main characteristics of the local version of the style were modesty, lack of excessive decoration, and some “rural” flavour, especially in the works of the local masters. Important architects of the Hungarian Baroque were Andreas Mayerhoffer, Ignác Oraschek and Márton Wittwer. Franz Anton Pilgram also worked in the Kingdom of Hungary, for example on the great Premonstratensian monastery of Jasov (today in Slovakia). In the last decades of the 18th century Neo-Classical tendencies became dominant. The two most important architects of that period were Melchior Hefele and Jakab Fellner.
By the time Hungarian varieties of Baroque architecture appeared with several types of forms, shapes and decorations. Those that have become famous and nice, have been copied. That’s why the Hungarian baroque edifices make groups based on similarities. The major kinds of buildings are the following: Eszterháza-type, Széchenyi-type, Gödöllő-type, religious (ecclesiastical) baroque, houses, and others (castles, peasant houses).
Some representative Baroque structures in Romania are the Bánffy Palace in Cluj, the Brukenthal Palace in Sibiu and the Bishopric Palace in Oradea. Besides, almost every Transylvanian town has at least a Baroque church, the most representatives of which being St. George’s Cathedral of Timişoara, Saint John the Baptist Church of Târgu Mureş, the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Blaj and the Piarist Church of Cluj.
The centre of Baroque secular architecture was France, where the open three-wing layout of the palace was established as the canonical solution as early as the 16th century. But it was the Palais du Luxembourg by Salomon de Brosse that determined the sober and classicizing direction that French Baroque architecture was to take. For the first time, the corps de logis was emphasized as the representative main part of the building, while the side wings were treated as hierarchically inferior and appropriately scaled down. The medieval tower has been completely replaced by the central projection in the shape of a monumental three-storey gateway.
De Brosse’s melding of traditional French elements (e.g. lofty mansard roofs and a complex roof-line) with extensive Italianate quotations (e.g. ubiquitous rustication, derived from Palazzo Pitti in Florence) came to characterize the Louis XIII style. Probably the most accomplished formulator of the new manner was François Mansart, a tireless perfectionist credited with introducing the full Baroque to France. In his design for Château de Maisons (1642), Mansart succeeded in reconciling academic and Baroque approaches, while demonstrating respect for the gothic-inherited idiosyncrasies of the French tradition.
The Château of Maisons demonstrates the ongoing transition from the post-medieval chateaux of the 16th century to the villa-like country houses of the 18th. The structure is strictly symmetrical, with an order applied to each storey, mostly in pilaster form. The frontispiece, crowned with a separate aggrandized roof, is infused with remarkable plasticity and the ensemble reads like a three-dimensional whole. Mansart’s structures are stripped of overblown decorative effects, so typical of contemporary Rome. Italian Baroque influence is muted and relegated to the field of decorative ornamentation.
The next step in the development of European residential architecture involved the integration of the gardens in the composition of the palace, as is exemplified by Vaux-le-Vicomte), where the architect Louis Le Vau, the designer Charles Le Brun and the gardener André Le Nôtre complemented one another. From the main cornice to a low plinth, the miniature palace is clothed in the so-called “colossal order”, which makes the structure look more impressive. The creative collaboration of Le Vau and Le Nôtre marked the arrival of the “Magnificent Manner” which allowed to extend Baroque architecture outside the palace walls and transform the surrounding landscape into an immaculate mosaic of expansive vistas.
The same three artists scaled this concept to monumental proportions in the royal hunting lodge and later main residence at Versailles. On a far grander scale, the palace is an exaggerated and somewhat repetitive version of Vaux-le-Vicomte. It was both the most grandiose and the most imitated residential building of the 17th century. Mannheim, Nordkirchen and Drottningholm were among many foreign residences for which Versailles provided a model.
The final expansion of Versailles was superintended by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, whose key design is the Dome des Invalides, generally regarded as the most important French church of the century. Hardouin-Mansart profited from his uncle’s instruction and plans to instill the edifice with an imperial grandeur unprecedented in the countries north of Italy. The majestic hemispherical dome balances the vigorous vertical thrust of the orders, which do not accurately convey the structure of the interior. The younger architect not only revived the harmony and balance associated with the work of the elder Mansart but also set the tone for Late Baroque French architecture, with its grand ponderousness and increasing concessions to academicism.
The reign of Louis XV saw a reaction against the official Louis XIV Style in the shape of a more delicate and intimate manner, known as Rococo. The style was pioneered by Nicolas Pineau, who collaborated with Hardouin-Mansart on the interiors of the royal Château de Marly. Further elaborated by Pierre Le Pautre and Juste-Aurèle Meissonier, the “genre pittoresque” culminated in the interiors of the Petit Château at Chantilly (c. 1722) and Hôtel de Soubise in Paris (c. 1732), where a fashionable emphasis on the curvilinear went beyond all reasonable measure, while sculpture, paintings, furniture, and porcelain tended to overshadow architectural divisions of the interior.
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