Baroque Architecture: Style, Characteristics & Features

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  • 0:06 Themes of Baroque Architecture
  • 1:34 Baroque Architecture…
  • 2:29 Reinventing the Vatican
  • 5:03 The Lovely Louvre
  • 7:14 Versailles: The…
  • 9:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson explores the development of Baroque architecture. We begin in Italy by tracing the development of several Baroque themes, culminating in the Vatican itself. We then move to France, where these trends further developed, reaching their apex in Louis XIV's ambitious palace at Versailles.

Themes of Baroque Architecture

The Baroque period was one of the most exciting times for European architecture. During this period, from the end of the 16th century to the dawn of the 18th century, European architecture exploded in novel directions. Rather than designing a single building, an architect might be responsible for reimagining a complex of buildings, or even planning an entire city. With this shift, the capitol of art and architecture moved from Rome to Paris.

Regular, repeating designs gave way to curves and irregularity, as various styles were mixed and adapted. Yet this variety was regulated for the purposes of symmetry and grandeur. Finally, for the first time since antiquity, architects began tinkering with optical illusion in building. They realized you could trick the eye into making a large building seem even grander. This hearkens back to Greek tricks that allowed their grand temples to tower even larger in the eye of the beholder.

Though Baroque architecture found its way across Europe, two countries came to the fore in this field: Italy and France. Baroque architecture got its start in Italy and is still evident today at the Vatican in Rome. This new architectural form reached its apex in France. Its mark can be seen quite clearly in Paris, but its purest expression can be found in that most Baroque of all buildings, Louis XIV's palace at Versailles.

Baroque Architecture in Italian Churches

Let us begin, as the Baroque style did, in Italy. Here we can see the most obvious Baroque architectural innovation: the use of curves. At the Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, we can see how straight lines were replaced with delicate curves, giving the building its distinctively Baroque feel. From the rounded windows to the graceful squiggle of the whole facade, this church is a feast for the eyes. In Venice, the church of Santa Maria della Salute we see another key facet of Baroque art, symmetrical irregularity.

Each side of this eight-sided structure offers the viewer a new perspective, different from the last, yet symmetrical in its own right. Every step offers new views and varied decoration, from the standard statues occupying alcoves to the novel curls of stone buttressing the high dome.

Reinventing the Vatican

Yet perhaps the best example of Baroque architecture in Italy is at Rome itself. At the heart of the Vatican stands the Basilica of St Peter. This impressive structure reached its current state at the hands of Baroque architects.

To the left and right a massive colonnade, designed by Bernini, creates a panoramic effect, drawing the eye ever onward to the basilica at its center. Along the top of this colonnade a series of statues break up the silhouette, providing variety even as it flanks the basilica with symmetrical wings.

The facade of the Basilica itself, designed by Maderna, is its own little wonder. Here we can see the variety of Baroque architecture in full swing. Like the colonnade, the skyline of Maderna's facade is broken at intervals by statues and other decorations.

Yet Maderna goes further, mixing up styles by alternating square columns with round ones. Likewise, the pediments over the windows and doors also alternate between rounded and triangular designs. Indeed, there are almost as many types of doors and windows as there are doors and windows.

Yet all this exuberant variety is regulated and controlled to create symmetry, as each novel design on the right is echoed by a similar design to the left. The overall effect is as grand and orderly as it is picturesque and visually fascinating.

Yet the Baroque is not just limited to the exterior. Connecting St Peter's basilica to the Apostolic Palace lies an impressive staircase designed by Bernini, called the Scala Regia, or the 'Stairs of the Queen.' Bernini's staircase shrinks to a vanishing point, making the staircase seem longer and higher than it really is.

In this respect, at least, Bernini was attempting something that had not been tried since classical times: weaving optical illusion into architectural design to fool the eye into seeing something as even grander and larger than it is.

Thus, in Italy, we've seen the foundation of themes that would repeat again and again in Baroque architecture: the use of curves, the introduction of irregular decoration and design, the subordination of irregularity to symmetry, and the incorporation of optical illusion into architectural design.

The Lovely Louvre

While the Pope was supporting the arts in Italy, on the other side of the Alps a new patron of the arts was emerging. Louis XIV, the Sun King, France's absolute monarch, had decided to aggrandize his status with a massive arts campaign. Louis' mission was both propagandistic and practical. On the propaganda side, Louis wished to surround his city and court with the best art in the world. On the practical side, Louis knew that with relatively cheap materials (stone, canvas, bronze and paint), a skilled artist could create priceless works of art. Though alchemists had failed to turn lead into gold, Louis knew he could turn stone into treasure. So Louis set about building a treasury of art. At the heart of this project was the Louvre, where Louis housed the artists he'd brought in from around Europe, as well as France's greatest artistic treasures, including DaVinci's Mona Lisa. To make the Louvre worthy of the artistic talent housed within, Louis commissioned a complete redesign of the Louvre, from a private residence to proclamation of France's status as the capitol of art.

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