Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
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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.
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.
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.
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.
In the east facade of the Louvre, designed by Perrault we can see some of the same Baroque elements that we saw in Italy, especially irregular openings and a focus on symmetry. Yet this design seems almost tame when compared with the busy exuberance of the Vatican. We must go inside the Louvre to truly see the Baroque at work. Within the Louvre lies the Apollo Gallery, designed by Le Brun.
Here we begin to see what French Baroque means. Delicate curves and swirls adorn every surface.
Entryways alternate between curved and triangular. Even the parquet floor displays a dizzying variety of design. The low arch of the ceiling is broken up with both paintings and sculptures, making the ceiling seem to soar far higher than its actual height. Yet, if we draw a line down the middle of the gallery, all this dizzy variety falls into orderly symmetry, as even artistic chaos is brought into order.
Yet the Louvre was simply not big enough for Louis' ambitions. Why should he be satisfied with a palace, when the Pope had an entire city to himself? Louis XIV thought he should have a residence at least as grand as the Pope's. To this end, Louis began construction on the most ambitious architectural project of his age: the palace at Versailles.
Here at last was a large enough canvass for Louis' architectural ambitions. Louis made his palace the consummate masterpiece of Baroque architecture. Every inch is covered with ornamental statues. Even the roof peaks are adorned with bronze filigree. Every window offers new vistas. Yet all of these features fall into perfect symmetry, yet on a scale unimagined.
Even the grounds themselves were brought into line with Louis' Baroque plan, with intricately patterned gardens, in which even the trees were brought into line, trimmed into geometrical shapes, and laid out with symmetrical perfection. Within, Versailles is even more impressive, with miles of opulently decorated galleries. The most impressive of these is the Hall of Mirrors, designed by Le Brun.
Here Le Brun takes the same techniques he used at the Apollo Gallery in the Louvre to a whole new level. Every step is rife with glorious detail. Every glance offers views of breathtaking beauty. The ceiling is trimmed with intricate sculpture, while the ceiling itself is painted to evoke a three-dimensional feel, with paintings set within painted frames, themselves supported by painted architecture. Yet the illusions go even further, for on one side of the hall, windows to the outside pour in light, while on the other side, an identical series of openings are glazed with mirrors, giving the beholder the impression that he is walking down a corridor of sunlight and further aggrandizing the space. And, in true Baroque form, all of this exuberant variety, all this opulent decoration, all these illusions and effects, are perfectly balanced into a symmetrical whole that almost takes the breath away. For all these reasons, Versailles is considered by many to be the epitome of Baroque architecture.
Baroque architecture started off in Italy, where it acquired its main characteristics: 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. In France, these trends came into full flower under the patronage of Louis XIV, whose palace at Versailles remains the best example of Baroque architecture to this day.
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons