Italian Baroque Architecture: Characteristics & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Light and shadow. Color and curves. Can you express mystery and drama in architecture? In this lesson, explore Italian Baroque architecture, learn characteristics and see examples of it.

What Is Italian Baroque Architecture?

Some architecture is calm, rational and geometric.

But in Rome, Italy, beginning in the late 16th century, a style developed that was none of those things. It distorted building elements to heighten light and shadow and had curving, wavy walls. Developed with strong connections to the Catholic Church, the style became known as Baroque architecture.

Baroque architecture rose during a period of transition for the Roman Catholic Church following a crisis called the Protestant Reformation, when the Protestants broke away from the Catholics. The Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Reformation, a series of reforms, but also a display of power and wealth. During this period, a new Catholic religious order, the Jesuits, was founded. Their churches were some of the first connected to Italian Baroque architecture. As they spread around the world, so did the Baroque style. Eventually Baroque architecture could be found throughout Europe and as far away as South America. Interestingly, as Baroque spread, it changed. In every country, the style was bit different.

Baroque architecture wasn't found on the homes of average people. It was a style that conveyed grandeur and drama. It was used most often on churches and palaces, places where someone, whether a church official or a wealthy landowner, wanted to make a statement. Important Italian Baroque architects included Carlo Maderno (1556 - 1629), who oversaw early Baroque additions to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680) was responsible for designing the massive structure over St. Peter's tomb in St. Peter's Basilica, called a baldachin or canopy over a tomb, it had twisting columns and was almost four stories high.

Baroque baldachin for St. Peters tomb, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
St. Peters Baldachin

Baroque architecture rejected the clear, rational geometric forms of the earlier Renaissance period. It was a definite, purposeful shift in style. Actually the term ''Baroque'' began as a negative one, coined by critics who thought the style was overdone, extravagant and full of drama and excess.

Characteristics of Italian Baroque Architecture

Italian Baroque architecture has several important characteristics. It usually includes curving forms, including oval shapes and a combination of concave and convex forms that make walls seems to undulate or appear wavy with a strong sense of motion.

Example of undulating, curved walls on a Baroque church in Rome
undulating walls

On building surfaces, you'll often see a massing of elements, which means grouping things together like columns and decorative flourishes. Architectural elements are repeated across a surface. Another key characteristic is distortion, with figures that are elongated, broken or manipulated in some manner to make them stand out. The twisting columns on Bernini's baldachin in Saint Peter's are a good example of distortion.

Good example of massing of elements, on the Church of Sant Agnese in Agone in Rome
massing of architectural elements

Buildings will have columns, sometimes topped with capitals and large volutes, scroll or spiral forms. Sculptural and wall elements will often project from the surface. These surfaces full of forms are done on purpose, to increase the interplay of light and shadow across them.

Inside, Baroque structures will often have ceilings painted in bright colors, made to fool the eye into believing it's looking at the sky beyond. Buildings also have very rich surface treatments, including interiors with stucco, various colored marbles, and gold gilt or thin sheets of gold applied to surfaces. Structures might have alcoves, and other elements that play with and manipulate how light falls. Most Baroque churches have vaulted ceilings, with are ceilings supported by a series of interconnected arches.

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