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Rococo Architecture in the Philippines

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Rococo was an artistic style most associated with France, so how'd it end up in the Philippines? We'll explore this question and find out how Filipino styles resulted in a very unique interpretation of the Rococo.

Spain in the Philippines

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We've all heard the rhyme. But what about 1521? Why don't we mention what Magellan had done? Or to be more specific, why not talk about him in the Pacific? For God and Spain and King and Queen, Magellan landed in the Philippines.

Okay, that's enough rhyming. But Magellan did manage to circumnavigate the globe, proving that there was a sea route to Asia. In 1521, he landed in the Philippines and claimed the island chain for Spain, before being killed by the native people. Still, the new Spanish territory soon gained the attention as an ideal location for Spain to build forts to protects its growing interests in the Pacific. As Spain put more effort into the islands, Spanish architecture was introduced as well. And as time would come and go, this lead to the Philippine Rococo.

The Hispano-Philippine Baroque and Rococo

Throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the Spanish presence in the Philippines steadily grew. However, most the Spaniards to arrive were either clerics with the church or had some position in colonial governance. Most of the people who lived in the Philippines were native Filipinos. This had major implications for the arts, as Spanish architecture had to be constructed by Filipino craftsmen and masons. Trained in European techniques, but also knowledgeable in their native customs, they generated what we call the Hispano-Philippine style, which infuses Filipino motifs and symbols into Spanish art forms.

The first major architectural and artistic style to reach the Philippines was the Baroque movement, which was used almost exclusively for ecclesiastic purposes. Baroque art and architecture was grandiose and dramatic, highly decorative, ornately detailed, and very somber. In the Spanish colonies, it was used to instruct new converts in the regal glory and absolute authority of the Church (and by extension the authority of the Church's chosen defender - Spain).

Baroque Philippine Churches were often built as literal fortresses
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All Baroque churches were imposing in size and scale, but the Hispano-Philippine versions were uniquely so. In fact, they looked like fortresses. Why? Because they were. Spain had good reason to fear native revolts (remember that Magellan was killed here) as well as powerful Muslim island nations nearby. So, the Philippine Baroque churches were made to withstand attacks, as well as the frequent earthquakes of the area.

In Europe, the Baroque movement fell out of style in the early 1700s and was replaced with the highly decorative but also light and whimsical Rococo. Rococo was first and foremost an art of interior design, and this is how it first appeared in the Philippines, arriving about 70 years behind Europe. Many Philippine Baroque churches were outfitted with new interiors, featuring organic and meticulously detailed Rococo designs. Floral motifs were a big part of the Rococo, and this was something that Filipino artisans could certainly appreciate considering the rich flora of the islands. Thus, the Hispano-Philippine Rococo provided lots of opportunities for Filipino artists to infuse their local arts within Spanish and European forms.

Rococo influence in the Philippines can most often been seen through organic and detailed decorative elements, often within Baroque structures
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Notable Rococo Structures

To understand what the Rococo style meant to the Philippines, let's look at some important structures. We'll start with Argao Church on the island of Cebu. In many ways, this is the typical Hispano-Philippine Baroque church. It is ornate and somber but also heavily fortified with watchtowers and defensive walls. The building was completed around 1788, and most of the structure is Baroque, but a lot of the interior ornamentation is Rococo, especially its choir loft and alter. This was a common trend even in Europe; Rococo was a decorative style used to refurbish Baroque buildings more often than inspire new structures.

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