What is the Baroque? Is it a period, a style, a civilisation, or a critical concept? It is all of these. ‘Baroque’ was a term that came into use in the eighteenth century as a negative descriptor of the style of the art of the seventeenth century. Like most such terms its meaning was elastic, with a general sense of ‘bizarre’, ‘excessive’ or ‘misshapen’ (like a baroque pearl). As Ernst Gombrich pointed out long ago, most Western art style terms are variations of ‘non-classical’, the classical being the norm against which all art was measured. Nineteenth-century German historians dropped the negative connotations, and because they were interested in the essential nature of an ‘age’ (the Zeitgeist, literally ‘spirit of the age’) the Baroque as a period-style term emerged. This idea still has popular currency, as when newspapers at the end of each decade try to define the characteristics of ‘the sixties’ or ‘the noughties’. ‘The sixties’ is clearly an arbitrary set of chronological boundaries, but ‘the Baroque period’ is more vaguely defined chronologically, and also in geographical extent. And whatever the chronological and geographic limits, is it really true that everything within them dances to the same tune?
Recognising these problems, and having lost interest in the German idealist philosophy that underpinned ‘the Baroque’ as a period style, art historians at the middle of the twentieth century sought to make more rigorous the concept of style while dropping the insistence on period, before losing interest in style altogether and moving on to other methodologies. ‘Baroque’ became a useful and generally agreed shorthand for a certain body of art beginning around 1600 in Italy, exemplified by the painters Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, the sculptor Bernini, and the architect Borromini, which could be usefully extended to other parts of (especially Catholic) Europe that was influenced by or developed from this. Musicologists use the term in a similar way (Bach, Vivaldi). The end of the Baroque ‘period’ is generally agreed to be around 1750, when for art historians ‘Neoclassicism’ (Jacques-Louis David) begins, and for musicologists ‘the Classical period’ (Mozart) begins.
But the essentialist usage of Baroque lingered, and received encouragement from French poststructuralist theory, which was interested in ‘epistemes’: ‘the body of ideas which shape the perception of knowledge in a particular period’ (OED). It was taken up by Spanish historians, such as José Antonio Maravall, who re-centred the Baroque from Italy to Spain. For historians in Franco’s Spain and Latin America ‘the Baroque’ provided a concept that was both historically grounded in the seventeenth century and potentially oppositional. Or more commonly, the Baroque it is seen as the embodiment of a religious movement, the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
More recently, cinema studies scholars have returned to the art historical idea of the Baroque as a style in order to extract from works of seventeenth century art principles or processes that can be discerned in contemporary cinema, and by extension in contemporary art and culture generally. These principles might be quite closely tied to particular formal operations in seventeenth century art, such as ‘a self-reflexive attitude to its methods of construction’ (in other words, the way that in a ceiling like that by Andrea Pozzo in S. Ignazio in Rome, the spectator simultaneously experiences an illusion while being aware that this is what it is). Or they might be something more abstract, such as ‘a sense of performativity and theatricality’ or even ‘madness of vision’. In seeking analogies between seventeenth-century art and twentieth- and twenty-first century cinema the concept of ‘baroque’ serves as a filter, so that the ‘baroque’ aspects of seventeenth century art and culture are privileged.
Manifestations of ‘the Baroque’ subsequent to the seventeenth century are naturally labelled ‘Neo-Baroque’. These can be straightforward imitations or revivals, such as the interest in ‘baroque’ (that is, seventeenth-century French) architectural style around 1900 (examples can be found in London and Melbourne), or the fascination with baroque style embraced by the aristocratic arty set in England in the 1920s and 1930s, such as the photographer Cecil Beaton, who were reacting against the rise of modernism and social democracy. It can be contemporary art that draws its inspiration from the art of the seventeenth century. In contemporary cultural criticism, ‘Baroque’ and ‘Neo-Baroque’ can be used as critical terms that parallel, or form a subset of, postmodernism. Or they can refer to quasi-mystical philosophical concepts unconstrained by place or period ‘radiating through histories, cultures, and worlds of knowledge’ (Deleuze). Because there is now no single significance of the term ‘baroque’ it can mean everything or nothing depending on what the writer wants to say.
But the one thing common to most usages of ‘baroque’ is the visual. Whereas other intellectual endeavours may be driven by economics, politics or morality, by science or numbers, the exploration of ‘the Baroque’ is driven by imagery, whether literal or metaphorical. If you see Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling at Sant’Ignazio, Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, or Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, you are engaging with the Baroque and you can go from there.
This brings us back to the ideas that cluster around the original meaning of ‘baroque’. First, that it is non-normative in some way: non-classical (art); privileging creating invention over correctness (architecture); oppositional left versus authoritarian right (politics); illusionistic as opposed to representational (cinema studies); fantastic as opposed to realistic; over-the-top as opposed to straitlaced. There is a witty piece by Ellen Wills dating from 1979 that opposes ‘baroque’ sex to ‘classical’ (e.g. “Location: Outdoors is classical, except for crowded nude beaches. The back seat of a car is classical if you’re a teen-ager, baroque otherwise. … Clothing: The only truly classical outfit is nothing. Clothing evokes fantasy and fantasies are baroque. Black lace underwear is of course the classic baroque outfit. Red is baroque, as is anything see-through. Frilly white nightgowns are a baroque impulse with classical content.’
Second, that it is centred on Catholic Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Put the two back together and you are presented with a box of fireworks exploding with forms, operations and processes. For those who do not dogmatically claim to already know all the answers, the Baroque is a treasure house of possibilities that might help us understand our present condition.
Gombrich, Ernst H., ‘Norm and Form: The Stylistic Categories of Art History and their Origins in Renaissance Ideals’, in Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, London and New York: Phaidon, 1991, pp. 81-98.
Wölfflin, Heinrich, Renaissance and Baroque, London: Collins, 1964 (first published as Renaissance und Barock, 1888).
Ackerman, James S. and Rhys Carpenter, Art and Archaeology, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall, 1963.
Maravall, José Antonio, Culture of the Baroque: Analysis of a Historical Structure, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, originally published as La cultura del Barroco. Análisis de una estructura histórica, Barcelona: Ariel, 1975.
Ndalianis, Angela, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.
Buci-Glucksmann, Christine, The Madness of Vision: On Baroque Aesthetics. Translated by Dorothy Z. Baker. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013 .
Calloway, Stephen, Baroque Baroque: Culture of Excess, London: Phaidon, 1994.
Deleuze, Gilles, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Beaven, Lisa and Angela Ndalianis, Emotion and the Seduction of the Senses: Baroque to Neo-Baroque, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2018.
Ellen Wills, ‘Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life’, in Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.