Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, European artists and architects adopted an increasingly elaborate style. Known as Baroque, this approach is characterized by an ornate, over-the-top aesthetic that evokes ethereality and aims to inspire awe.
Today, the Baroque period remains one of the most celebrated cultural movements in western art history. Here, we take a look at this flamboyant style, exploring the history and evolution of its exuberant art and architecture.
What was the Baroque period?
Named after barroco—a Portuguese term for an irregularly shaped pearl—the Baroque period is defined by the grandeur and opulence of its art and architecture. With roots in Rome, the movement spread across Italy and other European countries between 1600 and 1750, becoming particularly popular in France, Spain, and Austria.
What are the major characteristics of Baroque art?
Baroque art and architecture tend to be incredibly extravagant and exhibit movement, tension, emotion, and dramatic use of light and shadow.
As the Baroque period overlapped with the Italian Renaissance, it is not surprising that the two movements shared some stylistic similarities. Both Baroque and Renaissance artists employed realism, rich color, and religious or mythological subject matter, while architects working in both styles favored balance and symmetry. What sets the Baroque style apart from its Renaissance counterpart, however, is its lavishness—a characteristic evident in both its art and architecture.
While the subject matter and even style can vary between Baroque paintings, most pieces from this period have one thing in common: drama.
Baroque artists like Gentileschi, Poussin, and Rubens achieved a heightened sense of drama through movement. Often, this action-packed iconography was inspired by tales from the bible and stories from ancient mythology.
In addition to energetic compositions, Rubens captured drama through his rich and radiant color palette. “Rubens avoided painting in such a way that the color sank in. The luminous clarity of his work was proof of the excellence of his technique,” artist Max Doerner explains in The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting. “His colors had so much brilliance and binding medium within themselves, that, like Van Eyck‘s pictures, they had a gloss without needing to be varnished.”
Figurative bronze and marble sculptures produced during this period depict an interest in dynamism. Through swirling silhouettes, twisted contours, and flowing drapery, sculptors like Bernini were able to evoke movement. Added elements like water fixtures often enhanced this theatrical approach.
Like Renaissance statues—including Michelangelo's iconic David—Baroque sculptures were often intended to adorn stately buildings. They also were commissioned for other grandiose settings, like gilded church interiors and royal gardens.
Baroque Architecture and Interior Design
Similar to art of the era, Baroque interiors conveyed an interest in over-the-top grandeur. Furniture and other decorative art objects frequently featured scrolling—a patterned design reminiscent of spiraling foliage—and other elements inspired by the natural world. Similarly, putti—Cupid-like figures—often adorned tapestries and ceiling paintings.
As expected, the materials used to craft these interiors exuded luxury, as evident in the “rich velvet and damask furnishings and gilt-wood and marquetry furniture” (Victoria and Albert Museum) often found inside palaces.
Baroque architecture is also characterized by ornamentation. Often, the façades of Baroque buildings are adorned with intricate relief carvings, gilded accents, and columns—namely, Solomonic columns, whose corkscrew aesthetic was favored by architects from Spain to Austria.
Architects all over Europe also topped many Baroque basilicas, churches, and other edifices with domes. Besides oval domes, which were erected all over the continent, the preferred style of domes typically varied by region, with onion domes prevailing in Central Europe and bulbous domes proving popular in Germany.
Above all else, Baroque architecture conveyed a preference for balance.
Though the Baroque style emerged centuries ago, it remains one of the most beloved movements in art history. Whether gazing at a priceless collection of paintings in the Louvre or throwing a coin in Rome's popular Trevi Fountain, the lasting legacy of Baroque art and architecture is as obvious as its opulence.