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Baroque as a style: 17th - 18th century

Europe in the 17th century, and in particular Roman Catholic Europe, revels in a new artistic style embracing architecture as well as painting and sculpture. In many contexts, such as church interiors, the baroque combines all three arts in an unprecedented way to create a sense of emotional exuberance.

This mood is very different from the dignified and often severe masterpieces of the Renaissance. The term barocco is first used to suggest disapproval. It is thought to derive from a Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl. Certainly unbalance and excess are the qualities which baroque artists indulge in and turn to advantage.

The Roman Catholic world is the natural home of baroque, because its mood suits so well the message of the Counter-Reformation. Protestant reformers can be caricatured, not too unreasonably, as argumentative, dour, unsentimental, hostile to images, and distrustful of any authority except that of holy writ.

The Catholic church by contrast enjoys an aura of centuries of authority and prestige, has long used art and music with great skill to touch the emotions of the faithful, and much prefers a good show to a good argument.

Following the example of the new St Peter's in Rome, numerous churches built and decorated in the 17th century put baroque at the service of the church's message. The faithful are welcomed by rows of saints, gesticulating eagerly in stone from alcove or roof line.

Inside a baroque church, light falls on mingling curves of columns and altars and sculpted groups, breaking up the solidity of side walls and often leading the eye up to an illusionistic ceiling - in which angels and people of fame or virtue stream upwards into the distant clouds of heaven. There is nothing half-hearted about baroque (at any rate until a slight loss of nerve in the 18th century results in the development known as Rococo).

Bernini and baroque Rome: 17th century

In the transformation of Rome into a baroque city, no one plays a part comparable to that of the sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. In 1629 he is appointed architect to St Peter's, the creation of which has given a new excitement and dignity to the ancient city. Over the next forty years he provides magnificent features to impress the arriving pilgrims.

The first, completed in 1633, is the vast bronze canopy held up by four twisting columns (profusely decorated with the Barberini bees, for the pope at the time is Urban VIII). This structure, known as the Baldacchino, is at the very heart of the church - above the tomb of St Peter and below the dome.

The Baldacchino rises above an altar at which only the pope conducts mass. Visible between the columns, from the point of view of the congregation, is Bernini's other dramatic contribution to the interior of St Peter's. This is a golden tableau, a piece of pure theatre, above the altar at the far end of the church. Its central feature is the papal throne of St Peter, held aloft among the clouds.

Sculpted golden rays stream up from St Peter's throne towards heaven. In an extra dimension to the illusion they are joined by real rays of golden light, shining from the afternoon sun through an amber window in which the holy dove spreads his wings. This glorious blend of sculpture and architecture is achieved between 1657 and 1666.

During these same years Bernini's great contribution to the exterior of St Peter's is also under construction. The open space in front of the church, where pilgrims gather to hear the pope's Easter address, needs to be enclosed in some way to form a welcoming piazza.

Bernini achieves a perfect solution in the form of an open curving colonnade. The four concentric rows of columns provide covered walkways and a shape for the piazza, but they do so without closing it in - for there is no back wall. Meanwhile the balustrade above the columns is an ideal pedestal for the gesticulating stone saints who are an indispensable part of monumental baroque.

Dutch and English town houses: 17th - 18th century

Dutch prosperity in the 17th century results in a very satisfying design of town house. Merchants are eager to have their homes and premises in the limited space fronting the canals of Dutch towns.

With numerous middle-class competitors for the available land (as opposed to the small number of noblemen holding power and wealth in other areas of Europe), the typical Dutch town house, several stories high, has a narrow brick façade and generous areas of glass - made possible by the new design of sash windows. Terraces of such houses, widely surviving today in Holland, provide the charm of the canals of Amsterdam and many other Dutch towns.

In 1689 a Dutch prince, William III, becomes king of England. His accession to the throne prompts a fashion for the Dutch style. England, like Holland, is rapidly becoming more prosperous. Streets of town houses are being built in London and many provincial towns, such as Bath.

The English version of the Dutch house is more severe and classical, particularly when built in stone (as in Bath), but it has the same elegance deriving from a repeated vertical alignment and a generous display of sash windows. Known in England as the Georgian style, and carried to colonial America, terrace houses of this kind constitute an extremely successful pattern of urban living.

Palladianism and the English stately home: 18th century

Britain in the early 18th century is the scene of a strong reaction against the self-indulgence of baroque architecture, replacing it with the clear-cut classical lines of Palladio. The style of the great Venetian architect is known in England only from his four books of designs (the Quattro Libri) and from the London masterpieces of an enthusiast returning from Italy, Inigo Jones. These are the Banqueting House in Whitehall (1622) and the Queen's House in Greenwich (1629-40).

Inigo Jones's pioneering work in the Palladian style remains very little imitated for the rest of the 17th century, a period dominated by baroque.

Baroque still prevails in the early 18th century as the preferred style for any grandee planning a magnificent country seat. The most obvious examples are two buildings designed by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor in partnership - Castle Howard for the earl of Carlisle in 1700-26, Blenheim Palace for the duke of Marlborough in 1705-22.

But while Castle Howard and Blenheim are under construction, the prevailing fashion changes. A collection of classical designs in the Palladian style is published in 1715, under the title Vitruvius Britannicus, by a British architect, Colen Campbell.

Vitruvius Britannicus launches a new fashion in 18th-century England. In 1717 the earl of Burlington employs Campbell to remodel his London house in Piccadilly in the Palladian style. In 1722 Robert Walpole commissions him to build Houghton Hall, a large Palladian country house in Norfolk.

Significantly, in this transition period, Walpole adds cupolas at the corners of Campbell's design, giving a touch of baroque. Perhaps he feels the need for a little more of the grandeur of Blenheim or Castle Howard.

Aristocrats all over Britain soon follow the fashion, providing themselves with Palladian or neoclassical mansions in which they can enjoy their surrounding estates. Country seats spring up with pillared porticos to impress the outside world and with interiors graced by columned halls (like Roman basilicas) or domed reception areas (echoing the Pantheon). The stately home becomes a feature of the British countryside.

The demand keeps many distinguished architects exremely busy (none more so than Robert Adam towards the end of the century). Meanwhile the proud owners also require a surrounding landscape of equal elegance, to delight the eye from the windows of the house.

Landscape gardening is a very ancient profession. Potentates have always wanted to beautify their surroundings, from the hanging gardens of Babylon to the formal vistas of Versailles. But the landowners of Britain add a new element in the 18th century.

Instead of the formal arrangements fashionable in earlier periods, they now want a landscape which looks natural - but rather better than nature on her own can achieve in the agricultural regions of England or Scotland. This requires a new sort of landscape gardener (pre-eminent among them Capability Brown), who will create lakes and waterfalls, wooded slopes, ancient temples and romantic ruins to achieve an impression of the effortlessly picturesque.

Neoclassicism: 18th - 19th century

Ever since the Renaissance, successive generations of artists and architects have turned to classical models for inspiration. Even at the height of baroque (the least classical of styles in mood or line) contemporary grandees are often depicted in togas. Military heroes, however foolish they may look, strutt in the stiff ribbed kilt of the Roman legionary.

During the 18th century a quest for classical authenticity is undertaken with new academic vigour. There are several reasons. Archaeological sites such as Pompeii are being excavated. And interest is shifting from the Roman part of the classical heritage to the Greek.

Ancient Greek sites in southern Italy (in particular Paestum) and in Sicily begin to be studied in the 1740s. In 1755 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German archaeologist and a key figure in the Greek Revival, publishes a work on Greek painting and sculpture in which he argues that the art of Greece provides the best example of ideal beauty.

The avant-garde greets this notion with enthusiasm. Over the next century Greek themes increasingly pervade the decorative arts. Greek porticos and colonnades grace public buildings. Greek refinement becomes the ideal for neoclassical sculptors and painters.

In architecture there has already been a strong classical revival early in the century, particularly in the Palladian movement in Britain. Robert Adam, returning from Rome in 1757 with a multitude of classical themes and motifs in his head, creates an eclectic style very much his own - in which classical severity and rococo fancy are subtly blended to satisfy his customers.

By the turn of the century these pleasant fancies seem too frivolous. A more rigorously Greek style becomes the architectural fashion in many parts of Europe.

A version of the Parthenon rises from 1806 in Paris, on Napoleon's orders, to become eventually the church of La Madeleine. Another Parthenon begins to be built on Calton Hill in Edinburgh in 1822 as a memorial to the Scots who have died in the Napoleonic wars (it remains uncompleted). The design chosen for the new British Museum, on which work begins in 1823, is a Parthenon with extensions.

So the 19th century acquires, through neoclassicism and the Greek Revival, a conventional style of considerable vigour. Architects of important new buildings, whether churches, parliaments or banks, will now consider a sprinkling of Greek columns as one serious option. The other, resulting from another 18th-century revival, is to go Gothic.

Gothic Revival: 18th - 19th century

The Gothic Revival begins at the same time as the first stirrings of neoclassicism, in the mid-18th century. Though entirely different in their results, the two movements share a similar impulse. After a century and a half of baroque each looks nostalgically to the past for a purer source of inspiration.

However the Gothic revivalists do so at first in a more frivolous mood than the earnest archaelogical advocates of neoclassicism. Indeed the most famous early example of the Gothic Revival, Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill (begun in 1750), can also be seen as a branch of rococo - an attempt by a fashionable host to find a new decorative theme to amuse his visitors.

A growing interest in the mysterious Middle Ages, as an antidote to the dry certainties of rationalism and the Enlightenment, is reflected also in the literary field in the first stirrings of the Romantic movement. In 1762, while the fan-vaulted gallery is being built in Strawberry Hill, the literary world is bowled over with enthusiasm for a newly discovered medieval Celtic poem, Ossian's Fingal (a fake, as it turns out).

Horace Walpole is a significant figure in both these aspects of the Gothic Revival. Strawberry Hill is complete by 1776. Walpole's Castle of Otranto, an early prototype of the Gothic novel as a spine-tingling tale of medieval villainies and wronged innocence, is published in 1764.

The light-hearted approach to the Gothic Revival survives into the early 19th century. Then, as with neoclassicism and in keeping with the times, a greater solemnity sets in. Gothic becomes one of the main 19th-century styles for public buildings (town halls and law courts as well as churches).

In competition with the Greek Revival, the Gothic style has economy on its side. The stone lintels required to span a large opening in a Greek temple are expensive. It is soon realized by cost-conscious architects that pointed Gothic arches can be built in brick and cheaply clad in stone. More than 2500 Anglican churches are built in England and Wales between 1821 and 1850, and nearly all of them are Gothic.

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