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Architecture & design

A new look at the baroque

— December 2011

Article read level: Academic

Associated media

Church of the Rosario in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Rethinking the Baroque

Edited by Helen Hills

Rethinking the Baroque stems from a conference at the University of York and Castle Howard in 2006.  Rethinking the Baroque is a challenging title, but the book is anything other than drily academic. Hills’ prose has flourishes reminiscent of her  Invisible City: The Architecture of Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Neapolitan Convents;  and this gives scope to other contributors to express themselves in personal  ways.  An element of subjectivity makes response to baroque objects of enquiry more complete

The volume opens with Hills’ two introductions: to Rethinking the Baroque, and then to the Baroque itself.  She observes that there is a widespread aversion to the term ‘baroque’ in art history, which she finds ‘particularly striking’ given that ‘the idea of the baroque was foundational in the very formation of the discipline of art history itself’, especially the work of the Swiss art critic Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945). For Wölfflin the characteristics of the Baroque included a profusion of form and search for picturesque effect.

The baroque is usually associated with the 17th century, but Hills mentions French art historian Henri Focillon’s identification of a baroque phase, along Wölfflinian lines, in both the mediaeval Romanesque and Gothic styles.  She highlights the conclusion that Focillon (1891–1943) drew from this: ‘The Baroque state reveals identical traits existing as constraints within the most diverse environments and periods of time’.  Contributor Claire Farago, with her interest in Renaissance and Baroque styles in the old and new worlds, argues that Focillon’s ‘reasons for rethinking the history of Western art in terms of the baroque’ were ‘to distance himself from racial theories of style’. 

Andrew Benjamin raises critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin’s observation that: ‘Whereas the painters of the Renaissance know how to keep their skies high, in the paintings of the Baroque the cloud moves, darkly or radiantly, down towards the earth’.  He does not, however, pursue this interesting characterization, preferring to concentrate on W. Benjamin’s Trauerspiel (known in English as The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1977). Benjamin and several other authors included by Hills bring other disciplines to a book mainly by art historians and largely about art history.   

DaCosta Kaufmann explains that the term ‘baroque’ was first used in 18th-century music criticism. The most sustained original comparison in Rethinking the Baroque is that of Anthony Geraghty, between the drawing style of British architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661–1736) and the arguments of British philosopher and physician John Locke (1636–1704) on sensory perception.  He analyses Hawksmoor’s ‘breathtaking’ design for the west towers of St Paul’s, in the bottom half of which the drawing is linear and in the upper half shaded to convey its effect. Then Geraghty elegantly links this to Locke’s proposition that perception is the transformation of the physical object into the mental subject. 

This is all very well. But does the book work as an encouragement to rethink the baroque? For me, yes. It does so in general terms.  Mieke Bal’s essay sums up the potential of the baroque when used as more than just a period term.  She ends: ‘connecting the otherwise distinct’ is how baroque matters.   We should not lightly discard an idea that has this marvellous potential.  

The connecting quality of the baroque helps to appreciate local variations on equal terms, which has potential applications for Latin American studies. Kaufmann gives the example of the church of the Rosario in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil, built for a confraternity of black slaves.  The baroque takes the Rosario dos Pretos ‘outside the context provided by special, even racialized categorization’.  The idea of the ‘baroque’ or rather barroco informs Myriam Andrade Ribeiro de Oliveira’s comparison of such buildings to those of Borromini.  The Rosario is as marvellous on its own terms, an endless play on triplicate patterns that for me look the way bar-ro-co sounds, as any of Borromini´s more geometrically rigorous buildings.  The Rosario dos Pretos is  beautifully illustrated in Rethinking the Baroque by Kaufmann´s own photograph of the church.

Less than a page later, Kaufmann observes that stylistic terms such as ‘baroque’ and ‘rococo’ are ‘applied by local scholars who may be regarded as belonging to the first generation within their respective nations who are art historians’.  The pattern Kaufmann indicates is true of most Spanish American nations.

 I agree with Kaufmann that ‘the term “baroque” may help open up areas previously ignored by scholarship’. And ‘that thus extending the notion of the baroque … may further pressure us to reconsider what the baroque – or as per its most widespread flowering in Latin America the barroco - might mean as a global phenomenon’.  Any attempt at a truly global reconsideration of the baroque will begin by bridging further developments along lines mapped out by Rethinking the Baroque with parallel developments in romance-language, especially Iberian-language scholarship.  

Rethinking the Baroque, edited by Helen Hills, Ashgate, London, 2011; 243 pp,25 colour plates, 35 black-and-white figures. ISBN 9780754666851.


Rodney Palmer
Isla Negri, Chile
Art historian

Media credit: Photo: Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann

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