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What is Baroque?

The Baroque period. an era in the history of the Western arts roughly coinciding with the 17th century. Its earliest manifestations, which occurred in Italy, date from the latter decades of the 16th century, while in some regions, notably Germany and colonial South America, certain of its culminating achievements did not occur until the 18th century. The work that distinguishes the Baroque period is stylistically complex, even contradictory. In general, however, the desire to evoke emotional states by appealing to the senses, often in dramatic ways, underlies its manifestations. Some of the qualities most frequently associated with the Baroque are grandeur, sensuous richness, drama, vitality, movement, tension, emotional exuberance, and a tendency to blur distinctions between the various arts.


After 1600, European culture generated a new artistic style, known as the Baroque. Taken literally, the term means "irregular" and is applied generally to the dynamic and undisciplined artistic creativity of the seventeenth century. At first, the Baroque style grew out of the Catholic pomp and confidence accompanying the Counter-Reformation. Later, as the style spread north, it became popular at royal courts, where it symbolized the emerging power of the new monarchies. Wherever it showed itself, the Baroque approach was likely to exhibit some combination of power, massiveness, or dramatic intensity, embellished with pageantry, color, and theatrical adventure. Without the restraints of the High Renaissance or the subjectivity of Mannerist painting, the Baroque sought to overawe by its grandeur. 


Baroque painting originated in Italy and spread north. One of its Italian creators was Michelangelo da Caravaggio(1565-1609), whose bold and light-bathed naturalism impressed many northern artists. The Italian influence was evident in the works of Peter Paul Rubens(1557-1640), a well-known Flemish artist who chose themes from pagan and Christian literature, illustrating them with human figures involved in dramatic physical action. Rubens also did portraits of Marie de Medici and Queen Anne, at the French court of Louis XIII. Another famous Baroque court painter was Diego Velasquez(1599-1660), whose canvases depict the haughty formality and opulence of the Spanish royal household. A number of Italian women were successful Baroque painters, including Lavinia Fontana(1552-1614) and Artemisia Gentileschi(1593-1652), a follower of Caravaggio. 


While the Baroque style profoundly affected the rest of Europe, the Dutch perfected their own characteristic style, which grew directly from their pride in political and commercial accomplishments and emphasized the beauty of local nature and the solidity of middle class life. Dutch painting was sober, detailed, and warmly soft in the use of colors, particularly yellows and browns. Almost every town in Holland supported its own school of painters who helped perpetuate local traditions. Consequently a horde of competent artists arose to meet the demand for this republican art. Only a few among hundreds can be cited here. The robust Frans Hals(1580-1666) employed a vigorous style that enabled him to catch the spontaneous and fleeting expression of his portrait subjects. He left posterity a gallery of types - from cavaliers to fishwives and tavern loungers. His most successful follower, whose works have often been confused with those of Hals, was Judith Leyster(1609-1660), a member of the Haarlem painter's guild with pupils of her own. Somewhat in contrast, Jan Vermeer(1632-1675) exhibited a subtle delicacy. His way of treating the fall of subdued sunlight upon interior scenes has never been equaled. 


Towering above all the Dutch artists - and ranking with the outstanding painters of all time - was  Rembrandt van Rijn(1606-1669). While reflecting the common characteristics of his school, he produced works so universally human that they not only expressed Dutch cultural values but also transcended them. His canvasses show tremendous sensitivity, depicting almost every human emotion except pure joy. This omission arose partially from his own troubled consciousness and partially from his republican, Calvinist environment. Nevertheless, his work furnished profound insights into the human enigma. He has been called the "Dutch Baroque version of da Vinci." 


The most renowned architect of the school in the seventeenth century was Giovanni Bernini(1598-1680). He designed the colonnades outside St. Peter's Basilica, where his plan illustrates the Baroque style in the use of vast spaces and curving lines. Hundreds of churches and public buildings all over Europe displayed the elaborate Baroque decorativeness in colored marble, intricate designs, twisted columns, scattered cupolas, imposing facades, and unbalanced extensions or bulges. Stone and mortar were often blended with statuary and painting; indeed it was difficult to see where one art left off and the other began. 

 The seventeenth century also brought Baroque innovations in music. New forms of expression moved away from the exalted calmness of Palestrina and emphasized melody supported by harmony. Instrumental music - particularly for organ and violin - gained equal popularity, for the first time, with song. Outstanding among Baroque innovations was opera, which originated in Italy at the beginning of the century and quickly conquered Europe. The new form utilized many arts, integrating literature, drama, music and painting of the elaborate stage settings. 


The literature that may specifically be called Baroque may be seen most characteristically in the writings of Giambattista Marino in Italy, Luis de Góngora in Spain, and Martin Opitz in Germany. English Metaphysical poetry, most notably much of John Donne’s, is allied with Baroque literature. The Baroque period ended in the 18th century with a transition of its characteristic style into the lighter, less dramatic, more overtly decorative Rococo style.


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