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The Baroque Architecture of Rome

Baroque is a style of architecture that began in the late sixteenth century in Italy, but spread around the world to become the first truly global artistic movement. Examples can be found from South America to Russia, but Baroque emerged from the Catholic countries of Europe, where it was used to express the triumph of the Church.

Baroque is a style of architecture that began in the late sixteenth century in Italy, but spread around the world to become the first truly global artistic movement. Examples can be found from South America to Russia, but Baroque emerged from the Catholic countries of Europe, where it was used to express the triumph of the Church. The style grew out of the Roman vocabulary of Renaissance architecture, but exaggerated and distorted these elements. Baroque is characterised by an intense plasticity of form. 

Beginning in 1517, the Protestant Reformation challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. In response, the Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation, a movement intended to bring people back into the fold. The Baroque style of architecture and painting was directly linked to the Counter-Reformation. Baroque architecture was accessible to the emotions and a powerful image of the wealth and power of the Church. In its most intense forms, the style presented visions of religious ecstasy that did indeed serve as propaganda for the Church.

The Baroque period coincided with the papal reigns of Urban VIII, Innocent X and Alexander VII, from 1623 to 1667. The three principal architects of this period were the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini and the painter Pietro da Cortona.

Origins

The origins of the Baroque style can be found in the late work of Michelangelo, who was an architect as well as a sculptor and painter. St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is a key precursor to the Baroque. 

This is the Church of Saint Susanna at the baths of Diocletian in Rome (1603). It was designed by Carlo Maderno. Santa Susanna has the most important church façade of the early Baroque period. The dynamic rhythm of columns and pilasters create a design of complexity and movement.

After this example, Baroque churches were built throughout Rome. The concern with plasticity and dramatic effects is evident in the work of Pietro da Cortona, illustrated by his design of Santi Luca e Martina (1635).  This was probably the first curved church facade in Rome.

These concerns are even more evident in Cortona's church of Santa Maria della Pace (1656-8). The facade resembles a theatrical stage set.

The best example of theatrical Baroque is Saint Peter's Square. The piazza was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is formed by two sweeping colonnades, which reach out like vast arms to embrace the piazza. An Egyptian obelisk stands at the centre.

Bernini's own favourite design was more modest – the church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale. The church has an elliptical plan. The interior is decorated with polychome marble and an ornate gold dome.

Bernini's greatest rival was Francesco Borromini, a true architect rather than a sculptor. As an architect, he had a better understanding of spatial form and produced designs that deviated dramatically from the regular compositions of the Renaissance. His plans were based on complex geometric forms. In his hands, space seems to expand and contract as needed. This is most apparent in the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. The plan is part oval and part cross. Borromini somehow manages to resolve these different shapes into a viable whole.

His church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza displays the same playful inventiveness and antipathy to the flat surface. The facade is concave, the tower convex. The lantern above the dome has a bizarre ‘corkscrew’ form.

Carlo Fontana emerged as an influential architect in Rome. He designed the concave façade of San Marcello al Corso. Fontana was a prolific writer and this helped to disseminate the Baroque style throughout Europe.

Baroque architecture was integral to the rise of European colonialism. The major European powers carved much of the rest of the world into vast empires. The colonies brought in huge amounts of wealth, from gold and silver mining, trade and slavery. This allowed ever more elaborate churches and palaces to be built in Europe, but it also meant that the Baroque style spread around the world. The European powers used Baroque architecture to embody their power throughout the colonies.

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Comments (8)

good article ,thanks

Interesting the way the different influences get mixed together. Architectual syncretism?

excellent

Ranked #8 in Italy

Thanks, Carol.

Brilliant expertise as always Michael, thanks.

Ranked #8 in Italy

Thanks, Ron, very much appreciated.

Thanks for the info and photos.

This has always fascinated me - apparently St. Peter's Square and St. Peter's Basilica together form the outline of a key. The rich architecture of Rome has always stood out to me, and probably always will!

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