In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Baroque Art and Architecture in Italy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collected Essays
  • History, Definition, and Conception
  • History, Society, and Politics
  • Urbanism
  • Patronage Studies
  • Collecting

Renaissance and Reformation Baroque Art and Architecture in Italy
Frances Gage
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0111


Although the term baroque is most often applied to the visual arts, on which this article will concentrate, and it is most closely associated with Italian art of the 17th century, little agreement exists among scholars about the term’s value and significance. Moreover, resistance is still found among scholars in the English-speaking world to applying this term to 17th-century art because the term baroque was never used in the period. Applied to music by Denis Diderot and to the architecture of Borromini in the 18th century to connote excess, the bizarre, deformity, and deviation from the rule, baroque was subsequently used, still pejoratively, in criticism of 17th-century architecture and art. German art historians in the 19th century introduced it to refer to the production of painting and sculpture in the period between the Renaissance and the rise of neoclassicism. The art of this period of the 16th through early 18th centuries was associated with decadence. By the 20th century the term baroque had come to be applied to other areas of cultural production, including literature. Taking a cue from Heinrich Wölfflin, who cast the baroque as a reaction to the Renaissance, Eugene Ors argued that the baroque exists in every epoch, though in historically unique iterations. On the one hand, baroque art is associated with artistic production emblematizing the rhetoric of a triumphalist Roman Catholic Church and thus was produced in response to the patronage of the papacy and religious orders. It is often associated with 17th-century Roman art, which will inevitably represent a central focus here. On the other, the term has been retained in the English-speaking world since the 1970s as a convenient period label, though a largely empty one. Recently, baroque has been reintroduced in English scholarship to allude to the dramatic, rhetorical, and affective character of much 17th-century cultural production. Disagreement concerning the duration of the baroque continues. Does this period terminate at 1700, 1725, or 1750 or even as late as 1800? The term has also found success in artistic theory as a recurring and metahistorical counterpoint to the classical. Scholars who identify the baroque as a unified aesthetic—one outside any single artistic domain—argue that it is one of movement, drama, innovation, and high rhetoric. Many other formal characteristics have been associated with it as well, including high contrast, detail, artifice, and monumentality. It is sometimes thought to have issued from, or to have appeared in sync with, political crisis, corruption, and absolutism. Some scholars deploy the term to refer to period-specific formal characteristics in the visual arts; others use it to describe a universal aesthetic uniting literature, rhetoric, theater, music, and the arts.

General Overviews

A conception of the baroque as an aesthetic of high rhetoric, magnificence, and splendor is still strong in continental scholarship, as is evident in a steady appearance of publications in Germany, France, and Italy that are aimed at both specialists and the general reader. Works by scholars in the English-speaking world, including Magnuson 1982, tend to resist a notion of a single unifying baroque aesthetic or style, using the term baroque sparingly and in a restricted manner to suggest a chronological period stretching from the late 16th century to the end of the 17th century. Kenseth 1991 examines the intellectual union of the arts, literature, rhetoric, and collecting within the context of the aesthetic of the marvelous from the end of the 16th century into the 17th century. Battistini 2000 associates the baroque with the Counter-Reformation, while both this work and Snyder 2005 link it as well to court culture and to theater. Bauer 1992 identifies the baroque most closely with Roman cultural production in the 17th century. Snyder 2005, by contrast, identifies the baroque most closely with an innovative aesthetic and with developments in literature and rhetoric that represent a decisive break with the past. In opposition to prevailing opinion that associates the baroque with stylistic qualities evident in the visual arts, Snyder 2005 argues that these media betray less novelty, energy, and innovation and, in their close link to Renaissance culture, they are less truly representative of the baroque. Bauer 1992 associates the baroque with the artifice and dissimulation of courtly culture and with concettismo, while Harbison 2000 examines the aesthetic character of the baroque thematically, considering movement, distortion, surprise, the momentary, illusionism, and grandeur.

  • Battistini, Andrea. Il barocco: Cultura, miti, immagini. Rome: Salerno, 2000.

    Considers many aspects of baroque culture. Relation to Catholic reform and to rhetoric, theater, and baroque art and music. Places baroque in opposition to mannerism, though both are tied to court culture. Mannerism is introverted whereas baroque is expansive, theatrical, grand, and emotional. Baroque proselytizes and is associated with ornament, abundance, exaggeration, irregularity, the surprising, and the spectacular.

  • Bauer, Hermann. Baroque: Kunst einer Epoche. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1992.

    Defines baroque as a theatrical style, one associated with courtly life, absolutism, concettismo, and linked to Roman cultural production. Includes in his consideration various forms of cultural production, including ceremonies and ephemeral displays such as fireworks and theater. Highlights the illusionism of the baroque; includes an important chapter on the baroque palace.

  • Harbison, Robert. Reflections on Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

    Examines the aesthetic of the baroque thematically within art, literature, religion, politics, and historical consciousness across varied historical and regional contexts. Begins in Italy and largely concentrates on the 17th and 18th centuries, though also includes a chapter on neo-baroque and 20th-century baroque.

  • Kenseth, Joy, ed. The Age of the Marvelous. Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 1991.

    Published in conjunction with an exhibition considering the culture and conception of the marvelous in the 16th and 17th centuries. Essays trace intersections among poetry, rhetoric, and the visual arts. Associates the marvelous with the generation of wonder in readers and beholders through the blurring of genres, novel subjects, surprise, and transformation.

  • Magnuson, Torgil. Rome in the Age of Bernini. 2 vols. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell International, 1982.

    Indispensable overview of Roman cultural developments within historical, political, and economic contexts between the papacies of Sixtus V (r. 1585–1590) and Innocent XI (r. 1676–1689). Rectifies an earlier tendency to neglect this period and treats cultural production, including visual arts, music, theater, and spectacle, in relation to political developments. Useful for students and specialists.

  • Snyder, Jon R. L’estetica del barocco. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 2005.

    Brief but comprehensive study of the philosophy of the baroque aesthetic, which Snyder defines in relation to paradox and lifelikeness as well as the ingenious, the fantastic, and the witty. Conceives of the baroque as a new consciousness about art. Identifies this thought with the courts from the end of the 16th to the second half of the 17th centuries.

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