From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In the arts, Baroque is a 17th century period as well as a style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music. The style started around 1600 in Rome, Italy and spread to most of Europe. The word "baroque" came from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning "misshapen pearl." It is also said to hail from Federigo Barocci (1528-1612), a founder of the style.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word baroque is derived from the Portuguese word "barroco", Spanish "barroco", or French "baroque", all of which refer to a "rough or imperfect pearl", though whether it entered those languages via Latin, Arabic, or some other source is uncertain. In informal usage, the word baroque can simply mean that something is "elaborate", with many details, without reference to the Baroque styles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The word "Baroque", like most periodic or stylistic designations, was invented by later critics rather than practitioners of the arts in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It is a French transliteration of the Portuguese phrase "pérola barroca", which means "irregular pearl", and natural pearls that deviate from the usual, regular forms so they do not have an axis of rotation are known as "baroque pearls". Others derive it from the mnemonic term "Baroco" denoting, in logical Scholastica, a supposedly laboured form of syllogism.
The term "Baroque" was initially used with a derogatory meaning, to underline the excesses of its emphasis. In particular, the term was used to describe its eccentric redundancy and noisy abundance of details, which sharply contrasted the clear and sober rationality of the Renaissance. It was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) in his Renaissance und Barock (1888); Wölfflin identified the Baroque as "movement imported into mass," an art antithetic to Renaissance art. He did not make the distinctions between Mannerism and Baroque that modern writers do, and he ignored the later phase, the academic Baroque that lasted into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat Baroque as a respectable study until Wölfflin's influence had made German scholarship pre-eminent.
The Baroque originated around 1600, the Council of Trent (1545–63), by which the Roman Catholic Church answered many questions of internal reform, addressed the representational arts by demanding that paintings and sculptures in church contexts should speak to the illiterate rather than to the well-informed. This turn toward a populist conception of the function of ecclesiastical art is seen by many art historians as driving the innovations of Caravaggio and brothers Agostino and Annibale Carracci, all of who were working (and competing for commissions) in Rome around 1600.
The appeal of Baroque style turned consciously from the witty, intellectual qualities of 16th century Mannerist art to a visceral appeal aimed at the senses. It employed an iconography that was direct, simple, obvious, and theatrical. Baroque art drew on certain broad and heroic tendencies in Annibale Carracci and his circle, and found inspiration in other artists like Correggio and Caravaggio and Federico Barocci (illustration, left), nowadays sometimes termed 'proto-Baroque'. Germinal ideas of the Baroque can also be found in the work of Michelangelo. Some general parallels in music make the expression "Baroque music" useful: there are contrasting phrase lengths, harmony and counterpoint have ousted polyphony, and orchestral color makes a stronger appearance. Even more generalized parallels perceived by some experts in philosophy, prose style and poetry, are harder to pinpoint.
Though Baroque was superseded in many centers by the Rococo style, beginning in France in the late 1720s, especially for interiors, paintings and the decorative arts, the Baroque style continued to be used in architecture until the advent of Neoclassicism in the later 18th century. See the Neapolitan palace of Caserta, a Baroque palace (though in a chaste exterior) whose construction began 1752.
In paintings Baroque gestures are broader than Mannerist gestures: less ambiguous, less arcane and mysterious, more like the stage gestures of opera, a major Baroque art form. Baroque poses depend on contrapposto ("counterpoise"), the tension within the figures that move the planes of shoulders and hips in counterdirections. See Benini's David.
The dryer, less dramatic and coloristic, chastened later stages of 18th century Baroque architectural style are often seen as a separate Late Baroque manifestation, for example in buildings by Claude Perrault. Academic characteristics in the neo-Palladian style, epitomized by William Kent, are a parallel development in Britain and the British colonies: within interiors, Kent's furniture designs are vividly influenced by the Baroque furniture of Rome and Genoa, hierarchical tectonic sculptural elements, meant never to be moved from their positions, completed the wall decoration. Baroque is a style of unity imposed upon rich, heavy detail.
The Baroque was defined by Heinrich Wölfflin as the age where the oval replaced the circle as the center of composition, that centralization replaced balance, and that coloristic and "painterly" effects began to become more prominent. Art historians, often Protestant ones, have traditionally emphasized that the Baroque style evolved during a time in which the Roman Catholic Church had to react against the many revolutionary cultural movements that produced a new science and new forms of religion— Reformation. It has been said that the monumental Baroque is a style that could give the Papacy, like secular absolute monarchies, a formal, imposing way of expression that could restore its prestige, at the point of becoming somehow symbolic of the Counter-Reformation.
Whether this is the case or not, it was successfully developed in Rome, where Baroque architecture widely renewed the central areas with perhaps the most important urbanistic revision.
In modern usage, the term "Baroque" may still be used, usually pejoratively, describing works of art, craft, or design that are thought to have excessive ornamentation or complexity of line, or, as a synonym for "Byzantine", to describe literature, computer software, contracts, or laws that are thought to be excessively complex, indirect, or obscure in language, to the extent of concealing or confusing their meaning.