Baroque Rome

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Baroque Rome

The Roman Baroque period was a consequence of the changes brought about by the Counter Reform: the Catholic church's reaction to the Protestant Reforms. This reaction was not only theological and political but also artistic and cultural as the church tended to greater centralisation. Consequently the art of Renaissance imprint was transformed into a movement known as the Baroque. Baroque ideals shaped architecture also. The many churches built in that period have lasted into the modern times and even a superficial look will reveal their reliance on domes, dramatic facades with strong tonal effects and geometries accentuated by oval rather than square or circular structures.

The wonderful church of Il Gesu’ in Rome, commissioned in 1550 by the Jesuits and designed by the architects Vignola and Giacomo della Porta, is a textbook example of this new vision. This church allows us to see how the Renaissance architecture developed into the new style of the Baroque (coming from a Spanish word for a deformed or elongated pearl).

The Medieval nave tended to draw attention and space towards the altar at the far end of the church. The new concept was to fuse this with the Renaissance tendency for harmony and centralisation of space. The Baroque intended this space to be used by mass gatherings and to focus attention on a single point such as the altar and the priest. The priest alone was capable of holding mass and conjuring Communion and the mystery of transubstantiation (the blessed bread on being eaten is transformed into the physical body of Christ).

In physical terms this was achieved by opening up the sides with the transept and chapels and pulling space upwards with a central dome. The façade of Il Gesu' shows a mixture of renaissance and baroque elements: The Renaissance is about harmony, the Baroque is about strength. "Beauty" now means "strength".

Under Popes Sixtus V (1585 - 1590), Urabn VIII, Innocent X and Alexander VII the Baroque transformation of Rome reached its highest pitch. Architects such as Domenico Fontana, Bernini and Borromini changed the face of the city and left us many of the wonders we can see today. Whereas many cities of the period were characterised by towers Rome was filled with domes; perhaps because towers could hardly compete with the surrounding hills whilst domes would happily complement them. That is not to say that towers weren't built, they were indeed, but the tower tended to represent feudal ideals whilst Rome was a mixture of feudal powers governed by one church.

In this period the artist and sculptor Bernini restructured the square and colonnade in front of St. Peter’s. At the interior of the basilica he shifted the focus to the tomb of St. Peter by placing an altar and bronze canopy over it - reputedly made from bronze stripped off the Pantheon. Bernini’s name can be ascribed to countless works of art, buildings and fountains throughout the city, such as the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the centre of Piazza Navona. All of this was an earthly manifestation of the church’s power and its will for centralisation although continuously tinted with feudal undertones.

Bernini’s apprentice Borromini came to compete directly against his master, especially as with subsequent Popes one or the other architect would fall in or out of favour. Although still well within the tenets of the Baroque style Borromini developed a more rhythmic, less sobre accent of his own which avoided straight lines in favour of movement and fusion of volumes. Being Bernini’s most direct competitor, Borromini’s work is also to be found throughout the city in works such as the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Sant’ Agnese in Agone at Piazza Navona. His greatest work is probably St. Ivo alla Sapienza completed in 1662.

Painting also transformed into a Baroque and neo-realist style. Many paintings from the studios of Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni and Caravaggio were commissioned to adorn the interior of many churches throughout the city. Here too the church authorities had much to say over what might and might not be painted, and how. For example it wasn’t acceptable to use nude female models in order to paint female figures - male models would have to be used instead and adapted for the purposes of the painting. Caravaggio made particular advances in realism and a number of his works were at first rejected for the excessive realism in portraying details of the poverty of the saints, such as dirty feet for example.

By the middle of the 17th century painting and architecture began to interweave with one another as more and more illusionist three-dimensional effects were developed and put to work. For example short galleries could be made to look longer and deeper by using columns of increasingly short size to give an accentuated sense of perspective, squares could be designed to look "more square" by countering the effects of perspective. Painters such as Pietro da Cortona, Baciccia and others painted false ceilings, windows and doors or even entire domes which when viewed from the correct viewpoint are almost undistinguishable from "reality" but when viewed from the wrong angle will make you feel quite queasy!

The church of Il Gesu’ can again be used as an example. Rather than painting a false dome the painter Baciccia painted the ceiling with "the triumph of the name of Christ" using a clearly trompe-l’oeil effect to draw the eye up into the sky beyond. Hosts of angels are looking on; and in a very curious meshing of roof and painting several of the clouds, figures and angels are actually painted over the fresco’s edge onto the cornice and "into" the inside of the church itself. The onlooker can sense motion of the blessed souls moving up to the heavens and the condemned falling, almost as a direct witness.

Another great example of this is worth visiting at the church of Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola (founder of the Jesuit order) complete with false painted cupola and trompe-l’oeil painting in the roof. Here it is as if extra depth had been added to Baciccia’s painting in Il Gesu’ by adding false architectural features within the painting itself.

Baroque Rome through to Romanticism

The shift from Baroque Rome to Romanticism occurred in the latter half of the 18th century and the first part of the 19th. During the relative disorder of the Middle Ages, the church and in particular the monastic orders, had provided a unique function as repository of culture, knowledge and learning. As has been previously mentioned, the Renaissance hailed a new period of wealth and hunger for learning and culture beyond the limits of religion. This gave rise to "speculative thinking" outside the church and meant that philosophy and science gradually moved out of the direct control of the Christian domain. In fact, much new learning was absorbed and integrated from the Arab and Muslim world which in the disciplines of mathematics, astronomy and medicine had made huge advances.

Persons such as Galileo, Bacon, Newton and Descartes lay the foundations to transform man's inquisitive approach to the world about him. They shifted the approach to human progress from one of speculative knowledge, based on divine inspiration and tradition, to one where knowledge is acquired and organised in a more rational manner. This meant a process of theory and experiment. Experimental data was now being used to disprove or improve existing theory and this implied that there was no longer any "absolute", nothing could be taken as certain (other than "I think therefore I am!"). Every man of logic had to be open to the idea that sooner or later some data or evidence might appear which might destroy everything that had seemed certain to that point and the threat was that God's own existence might be placed in doubt. This was the age of Enlightenment.

With greater wealth and political stability in Europe the need for a guardian and safe keeper of learning and culture had ceased to exist and so the church lost its "monopoly". After the Renaissance the centres of learning and cultural development had shifted north of Rome and Italy to countries such as France, Germany and England. In spite of this, the church's spiritual relevance and its temporal power over central Italy allowed it to further cultural development in terms of art and architecture, albeit within the constraints of ecclesiastical thought and dogma, and this continued growth reflected itself positively on the city of Rome.

Even though this was the beginning of the decline of Papal power it was still a period of relative importance. This can be seen through some of the most popular sights of Rome such as the Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps which testify the continuing wealth and artistry within Rome.

This backdrop allows us to consider the further developments in Rome after the Renaissance period. As the church of Rome represented one pole of thought it was well exposed to the contrasts and influences of the Enlightenment, which often it proceeded to include within the limits of its own ecclesiastical constraints.

From Baroque to Romanticism in Rome

During the 18th and 19th centuries the Enlightenment and particularly its elements of intellectual and artistic freedom developed into "Romanticism" in the northern countries. Given the clear distance between ecclesiastical doctrine and the passionate hero-artist myth of the Romantic Movement it is ironic that Rome (hence "Romanticism") should become such a focus of attention. It is perhaps less surprising if we view the allure of "Rome", the eternal city, in the light of that same symbolic significance it had held for the invading barbarians some 1300 years previously or for the Holy Roman Emperors of northern Europe from Charlemagne onwards.

Echoes of the golden age of the Roman Empire made their way back. The spirit, values and legacy of Rome directly influenced first rate artists such as Goethe, Friedrich, Keats, Byron and Turner as "Rome" became the prime target of many if not all European artists and travelers.

By remembering how the middle and upper class Romans of ancient times traveled round the cities of the Mediterranean basin such as Athens and Alexandria in order to perfect their upbringing we can understand how modern travelers aimed to copy and learn what they could of the Roman culture and its ancient perfection.

Nowadays the art and echoing memory of Romanticism has left an indelible footprint on Rome and on the favourite spots of the Romantics, such as the antiquities and cafés. These artists and thinkers brought back what they learned to their homelands and in so doing they strengthened the popular image of Rome's immortality. The Protestant cemetery in Rome, built into the ancient Roman walls on the south side of the city, is a wonderful and peaceful testimony of the Romantic ideal.

By now all of this had little to do with the Catholic church per se, which in any case did what it could to leave the city open to the adherents of this new kind of pilgrimage which came to be known as the "Grand Tour".

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This page about Rome history was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments