Elements of the Baroque Style

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Elements of the Baroque Style

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During the final quarter of the sixteenth century, the first gleanings of the paths that the seventeenth-century Baroque style was to take became evident in Bologna, the episcopal city administered by the Catholic reformer Gabrielle Paleotti. The leaders of this Bolognese school, Lodovico, Annibale, and Agostino Carracci, came to fashion a new kind of art that was in many ways opposed to the intellectual formalism and sophistication of the Mannerists. Their new style responded to the Catholic Reformation's demands for religious works that were clear and readily intelligible and which spoke to the hearts of the faithful. By virtue of the many students that the Carracci taught in Bologna, this new style emerged as a recognizable school of painting by the end of the century. Still great variety persisted on the Italian artistic scene, as many Mannerist masters continued to find a receptive audience willing to support them with commissions. With the arrival of Annibale Carracci in Rome in the late 1590s, though, Italy's foremost artistic center was presented with an artist who self-consciously aimed to revive many High Renaissance design principles. His works advocated a return to the naturalism and to the sense of order and harmonious balance that had marked the early sixteenth-century works of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Correggio. At the same time, a new dramatic sense of movement and even an ecstatic religious piety played a role in his work. Its appeal to the emotions, in other words, was far more profound than the intellectualism of the High Renaissance style. The efforts of Annibale Carracci and his Bolognese students who followed him to Rome were particularly important in establishing one feature of the visual arts in the Baroque: its attempt to harness emotions by impressing viewers with a sense of drama and a climactic whole that was greater than its parts. The Bolognese vision was only one part of the complex stylistic changes that were underway in Rome at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. In these years the formidable talent Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was carving out a different path in the Baroque's development. Caravaggio's works were notable for their realism. In contrast to the careful preliminary studies and drawings that Annibale Carracci and the Bolognese school made before painting, Caravaggio worked directly from life models, using this technique to capture the immediacy of the moments he narrated in his works. He clothed his models in contemporary costumes and relied on dramatic lighting to bathe his figures in contrasts of light and dark. As the examples of Caravaggio, the Carracci, and other Bolognese painters came to be appreciated on the Roman artistic scene, others came to experiment with the techniques these figures had demonstrated. Some known as "Caravaggisti" followed the path of Caravaggio's gritty realism, while others came to reflect the more classically inspired Bolognese values. Still others aimed to fuse both kinds of artistic visions. In general, though, none of the trends that are evident in the early Baroque in Rome—a return to High Renaissance classicism, the appearance of a sense of dynamic movement in paintings and sculptures, and the taste for portraying subjects in a way that was intensely realistic—was mutually exclusive. We frequently see artists in the first generations of the Baroque experimenting with all three of these elements to produce new kinds of artistic expression that spoke to the religious, social, and intellectual demands of their times.

The Carracci.

The city of Bologna was the northernmost outpost of the Papal States in Italy, the lands that the pope controlled as his own territory in the peninsula. During the 1580s, the brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci and their cousin Lodovico Carracci had established a successful studio in Bologna that experimented with ways to revive High Renaissance classicism. They soon acquired a number of students, and their efforts, along with those of a number of other Bolognese artists, came to shift artistic commissions in Central Italy away from the then-dominant Mannerist movement. Of the three, it was Lodovico Carracci (1555–1619) who had the most pretensions of being a scholar, although Annibale was to carve out a niche as the most successful painter. Lodovico was the eldest of the three, and except for a brief visit to Rome and some travels in his youth, he spent almost all his career in provincial Bologna. While Lodovico tried to return to the High Renaissance classicism and naturalism, some Mannerist influences survived in his work. He was particularly drawn to the color of Venetian painting, and like all three Carracci, he greatly admired the works of Correggio (1489–1534), a painter from Parma, whose monumental ceiling frescoes in that city's cathedral were to inspire several generations of Baroque painters. Influential on the local scene in Bologna, Lodovico Carracci came to leave an even greater imprint on the art of the age through his influence on his younger cousins as well as several of his students, the most important of these being Guido Reni, a prolific seventeenth-century master. Lodovico's early experiments in reviving a more naturalistic and classical style of depiction were soon superseded by his cousins Annibale and Agostino, although Lodovico helped set the mold for the Carracci's later success, in his efforts to join the Florentine tradition of draftsmanship (disegno) with Venetian and northern Italian coloristic techniques (colore). For much of the sixteenth century, artists and theorists had debated which of these two traditions was superior. Venetian and northern Italian artists, for instance, had long been recognized for the sophistication of their colors and their attempts to suggest mass and depth through the building up of rich layers of oils on canvases and panels. By contrast, the Florentine tradition of drawing a picture from studies and according to a rationally conceived program was seen as a very different tradition. The Carracci's famous studio at Bologna attempted to forge a union between these two distinctive traditions.


introduction: The Baroque painters who came to maturity in the early seventeenth century were indefatigable students of art, traveling throughout Italy in search of inspiration. Most came to detest many Mannerist currents of art, and instead sought out older inspiration in Michelangelo or in other noted artists of the Renaissance. The great figure of Antonio da Correggio (1494–1534) was one of the artists that Annibale Carracci admired. Despite his short life, this artist left behind a number of important frescoes in and around the city of Parma. In 1580, Carracci wrote a letter to his cousin back in Bologna shortly after he had arrived in the city. He described his excitement at witnessing this great and relatively overlooked master's works. As Carracci developed his style he drew major inspiration from the swiftly moving forms of Correggio's High Renaissance art.

I do not know how many things I have seen this morning except the altarpiece showing St. Jerome and St. Catherine, and the painting of the Madonna with the Bowl on the Flight into Egypt. By Heaven, I would not want to exchange any of them for the St. Cecelia ! Say yourself if the grace of St. Catherine who bows her head with such charm over the foot of that beautiful Christ Child is not more beautiful than Mary Magdalen? And that beautiful old man, St. Jerome, has he not more grandeur and also more tenderness than has the St. Paul of Raphael, which at first seemed a miracle to me and now seems a completely wooden thing, hard and sharp? Moreover, can one not say so much that even your Parmegianino has to put up with these remarks, for I know now that he has attempted to imitate the grace in the pictures of this great man, but he is still far from having obtained it. The putti of Correggio breathe, live and laugh with such grace and truth that one must laugh and be gay with them.

I am writing my brother that it is absolutely necessary for him to come here, where he will see things which we never would have believed possible. For the love of God urge him to dispatch quickly those two tasks in order to come here at once. I shall assure him that we shall live together in peace. There will be no quarrelling between us. I shall let him say anything he wants and shall busy myself with sketching. Also I do not fear that he will not do the same and abandon talking and sophistry, all of which is a waste of time. I have also told him that I shall try to be at his service, and when I have come to be known somewhat I shall inquire and look for opportunities.

source: Annibale Carracci in A Documentary History of Art. Vol. II. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday Books, 1958): 72–73.

Annibale Carracci and the Palazzo Farnese Ceiling.

The greatest of these three masters was Annibale (1560–1609), who may have studied painting early on with his cousin Lodovico, but who was also influenced by the currents of Mannerism in Bologna during his youth. Even in his youthful works Annibale displayed an imaginative fusion between the many different painterly styles current in Central and Northern Italy. Like Lodovico, he was fascinated by the Florentine tradition of draftsman-like design, but equally captivated by the rich coloristic techniques of Venetian art. His works early on displayed a more thorough naturalism than that present in the artificial and highly elegant world of Mannerism, and he acquired many admirers, including Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, at the time a high-ranking member of the church's government. In 1595, Annibale came to Rome at Odoardo's insistence. Odoardo commissioned Annibale to paint a large gallery in the cardinal's palace. The work was one of the first defining masterpieces of the Baroque, and a composition that was widely admired soon after its completion in 1600. Carracci's creation was at the time seen to be of equal importance to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling or the papal apartment frescoes that Raphael had executed at roughly the same time. Over the centuries such extravagant assessments of the Farnese Gallery have faded, yet it is nevertheless a brilliant achievement. The subject of the eleven major frescoes that Carracci painted in the hall was the loves of the pagan gods. Although the theme appears pre-Christian on its surface, the work actually manages to praise Christian virtues through the use of a number of hidden symbols and deeper meanings. Its use of an intellectually conceived program was to be a typical feature of Baroque ceilings, as was its use of many veiled and hidden meanings. At the same time, the work is accessible through its triumphant imagery, monumental scale, and impressive sense of dynamic movement. Stylistically, the ceiling made use of idealized human forms that were similar in feeling to those of the great Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes. To organize the design, Annibale Carracci divided the hall's barrel or rounded vault into a number of different images, each of which he framed with illusionistic devices so that they appeared to be set in individual frames. Between many of these, he placed classical nudes, again painted to appear as if they were sculptures and seeming to serve the role of caryatids, ancient statues that supported the porticos of temples. In its total effect the entire ceiling takes on the impression of being like the artistic gallery of a cultivated collector, filled as it is with images that suggest a collection of ancient art and sculptures. Throughout the work, Carracci also managed to wed the venerable traditions of draftsmanship to a Northern Italian sense of color. As a result of his example, he breathed new life into the fresco form, creating a style of composition that was to be widely imitated over the next two centuries in any number of monumental ceiling cycles executed by artists, both in Italy and abroad.

Other Bolognese Painters in Rome.

During the early years of the seventeenth century, a number of other painters from the Carracci studio made their way from Bologna to Rome, including Guido Reni (1575–1642), Domenichino (1581–1641), and Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino (1591–1666). Reni and Domenichino had trained in the studios of Agostino and Lodovico Carracci, while Guercino arrived there as a young painter and came to be influenced by their example. While the influence of the Carracci's style is evident in all their works, each of these figures developed a slightly different direction in their art. In 1601, Guido Reni was called to Rome by the papacy, and although he remained active there over the next decade and a half, he divided his time between the church's capital and Bologna. Often in disagreement with his papal patron, he was threatened for a time with arrest for his disrespect for papal authority. At home in Bologna, he developed a large and successful studio that executed many religious paintings in the new style for churches in Central and Northern Italy. About 250 of his works survive today, suggesting the fertility of his artistic imagination and the diligence with which he developed his studio. Reni painted a number of images of the Virgin Mary that were widely copied. Commercially, he was the most successful of the many painters who flourished in Italy at the time, and he was widely admired for his ability to present the religious sentiment of ecstasy in a way that appeared almost breathless. Personally, he was deeply religious, like many of the artists of the Bolognese school, but at the same time he avoided praise and seems to have suffered from a conflicted sexual nature. It was his tendency to present religious sentiments in his work in ways that suggested the ethereal, which caused nineteenth-century art historians to discount his work as overly sentimental. His paintings have more recently been reassessed, and his impact on the artistic culture of the time has come to be better understood. By contrast, Domenichino's work was more thoroughly classical in spirit and organization. The artist produced a number of works on mythological and ancient themes, notable for the use of heroic figures set in landscapes that appear classical in origin. Domenichino's portrayal of the human emotions was more turbulent and less idealized than Reni's, a fact for which many artistic academicians criticized him in the later seventeenth century. Even during his life he had to defend himself against the charge that his works were derivative, since he frequently assembled many of his figures and landscapes from his knowledge of previous works of art. The long-lived figure of Guercino (a nickname that means "squinty-eyed") was also successful on the scene in Rome, where he caused a sensation with his creation of a ceiling fresco treating the myth of Aurora in a garden outbuilding at the Villa Ludovisi. Through his mastery of illusionistic techniques, he carried the lines of the room's structural architecture upward onto the ceiling and filled the vault with a narrow channel marked out by these false illusionary structures. Through this space Aurora's chariot careens with putti (small angelic figures), doves, and clouds being separated and dispersed in its wake. His style here, as it was elsewhere, was highly refined and given to luxurious display. Somewhat later, Guercino retired to his native Cento near Bologna, where he continued to preside over a successful studio. During the early 1530s, Queen Marie de' Medici of France considered hiring him for a time as her court painter but was unable to do so when she was forced into exile because of disputes with her son King Louis XIII. Although he traveled to complete commissions, Guercino continued to live in Cento until his death in 1666 at the age of seventy-five.

The Importance of the Bolognese School.

The rise of a distinctive school of painting at Bologna came to have profound effects on the art of seventeenth-century Italy. The distinctive mix of naturalism, classical styling, and coloristic techniques that these Bolognese painters crafted was to begin to leave its mark on the city of Rome's artistic scene around 1600. The rise of other competing visions of the Baroque did not dampen the enthusiasm for the Bolognese masters, although they came to be favored in some courts and cities while disregarded elsewhere. In the figure of Caravaggio (1573–1610), a second, even more dramatic vision of the new style developed. This altogether more turbulent and dynamic art came to appear on the Roman scene about the same time as Annibale Carracci was painting his famous frescoes in the Gallery of the Farnese Palace in Rome. Like the Carracci, Caravaggio's work was to attract many disciples, who saw in his strikingly realistic paintings, with their strong contrasts of light and shade, a suitable vehicle for conveying the religious themes of the age. These followers of Caravaggio were to become known as the "Caravaggeschi," a distinctive school of followers who imitated the lead of their inspiration, just as the Bolognese painters came to closely model their compositions on those of Lodovico, Annibale, and Agostino Carracci. This division of the painterly world in seventeenth-century Italy into rival camps is one of the distinctive features of the age. At the same time, it is possible to see that artists working in Rome came to derive inspiration from both schools of painting.


Dennis Mahon, Studies in Seicento Art and Theory (London: Warburg Institute, 1947).

Donald Posner, Annibale Carracci. 2 vols. (London: Phaidon Press, 1971).

Richard E. Spear, Domenichino. 2 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982).

Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy: 1600 to 1750. 3rd ed. (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1981).

—, Studies in Italian Baroque (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975).

see also Architecture: The Rise of the Baroque Style in Italy ; Music: Origins and Elements of the Baroque Style