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BAROQUE. The baroque created confusion and dissension among its interpreters following its inception as an artistic term in the mid-eighteenth century. The origins of baroque (often capitalized) as a term are obscure, and once historians in the late nineteenth century began to question the derogatory meaning that had accrued to it, baroque became more contested than other period styles. During the mid-twentieth century, not long after it was used to characterize music, literature, and theater in addition to art history, a consensus developed that is still maintained in the popular press. By this account, baroque designates art and architecture from c. 1580 to c. 1750, and is a proselytizing Catholic art and grandiose power statement adopted by kings, emperors, popes, and other aspiring absolutists. Its multimedia forms were thought to be monumental, exuberant, unstable, theatrical, and metamorphic. Its psychology was self-aware, mystical, manipulative, melodramatic, and playful. Its subjects ranged from the abject to the sublime, from caricatures to idealized portraits, from sexualized ecstasies to bloody dismemberings. Its modes of expression were encomia, catafalques, and epithalamia; its key symbols the mask, the labyrinth, and the telescope and microscope.

This popular view holds much truth for many art forms, but in the second half of the twentieth century, scholars led by Ernst Curtius and Wolfgang Stechow began to question the legitimacy of the baroque as a period of style. They accepted baroque as a legitimate stylistic term that may be applied to some late Hellenistic, late Gothic, and other arts, but not baroque as a period style for the seventeenth century. The new consensus today asserts that the baroque, like any period style, relies on an essentialist Hegelianism that was discredited along with other totalizing prejudices such as sexism, racism, and nationalism. Furthermore, it was questioned whether an originally pejorative term signifying deformation and mawkish emotionalism could fairly represent a heterogenous phenomenon that included Carlo Dolci's pious quattrocentism, the limpid mist of Vermeer's rooms, and Cassiano Dal Pozzo's artists conscientiously recording, classifying, and reconstructing the ancient past. Like baroque ornaments that entwine buildings, the term baroque had spread too far, lately even to economics, and become so variously defined that its utility was lost. As a period style, this may be true, but baroque is currently enjoying a revival as an interpretive key to contemporary art.


It seems fitting that for a style known for instability and mutation no secure etymology has been determined. Baroque as a term is shrouded in greater ambiguity than the etymologies of other period styles. Wherever its origins truly lie, one can safely say that barocco (Italian and Spanish), Barock (German), and baroque (French and English) are linguistic mutations and semantic grotesques, much like the style they describe.

The four principal etymologies are presented here, from the most to least frequently accepted definitions:

  1. Barroco, the Portuguese word for 'deformed pearl'(in Spanish barueca ), is the etymology preferred by art historians, not for any particular philological reason, but because it signifies a visual form. Just as a spherical unblemished pearl may signify classical perfection, so a baroque pearl signifies its flawed perversion. "Flawed" was a nineteenth-century opinion; in the seventeenth century "baroque" pearls were fashionable.
  2. In Italian, a baroco was a false scholastic syllogism, a caricature of logic and hence a form of sophistry. Because it originated in rhetoric and language, it became the preferred etymology for literary historians from Benedetto Croce (1929) onward; among art historians, only the textually oriented Erwin Panofsky (1934) accepted this as its primary meaning. During the seventeenth century, the French considered barocco to be an empty Italian form, identified with academies and devoid of original thought (Michel de Montaigne); Italians understood it more generally as sophistry (Francesco Fulvio Frugoni). Baroco was, like rococo, a form of baby talk or parrot chatter, where form is cut loose from its signifiers. Like the baroque pearl, baroque syllogism was not always viewed negatively in the seventeenth century but instead signified a form of wit, "an ingenious quibbling . . . playfully persuasive . . . based on metaphor" (Emanuele Tesauro). Whereas Croce and others regarded baroque syllogism as a "gnostic confusion" and an "empty game," the seventeenth century equated it with an equivocating wit and the associative ambiguities of metaphor that lie at the center of genius and creativity.
  3. Baroccho from the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries signified a type of usury, similar to pawnbroking, and hence by extension something illegitimate.
  4. Erich Hubala proposed baroquer, used by French cabinet makers to signify turning and curving.
  5. Generally unaccepted, but still enticing, proposed terms include barraqa (Arabic for 'to open one's eyes') and bis-roca (Latin for 'twisted stone').


Otto Kurz, Bruno Migliorini, and Rossana Bossaglia have traced the earliest applications of barocco /baroque/Barock as an art or architectural term to the 1740s. In 1751 Denis Diderot's encyclopedia entry defined baroché as "a painter's term used to explain that the paintbrush did not cleanly delineate a contour and that it smeared colors." At the same time, Charles Cochin and Charles de Brosses described baroque forms as twisted, winding, tortuous, and confused. Others likened it to the plague, dropsy, and other diseases, to decadence and lunacy. Francesco Milizia (1768) likened the suicidal and "raving mad" Borromini to the "contagious architectural madness" of his buildings: "He went baroque." De Brosses, picking up on a seventeenth-century epithet of Borromini as "a gothic ignoramous," identified baroque art as neo-Gothic where clear structure is hidden behind "fussy trimmings" and where precious miniature decorations are inappropriately gigantic. Baroque was thus an Asiatic style of sophistry and indiscriminate ornament, and like the Asiatic, it was conceived as foreign. The baroque as Gothic is one example; other critics compared it to Islamic and Chinese decoration (Pompei, 1735; Milizia, 1768).

In these early usages, baroque was not explicitly a period style, not yet Baroque with a capital B, but only a recurring degraded style frequently found in the seventeenth century. Concurrently with the use of baroque as a stylistic quality, early-eighteenth-century critics began to reify the seventeenth century as a cultural unit, a discrete decadent period where the visual and literary arts shared defects of excess, exaggeration, and novelty: "Just as Marino . . . introduced without proper judgment new forms of thought and speech in poetry. . . . so too might be said of Borromini, Bernini, Pozzi and their contemporaries, enriching buildings with new ornaments and deviated from good practice and deforming it" (Pompei, 1735). Others created a baroque canon of the terrible "B's" representing sculpture, architecture, and painting: Bernini, Borromini, and Berretini (that is, Pietro da Cortona). Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who wrote his seminal The History of Ancient Art (1764) partly as a critique of the baroque, saw it as a late "superfluous" style, the inevitable end of classicism, much like Late Hellenism and mannerism, all noisy, deformed, exaggerated, and corrupted.


The recovery of the baroque as a legitimate independent period style instead of a late bastardized form of the Renaissance began in late-nineteenth-century architectural studies (Wölfflin, 1888; Gurlitt; Riegl). For the architect Cornelius Gurlitt, this historical rehabilitation coincided with his architectural practice in a neo-baroque style. More than any other scholar, Heinrich Wölfflin came to be associated with the rehabilitation of the baroque, first in Renaissance and Baroque (1888; based on his dissertation) and finally in the classic Principles of Art History (1915). In the latter, he proposed five paired morphological categories, intended to distinguish Renaissance from baroque but that became for early-twentieth-century art historians universal categories: linear/painter; plain/recession; closed/pen form; multiplicity/unity; clearness/unclearness. Although now often dismissed as a "mere" formalist, Wölfflin, in his interest in the psychology of art and perception, influenced a younger generation of art historians (such as Wilhelm Worringer and Henri Focillon).

Many scholars starting in the 1930s resisted the formulation of the baroque as a period style, arguing instead that it should be seen as a perpetually renewing form (Focillon; Panofsky; D'Ors). Much like eighteenth-century critics of seventeenth-century art as a new Gothic (flamboyant Gothic and Spanish Plateresque) or as a new mannerism, they thought of the baroque as much as a recurring type as a chronologically limited period style. Curtius extended this view by showing how the perception of stylistic recurrences is partly a linguistic illusion, one that was created by the fixed rhetorical categories inherited by historians. This, in turn, helped lay the ground for a new historicism (White; Holly).

The German revisionists of the late nineteenth century assumed that the baroque originated in Italy and maintained its purest forms there. By the mid-twentieth century, however, a group of scholars (D'Ors; Francastel; Hatzfeld) proposed Spain and not Italy as its place of origin, partly because of the social control and mystical fervor of the Spanish church, partly because they thought of the baroque as an innately Spanish form of expression that can be traced back to Hispano-Latin writers like Lucan and Prudentius and to the Hispanic absorption of Islamic and North-African ornament. The Spanish origins of the baroque had actually been proposed much earlier, to little effect, by the literary historian Girolamo Tiraboschi (1782). A recent exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York interpreted contemporary Brazilian art as a continuation of baroque traditions (Sullivan).

During the 1950s, a series of seminal studies were published in Italy questioning Croce's syllogistic baroque (Retorica e Barocco; Argan). They accepted Croce's baroque as an art of rhetoric, or sophistry as Croce had insisted, but rediscovered its original virtues of persuasion and provocation. Having been sensitized to the linguistic dimension of the baroque, scholars then began a serious exploration of its etymology in the early 1960s (Bossaglia; Kurz; Migliorini). This turn to language was paralleled by contemporary developments in mannerism scholarship.

From the 1970s on, new (but not always convincing) theories of the baroque have been restricted to literature, music, or theater; more promising are those emanating from cultural studies and philosophy (Maravall; Deleuze). Art historians not disenchanted with the viability of period styles have tended to recycle previous ideas.


The rehabilitation of the baroque in the late nineteenth century coincided with the discovery of its modernity. Wölfflin stated this first: "One can hardly fail to recognise the affinity that our own age in particular bears to the Italian Baroque." Impressionism, art nouveau and liberty, symbolism, Richard Wagner's operas, and the philosophical treatises of Wagner's friend Friedrich Nietzsche offered new possibilities for appreciating the baroque. Nietzsche blamed pedants for mistaking the dionysian baroque for merely an irrational delirium. In Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio (1883) the metamorphosized bamboccio is sent off to an enchanted house of mirrors, the "Casa dei Barocchi," where men are transformed into asses, and it is in this unlikely place that Pinocchio finds his true path.

Not only have ideas on the baroque been reinterpreted in light of modern culture, but the baroque itself is seen as perennially modern. In 1934 Panofsky said the baroque was not the end of the Renaissance but "the beginning of a fourth era, which may be called 'Modern' with a capital 'M."' More recently Jacques Lacan professed that his riotously polyvalent thought, like a "Borromean knot," was baroque, claiming that modern existence can be best understood through its equivocations. In later-twentieth-century Italian literature, the neo-baroque movement posed linguistic convolutions to disorient readers. When asked why his literature must be so tortured, Carlo Gadda (one of the neo-barocchisti ) responded: "I'm not baroque; the world is baroque." Omar Calabrese proposed the baroque as the best conceptual category for late-twentieth-century culture with its transgressions of pop culture into high art, its self-conscious referencing of the past, and its frenetic visual flux and its polymorphic media.

See also Architecture ; Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography .


Primary Sources

Brosses, Charles de. Lettres familières écrites d'Italie a quelques amis en 1739 et 1740. Paris, 1799. Letters from his travels in Italy; composed between 1745 and 1755.

Diderot, Denis, and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Vol. 2, p. 77. Geneva, 17771779.

Milizia, Francesco. Memorie degli architetti antichi e moderni. Rome, 1781.

Pompei, Alessandro. Li cinque ordini dell'architettura civile di Michel Sanmicheli. Verona, 1735.

Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. The History of Ancient Art. Translated by A. Gode. New York, 1968. Translation of Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764).

Secondary Sources

Calabrese, Omar. Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times. Translated by Charles Lambert. Princeton, 1992.

Holly, Michael Ann. "Imagining the Baroque." In Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image, pp. 91111. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Lacan, Jacques. "On the Baroque." In Lectures, edited by J.-A. Miller and translated by B. Fink. New York, 1998. Book XX; originally published in 1975.

Panofsky, Erwin. "What Is Baroque?" In Three Essays on Style, edited by Irving Lavin, pp. 1988. Cambridge, Mass., 1995. Previously unpublished lecture from 1934.

Wölfflin, Heinrich. Principles of Art History. Translated by M. D. Hottinger. New York, 1950. Translation of Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1915).

. Renaissance and Baroque. Translated by Kathrin Simon. Ithaca, N.Y., 1966. Translation of Renaissance und Baroque (1888).

Philip L. Sohm


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baroque is a term widely applied by art historians to the whole spectrum of European art in the 17th and early 18th cents. Possibly used by Iberian jewellers to categorize imperfectly formed pearls, or originating in the Italian baroco, dismissal of a dubious theory with an extravagant conclusion, baroque meant a style in architecture, painting, music, and furniture which flouted classical standards.

In 17th-cent. Britain baroque was never whole-heartedly embraced or permitted to overwhelm classical models. Here a protestant ethos was decisive because, quintessentially, baroque was represented by the grandeur of Counter-Reformation Rome as projected by Bernini, Borromini, and their demanding Barberini patron Pope Urban VIII (reigned 1623–44); the fulsome interior decoration of the Pitti palace in Florence by Pietro da Cortona (1641–6) would never have been wanted for an English great house.

No painter who has been labelled ‘baroque’ has surpassed Rubens, the supreme colourist. While it should be remembered that he was ever a master of line, and had a practical knowledge of contemporary architecture, it is striking how, in England, Rubens's greatest surviving decorative scheme, the ceiling of the Whitehall Banqueting House (late 1630s), is ‘reined in’ by the building's austere character. This situation is reversed in Nicholas Stone's porch for St Mary's church, Oxford (1633), where barley-sugar (‘solomonic’) columns, redolent of Bernini, support a traditional fan-vaulted roof. In drawing, Lely's 31 depictions in black and white chalk of a Garter procession, made in the 1660s, are regarded as among the most accomplished of baroque drawings. Their swagger is exactly suited to their theme. In baroque woodwork, Grinling Gibbons's choir stalls in St Paul's cathedral are unsurpassed in England. While the English and Dutch shared in an ebullient use of brick, in stone (emanating from the fertile minds of Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor, Talman, and Archer) there was a profoundly native adaptation of baroque. With these men there arrived a startlingly exaggerated interpretation of such classical features as entablatures, finials, pedestals, and pilasters, above all at Blenheim, Castle Howard, Seaton Delaval, and Chatsworth (all built between 1685 and 1725).

The Vanbrugh-esque had no counterpart in music because Britain shared sufficiently in the common currency of continental music. The ever-developing organ catered splendidly for the observational requirements of reformed churches, and it was symptomatic of the era that musicians such as Tomkins, Lawes, Locke, and Purcell benefited from royal rather than ecclesiastical patronage: the two latter furnished music for great occasions of state which would have sounded no less appropriate in catholic milieux.

David Denis Aldridge


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Baroque. Style of C17 and C18 European architecture derived from late-Renaissance Mannerism and evolving into Rococo before Neo-Classicism eclipsed it. Theatrical and exuberant, it employed convex and concave flowing curves in plan, elevation, and section, optical illusions, interpenetrating ellipses in plans that were often extensions of the centralized type, complicated geometries and relationships between volumes of different shapes and sizes, emphatic overstatement, daring colour, exaggerated modelling, and much architectural and symbolic rhetoric. Associated with the Counter-Reformation, the style reached maturity with the C17 works of Bernini and Borromini: it achieved heights of inventiveness and beauty in Central Europe, especially Austria, Bavaria, and Bohemia (e.g. the churches of the Asams and the Dientzenhofers); the epitome of exotic over-ornamentation in the Iberian peninsula and Latin America; and a chasteness where a strong Classicism was never far away in France. In England, however, where the Counter-Reformation had little direct architectural impact, the curved, swaying, swelling forms were generally eschewed in favour of emphasized modelling of wall-surfaces, as in the work of Hawksmoor. There was a European Baroque Revival that was evident in the years immediately before and after 1900. In landscape-design, the Baroque style was associated especially with the huge formal gardens of France, notably at Versailles.


Bletter (1973);
Norberg-Schulz (1986, 1986a);
Pevsner (ed.) (1960)


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Scholars often use the term baroque to refer to the art, music, and literature of the 1600s, a period of great social and political upheaval. During this time many writers and artists moved away from the orderly, classical* principles of the Renaissance and adopted a more dramatic and expressive style in their work.

The word baroque was first used in the 1700s to describe the style that emerged toward the end of the Renaissance. A negative term—possibly derived from the Spanish barrueco (a misshapen pearl), it was applied to works considered distorted or excessive. In the late 1800s scholars began to refer to Baroque art in a more positive way, identifying it as a distinct movement and noting its grandeur, exuberance, and vitality.

Baroque architecture conveys a sense of movement and emotion through the use of massive forms, soaring heights, and rich interior decorations. Prominent baroque architects include Francesco Borromini and Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, who was also a noted sculptor.

Artists who worked in the baroque style include the Italian painter Pietro da Cortona and the Flemish* painter Peter Paul Rubens. Pietro da Cortona created magnificent ceiling frescoes* that seem to open up to the sky. Rubens portrayed groups of figures displaying deep emotion or energy but finished with the intricate details typical of northern European painting.

A similar move toward a dramatic style appeared in baroque music. Opera, which developed around 1600, provides a prime example of this trend toward the dramatic. Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi took the form to a new level. Over time opera productions became increasingly elaborate, captivating audiences in many parts of Europe. At the same time, writers such as the Spaniard Lope Félix de Vega Carpio produced plays in the baroque style, ranging from light comedies to dramas about history, religion, love, and honor.

(See alsoArt; Drama; Music; Renaissance: Influence and Interpretations. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

* fresco

mural painted on a plaster wall


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baroque Term (perhaps derived from the Portuguese barroca, a misshapen pearl) applied to the style of art and architecture prevalent in Europe in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Baroque was at its height in the Rome of Bernini, Borromini, and Pietro de Cortona (c.1630–80), and in s Germany with Balthazar Neumann and Fischer von Erlach (c.1700–50). At its best, high baroque was a blend of light, colour and movement calculated to overwhelm the spectator by a direct emotional appeal. Paintings contained visual illusions, and sculpture exploited the effect of light on surface and contour. Buildings were heavily decorated with stucco ornament and free-standing sculpture. Baroque was closely linked to the Counter-Reformation and was therefore strongest in Roman Catholic countries. Baroque became increasingly florid before merging with the lighter style of Rococo. The term is often used to describe the period as well as the style. In music, the period is notable for several stylistic developments. Musical textures became increasingly contrapuntal, culminating in the masterpieces of J. S. Bach and Handel. Many purely instrumental forms of increasing virtuosity, such as the fugue, sonata, concerto, suite, toccata, passacaglia, and chaconne, emerged and became popular.


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ba·roque / bəˈrōk/ • adj. relating to or denoting a style of European architecture, music, and art of the 17th and 18th centuries that followed mannerism and is characterized by ornate detail. In architecture the period is exemplified by the palace of Versailles and by the work of Bernini in Italy. Major composers include Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel; Caravaggio and Rubens are important baroque artists. ∎  highly ornate and extravagant in style: the candles were positively baroque.• n. the baroque style. ∎  the baroque period.


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Baroque (Fr.). Bizarre. Term applied to the ornate architecture of Ger. and Austria during the 17th and 18th cents. and borrowed to describe comparable mus. developments from about 1600 to the deaths of Bach and Handel in 1750 and 1759 respectively. It was a period in which harmonic complexity grew alongside emphasis on contrast. So, in opera, interest was transferred from recit. to aria, and in church mus. the contrasts of solo vv., ch., and orch. were developed to a high degree. In instr. mus. the period saw the emergence of the sonata, the suite, and particularly the concerto grosso, as in the mus. of Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach. Most baroque mus. uses basso continuo. By ‘baroque organ’ is meant the 18th-cent. type of instr., more brilliant in tone and flexible than its 19th-cent. counterpart. Note that 18th-cent. writers used ‘baroque’ in a pejorative sense to mean ‘coarse’ or ‘old-fashioned in taste’.


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baroque relating to or denoting a style of European architecture, music, and art of the 17th and 18th centuries that followed mannerism and is characterized by ornate detail. In architecture the period is exemplified by the palace of Versailles and by the work of Wren in England. Major composers include Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel; Caravaggio and Rubens are important baroque artists.

The word comes (in the mid 18th century) from French, originally denoting a pearl of irregular shape.


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baroque XIX. — F., orig. of irregular pearl, — Pg. barroco, of unkn. orig.