Trompe l’oeil
Trompe l’oeil

In the 17th and early 18th centuries a combination of religious change and the inventiveness of a number of architects in Italy and Central Europe brought about a new kind of architecture. A looser, more dramatic sense of space was combined with freer, often illusionistic decoration, a new sense of lighting and a virtuosic way with curves to produce what we now call the baroque.

The religious movement known as the Reformation swept across Europe during the 16th century. It embodied a questioning of the ideas and practices of the Catholic Church and led to the burgeoning of new Protestant churches, especially in northern Europe. The Catholics responded with a movement that offered some reforms while also reaffirming traditional Catholic beliefs and combining this with a major campaign to bring people back to the church. This movement was called the Counter-Reformation, and art and architecture played an important part in it.

The Counter-Reformation used the arts to bring people nearer to religious ideas and ideals, to increase their emotional involvement with religion and to emphasize the grandeur of God and the stature of the saints. The style that artists adopted to achieve this became known as the baroque.

Baroque space

In architecture baroque means above all a new sense of space. Renaissance architecture had been primarily about simple, primary geometry—rooms in the form of cubes or double cubes roofed by hemispherical domes. Similarly, the plan of a typical Renaissance building was made up of a series of squares, circles and equilateral triangles.

The architects of the Counter-Reformation, by contrast, created a much more complex, dramatic, three-dimensional geometry. Domes could be oval. Façades, instead of being made up of straight lines, could curve in and out to make patterns unknown in architecture before. Interior spaces had a new fluidity, with much use again made of sensuous curves and, occasionally, of dramatic twisted columns.

These effects were emphasized by unusual lighting effects (shafts of light from high concealed windows, for example) and the use of clever illusions to make space seem more fluid.

The baroque sense of social space drew on similar ideas. The most famous example is the piazza in front of St. Peter’s, Rome. Its two great curving colonnades, designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1657, form one of the greatest examples of baroque urban space.

Trompe l’oeil

The use of trompe l’oeil painting was one way in which baroque artists and decorators created a sense of interior space. Trompe l’oeil (from French words meaning “deceive the eye”) involves painting scenes that are so realistic that they seem to be real. In baroque churches this device is often used in ceiling painting, where the ceiling seems to become a sky populated with the heavenly host. The cornices around the tops of the walls act as a type of window frame on to this celestial view, but angels, or putti, may lean across it, apparently looking down into the human space below. This kind of decorative effect was a way of bringing heaven closer to the human world, encouraging our emotional involvement, one of the strategies of the Counter-Reformation.

Trompe l’oeil
Trompe l’oeil

Ornament and detail

These large-scale spatial effects were mirrored on the smaller scale of ornamental detail. Cornices scrolled this way and that, placing concave and convex curves together. Arches could take on curious, bending shapes. Balconies and baluster rails dipped and bowed in and out. And where traditional geometrical forms, such as the circle, were employed, they were sometimes broken up visually into new patterns. A famous example is the circular dome of the church of S Lorenzo, Turin, designed by Guarino Guarini. This dome is crisscrossed with vaulting ribs and subdivided into segments that are pierced with small windows in odd shapes— pentagons, ovals and circles broken with scrollwork.

“Architecture can change the rules of Classical Antiquity and make up new ones.” Guarino Guarini, Architettura civile Architecture and emotion

The effect of the baroque churches of Italy, designed in the 17th century by architects such as Guarini and Francesco Borromini, was to dazzle the eye. Their curious and sometimes bizarre sense of space encouraged an emotional response that was just what the popes wanted, bringing people back to a more immediate, visceral involvement in their religion. Combined with highly charged painting and sculpture—the most famous example is Bernini’s dramatic sculpture of the ecstatic St. Theresa in S. Maria della Vittoria, Rome—these baroque churches created exactly the new, emotional engagement with religion the church required.

The term “baroque”

The artists and architects of the 17th and 18th centuries did not describe themselves or their art as “baroque.” The word originally seems to have been an insult, and has been derived from a term for a rough or imperfect pearl. To classicists, baroque architecture did originally seem like a distortion of pure classicism.

The spread of the idea

The baroque style soon spread to France, where architects adopted it for the design of both churches and grand chateaux. During the 18th century it also became popular in Central Europe. In Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic architects such as Jacob Prandtauer, Christoph Dientzenhofer and Dominikus Zimmermann designed baroque churches on the grand scale. In their interiors, enormous arches reach from floor to ceiling, geometry seems to dissolve in a riot of curves and the worshipper is dwarfed by the sheer size of the spaces.

The ornament adds to the effect. Gigantic statues of saints and bishops, swirling ceiling paintings of the heavens and rich gilding abound. Pulpits are set high on the walls so that the congregation must look up. The whole effect is humbling, and slightly disorienting. Although the basic vocabulary of classicism is used—Corinthian columns, architraves and friezes—it is as if the architecture of Greece, Rome and the Renaissance had been held in front of a distorting mirror. This powerful sense of distortion has kept baroque in the public eye, holding its influence on interior design long after the architectural style was current.