Distinguishing between Baroque and Rococo

Quite to the opposite of the Rococo soul, the soul of the Baroque is characterized by austerity that inspires silence and meditation. By the same token, it is the aesthetic nature of the Baroque to underscore the basic lines and points of the message being conveyed. To visualize this, we have chosen several 17th-century paintings that stage the silence of the Baroque.

The basic theme of silence is vividly portrayed in the range of works going from Caravaggio to Georges de La Tour, for instance in the latter's Magdalene with the Smoking Flame. Another striking example is Magdalene Meditating, an early 17th-century work from the Neapolitan school. Following in the wake of Caravaggio, this school of silence would spread far and wide across Europe.

Claude Meylan's "SalomÚ" provides still another depiction of silence, of the most fundamental of dialogues (that of Life and Death). This work illustrates the repercussions of the message left by Caravaggio, a message of what is intrinsic to man, in a painting that - in the light-and-dark contrasts of grays surrounding the face of Salome - conveys the latter's newly awakened horror at the sacrifice of John the Baptist. During the Baroque period, this concern with the essence of life is to be found even in works by the more mundane artists. Indeed, among the mundane greats on the Baroque scene, it had become the fashion to adopt an economy of means, in an endeavor to attain a more informal intimacy, to create works of a more confidential tone. This can be seen, for instance, in Guido Reni's "Saint Joseph and Child", a work that, although unacclaimed by the contemporary world, did have its hour of glory during the 17th century. And why was this so? Because, at the time, Reni was far more famous than all the Caravaggios and La Tours of the world, who have since been rediscovered. Reni represented a high point in Baroque art history. Moreover, in this work he allowed himself the luxury of tackling an extremely rare subject. The very strangeness of its subject is what became its glory: instead of portraying Virgin and Child as was generally the case, it stages father and Child. Although renowned in particular for his bright colors and the elegance of his compositions, here Reni nevertheless sought to rein in the methods of his art the better to convey the intrinsic nature of this father-Child dialogue.

The great aesthetic impact of the Baroque made itself felt all the more in works dealing with such serious subject matter as the Christian epic. In this vein, the PietÓ (Virgin Mary mourning over the dead body of Christ) was one of the major themes to be broached, precisely because, here again, Life and Death are allied. The theme involves a perspective of day and night, corresponding with the light-and-dark philosophic mood marking the entire 17th century. The Baroque approach to the PietÓ centered on the theme's dramatic essence, as beautifully illustrated in the work of Andriaen van der Werff, a painter who, notwithstanding his Flemish origin, made a career for himself in Italy. Van der Werff's PietÓ is entirely in black and blue: everything other than the Virgin's cloak - that is, everything other than this symbol of life - is painted in a cama´eu ranging from white to black, from the body of Christ to the darkness of the background.
Another stunning example is to be found in the PietÓ of the Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Piazzetta: the light marking the great arch stretching the corpse in the foreground drives back the darkness, from where the work's feminine central figure seems to burst forth. Here again, the play of light and shadow translates a fundamental dialogue and, as such, proves itself intrinsically Baroque.

These few examples of the 17th-century school of painting ranging from Caravaggio to Piazzetta illustrate an approach that was severe and contemplative, focussing on silence, on the essence of life. It was only natural for this same approach to carry over to Baroque architecture, which can thus also be characterized as austere and basic. To illustrate our point, we refer to the Il GÚsu church in Rome, where the choir, realized (between 1678 and 1680) by Carlo Rainaldi, a pupil of Bernini, features an outstanding dialogue between horizontals and verticals: the great horizontal of the entablature contrasts with the verticals of the pillars supporting the play of perfect arches (as in the apse, the dome, and even the lantern). Rainaldi's choir beautifully exemplifies the economy of means that is a signature feature of the Baroque spirit.

Distinguishing between Baroque and Rococo - The Rococo Style - The Age of Rocaille - Bavaria - Six Marvels in a Nutshell - A Foretaste of Paradise - In the Main Roles - The Fabulous 18th Century - 18th-Century Composers