The Age of Rocaille

The 18th century was the age of rocaille. It was also an era that witnessed the opening of frontiers, the first to become aware of what is now commonly termed "Europe". The 17th-century historical divisions of the Western world became a thing of the past, both culturally and politically, during the 18th century. Artists, musicians, men of letters, and the cultivated world in general all sought to erase national boundaries in order to achieve a European consensus in matters of taste. Since Rococo was in fashion during the 18th century, it became the first style to boast a "European" label.

At first, Rococo showed up above all in Venice, but hardly had it settled in there than it appeared in Northern Italy and, in no time at all thereafter, in France, from whence it spread all over Europe. In 1717, one of the fathers of rocaille/Rococo, the architect Filippo Juvarra, undertook construction of the extraordinary Basilica of Superga, on the outskirts of Turin. This basilica represents one of the first Rococo manifests. Only three years later (1720), the architect Johann Balthasar Neumann began building the "Residenz" (palace) of the Prince-Bishop Karl-Philippe von Greiffenclau, in Würzburg. Thus, only three years separate the first Turinese model in this style and its - let us say Bavarian - application at Würzburg. This is striking proof of how open the national boundaries were during the 18th century. Again, four years later, and this time in Vienna, Prince Eugene (of Savoy) commissioned an enormous and ostentatious "Residenz" (palace). Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, to whom he entrusted its construction, was one of the greatest architects of the period; he came up with a sort of double palace (upper and lower): the Belvedere. It was hence Hildebrandt who, in 1724, first brought the exuberant beauty of the Rococo style to Austria, a land whose frontiers now also stood open to this new language.

In 1728, Margravine Wilhelmina of Bayreuth had the most beautiful theater of all of Europe built by the Galli de Bibienas, a family of architects and stage designers hailing from Northern Italy. No sooner was this Rococo jewel completed than similar theaters sprung up in respectively Dresden, Ulm, and Munich. In other words, the style spread like fireworks; all over Europe, it was copied and repeated. Even as far as Prague, where the architect Christian Dientzenhofer undertook the Saint Nicholas Church of Mala Strana (to which his son, the renowned architect Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, added a bell tower and dome).

During the first half of the 18th century, Rococo passed on from the privileged sites of Venice and Turin to the furthermost ends of Europe: from Madrid to Prague, Naples to Tsarskoïe Selo, where Catherine the Great as well indulged her whims for several residences in utterly Rococo taste. Thus it can be said that truly all of Europe witnessed the cultural migration of what travelled under the aegis and emblem of Rococo.

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