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Part IV

The baroque

The baroque

Historical Background

Welcome to “History through Art”. Today we’ll be looking at the history, culture and art of the Baroque, a period of turbulence that began about 1545. It was a time when the Renaissance celebration of all humanity switched its focus to the rich, self-centered privileged class who could afford to sponsor artists to immortalize their opulent life-style. The wealthy also were patrons to artists who depicted both religious and secular scenes with great motion, light, and sensuality. Today, you can see the Baroque influence in the ornate curlicues around the doors of old buildings and antique picture frames, and even in the string quartets and chamber groups that play at formal weddings and parties.

As is usually the case, the art, music, and writing of the Baroque reflect the world in which they were created. The Baroque period was one of great turmoil, particularly in two intertwined areas: politics and religion. For instance, Elizabeth I, England’s Protestant queen, was busy fighting Phillip II, Spain’s Catholic king. You can get a sense of the Queen’s wealth and power just by looking at this portrait of hers. When the Queen’s navy defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, it was considered a religious as well as a political victory. Meanwhile, both countries’ explorers were competing for land with the French in the New World. In 1643, France’s King Louis XIV joined the race for wealth and power in both Europe and the New World. Again as you can see the King’s clothing and manner reflect the opulence that was so highly regarded during the Baroque.

Europe’s conflicts were compounded by religious unrest. In 1517, Martin Luther sparked the religious upheaval by suggesting that the Catholic church reform itself by correcting the corrupt practices it had developed over the years. By 1545, the Catholic church had rejected Luther’s reforms at the Council of Trent, but began to institute some reforms of its own. Meanwhile, Protestants and Catholics clashed in France until the Edict of Nantes legalized Protestantism in 1589. When the Edict was later reversed, violence resumed. During this chaotic period, the Catholic church sought to hold on to the faithful by designing splendid rituals and building soul inspiring churches that were decorated with ornate, gilded sculpture and flamboyant, vibrant paintings. In this way, art became the servant of the church and subtly mirrored the conflicts of the time. This ostentatious Baroque style continued throughout the 17th century and into the 18th century in Europe, most notably in Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands, often called Holland.

Baroque art showed little restraint compared with past styles, and these extravagances were soon emulated in the palaces of the nobility and in the wonderfully intricate, motion-filled music of such composers as Vivaldi and Handel. Obviously, this extravagant style still appeals to people today because certain Baroque musical works are embedded in our cultural heritage. A Christmas season never goes by without many performances of Handel’s Messiah. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is another musical favorite in the Baroque style.

The Baroque era reached its most whimsical point with the development of a playful, sensual style called Rococo. This style lingered on among the nobility even after some artists, scholars, and philosophers had entered the Age of Enlightenment. As you will see in this programme, Baroque artists have contributed much to what is considered lush and sumptuous in Western civilization today.