If It Ain't Baroque...
After the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church decided that artwork should stir the emotions. The Church wanted art to tell stories and convey feelings to parishioners, particularly the illiterate and the uneducated. The style of art that developed a few generations later became known as Baroque, a term that applies to both the era and the art of the era. Baroque style began in Italy and spread throughout Europe. Baroque style manifested itself in painting, sculpture, music, and even architecture. The Church used the Baroque style to do just as it intended. The absolute monarchs of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also found a use for the Baroque.
Baroque art has been called everything from gaudy to overblown to flashy to ornate. All of those descriptions have some amount of truth. Because Baroque art was intended to stir the emotions, artists used big strokes and vivid colors to paint stirring or sensual scenes. Most Baroque artists had a flair for the dramatic. The Italian painter Caravaggio created stirring images with unusual perspective and poses. The sculptor Bernini created sculptures with religious themes that were deeply emotional and passionate. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens painted sensual works featuring plump, full-figured nudes—a first in European art. The Baroque art of Italy often featured religious themes. The Baroque art of the Flemish and the English, though, featured portraits and still life because their Protestant faith prohibited religious iconography. The Baroque music of such masters as Bach and Liszt were as detailed and ornate as the art. For the absolutists, however, the greatest contribution of the Baroque masters was the architecture.
Using the Baroque to Bolster Absolutism
What the cathedral was to the Catholic Church the palace was to the absolute monarch. Just as Louis XIV used Versailles to impress and intimidate visitors, so did other absolutists use Baroque architecture to flaunt their wealth and convey their power. The Catholic Church wanted Baroque art to convey emotion and drama. So did absolutists.
Examples of Baroque architecture intended to awe visitors and celebrate the grandeur of the absolutists appeared in Paris at Versailles, in Vienna, in Stockholm, in Ludwigsburg, in London, and in St. Petersburg. These palaces featured enormous gardens, huge pillars or columns, fabulous staircases, and opulent decorations everywhere. In order to leave visitors overwhelmed, architects designed the palaces so that visitors walked from one entry way to another to another, each room increasing in splendor and magnificence until they finally reached the throne room or some other important room. Often the walls were adorned with huge murals, some portraying the monarch winning great battles.
“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul."
—Johann Sebastian Bach
Just as important as the construction of the absolutist’s palace was the construction of the towns or cities that inevitably grew up around the palace. Cities featured wide streets to allow troop movement and the use of carriages. Often the streets spanned outward from the palace. The buildings along the straight streets were Baroque in style. The most modern absolutist cities even featured upscale stores where the elite could shop. The absolutists made sure that even visitors who never saw inside the palace still left with a sense of awe and a sense of the king’s magnificence.
The Least You Need to Know
• Although not as extreme, Austria attempted absolute rule after the Thirty Years’ War to unite Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, and its other holdings.
• Prussian absolutism resulted in one of the finest militaries in all of Europe, particularly under the leadership of Frederick William the Soldiers’ King.
• Once Russia rid themselves of the Mongols, they expanded their borders and established absolute control over the Russian people. Beginning with Ivan III, Russia believed Moscow to be the third Rome and Russian rulers to be the equivalent of Roman Caesars.
• Peter the Great used western European ideas, and absolute authority, to modernize his military as well as Russian society.
• Highly emotional and ornate Baroque art and architecture grew out of the Church’s desire for a way to use art to speak to the masses.
• Absolutists used the Baroque, particularly Baroque architecture, to flaunt their wealth and convince visitors of the crown’s power and grandeur.