Classical art—the Parthenon and its frieze, the sculptures of Myron and Polyclitus, the Roman Forum, The Aeneid, the Vatican Stanze of Raphael, the Medici Chapel figures of Michelangelo—had been the reduction of chaos to order, of the manifold to unity, of movement to stability, of feeling to thought, of the indiscriminate to the significant, of the complex and obscure to the simple and clear; it was matter forged into form. But even perfection palls when it is long continued. Change is necessary to life, sensation, and thought; an exciting novelty may seem by its very novelty to be beautiful, until the forgotten old returns on the wheel of time and is embraced as young and new. So the Renaissance drove Gothic out of Italy as barbarous, until artists and patrons, irked by pretty proportions and cramping symmetry, and laughing like cathedral gargoyles at classic columns, architraves, and pediments, brought the Gothic spirit back in the exuberant irregularities and elaborations of baroque.V
Classical art had sought to reveal the objective, the impersonal, the perfect; baroque allowed the individual artist, even his passing humor, to find embodiment in work that represented not so much an object realistically portrayed (as in Dutch painting), but an impression or feeling objectified through partly imaginary forms. So El Greco’s elongations were not Spain’s men but his own memories or moods; the tender Madonnas of Murillo and Guido Reni were not the harassed mothers whom they knew but the exemplary piety they had been asked to represent. Moreover, an Italy that had felt the seismic shock of the Reformation, and that had been stirred to fresh intensities of religious emotion by Loyola, Teresa, Xavier, and Charles Borromeo—this post-Luther Italy could no longer rest in the calm, proud peace of the classic ideal. It reaffirmed its faith, displayed its symbols defiantly, adorned its shrines, and poured into art a new warmth of color and sensibility, a fresh diversity and incalculable freedom of structure and movement, released from classic rule, restraint, and line. Art became the expression of feeling through ornament, not the compression of thought into form.
Architecture was no longer Greek mathematics or Roman engineering, it was music, sometimes opera, like the Opéra in Paris. Designers and builders turned from stability to fluidity and rhythm; they rejected a static symmetry for deliberate disbalance and disunity; they willfully carved or twisted columns and architraves; they were weary of plain surfaces and heavy masses; they interrupted cornices, broke pediments in two, and scattered sculpture at every turn. The sculptors themselves were tired of perfect limbs, immobile features, the stiff frontal pose; they placed their figures in unexpected attitudes, inviting the eye to take diverse views; they introduced the effects of painting into statuary, carving light and shade into the stone, movement into the body, thought and feeling into the face. Painters left pure line, clear light, and an innocuous serenity to Perugino, Correggio, and Raphael; they bathed the world in color like Rubens, shaded it with mysticism like Rembrandt, roused it into sensuality like Reni, or troubled it with suffering and ecstasy like El Greco. The woodworkers littered furniture with decoration, the metalworkers turned their material into bizarre or humorous forms. When, in 1568, the Jesuits engaged Vignola to design their church, Il Gesù, in Rome, they saw to it that it should gather all the arts into a profusion of columns, statues, pictures, and precious metal, designed not to illustrate geometry, but to inspire and irradiate faith.
Because in art Italy still led Europe, the new style of ornament, sentiment, and expression passed not only into Catholic Spain, Flanders, and France, but even into Protestant Germany, where it achieved some of its gayest forms. Literature felt the baroque influence in the extravagant word play of Marini, Góngora, and Lyly, in the high-flown language of Shakespeare, in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Goethe’s Faust. Opera is music baroquefied. The new style won no general victory. The Dutch preferred a quiet realism to the excitements of baroque. Velázquez at his best was classical or realist, and Cervantes, after a romantic life, wrote Don Quixote with classic poise and calm. Corneille, Racine, and Poussin were devotedly classical. But were the classics always classical? Could anything be more baroque than the ugly struggling Laocoö n? History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules. History is baroque.
One powerful factor remained constant in Italian art: the Church was still the most active and formative patron. There were, of course, other patrons and influences: princely houses and cultured cardinals built private palaces, and in ornament carried on some pagan themes; so Odoardo Farnese had the Carracci paint for him The Triumph of Bacchus and The Rule of Love. But the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation that followed it had set a sterner tone; nudes retired from Italian art, and pious subjects no longer served as sensual vehicles. Only the supplications of Roman artists dissuaded Pope Clement VIII from completely covering Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Daniele da Volterra’s breeches and all. The Council had defended religious images against the attacks of Huguenots and Puritans, but it had insisted that such symbols should inspire worship rather than stir the blood. Whereas the reformers had discountenanced the adoration of Mary and the invocation of saints, the painters and sculptors of Counter-Reformation Italy told again, sometimes with crude realism, the sufferings of the martyrs, and, with conscious sentiment, the story of the Virgin Mother of God. The anxiety of the Church to depaganize art and to inculcate doctrine and piety co-operated with the political and economic reverses of Italy to make this age the last echo of the Renaissance.