Monday, August 27, 2007

Is Baroque "Absolutist"?

One thing I frequently hear is that Baroque churches look too much like royal palaces, operahouses or governmental buildings. However, it is not that Rome's grand churches look too palatial, but that Versailles looks too ecclesiastical. The Baroque began in Rome principally as an ecclesiastical style, and was only after that taken up elsewhere as a fashionable symbol of legitimism and monarchy. Even then, there were distinctive differences between secular and ecclesiastical Baroque, just as there were differences between secular and ecclesiastical Gothic.

The question of how Renaissance classicism came to be applied to church architecture is a long and complex question; suffice to say that there were other factors in it besides a mere substitution of heathen classical for Christian Gothic. There were questions of classical magnificence versus Gothic simplicity, as well as the nationalist overtones of Italian classicism (and its Christian Romanesque antecedents, such as the Baptistery in Florence) in the face of "il maniere tedesco," the alien German manner of building. But that is a matter for another time.

In any case, Trent chose to retain the classical manner not simply on a modish whim, but because they saw in its antique precedent the potential for a return to the purity of the Constantinian church. Some frescoes of the period were even consciously modeled on Roman wall-paintings. While archaeologically somewhat dubious, it still reminds us of the immense significance that the Roman orders still held for the early Christians, who chose to retain them in a meaningful manner in their basilicas.

Trent's somewhat puritanical classicism in time developed into the triumphal baroque. The change can begin to be seen around the first, second and third decades of the 17th century, with the work of Carlo Maderno and, later, his nephew Borromini and his rival Bernini. A galaxy of luminaries great and small soon trailed after them--Cortona, Rainaldi, Longhi, Vittone, Juvarra--that stretched well into the following century. The proto-Baroque was a more humane, ornamental, and perhaps even more physically sacramental development of the simple classical Counter-Reformation aesthetic represented by the Gesu and the other churches of the new orders sprouting up in Rome.

In time it became more festive and sculptural, and eventually increasingly plastic and florid with its more roccoco offspring in Germany, Spain and Mexico. These charming outliers are exaggerated ornament are best understood against the backdrop of the Baroque heartland of Italy, and Rome in particular. While not detracting from their beauty, they do not necessarily constitute the central essence of the style, which, rather than plastering ornament wall-to-wall (as in many Spanish examples), is instead about a rich union of painting, sculpture and architecture, a clever use of perspective, of hidden light sources and contrasting forms, and an iconographic ideal that ties the whole building tgether as an intellectual whole. Versailles, and the Roccoco opera houses of Germany, are the imitators of this ecclesiastical style, rather than its progenitors. Indeed, the palaces of the Baroque era in Italy began out as rather severe Renaissance cubes, and as in France only took on the swags and cherubim of Bernini and the rest as the Baroque church became an established fixture on the architectural scene. Even so, it would be difficult, once aware of the period's conventions, to mistake a palace for a church.

Another confusion in this fact lies in the dome, that wonderful manifestation of heaven reaching down to earth. We see a dome in the U.S. and tend to think, automatically, of the capitol in Washington, D.C. The ubiquitous Baroque dome, the image of the heavens, thus feels more governmental and institutional than it was ever intended to be. In truth, the American capitol dome, completed in the 1860s, was modelled in part on St. Peter's in Rome, and very few royal buildings in Europe featured a dome before the 19th century, it being typologically associated with the Church. (The only outstanding example to the contrary, Castle Howard, lies in Protestant England). The pediment as well had a more strongly ecclesiastical connotation in the southern countries of Europe then than it does today. Only in America would we think it appropriate to house a legislature in a building modelled on a Renaissance church.

Of course, if it were the other way round, it would not be the first time we borrowed a royal or governmental image to represent the house of God. Much church ritual, especially pontifical ritual, derives in some real way from the civil ceremonial of the late Empire (indeed, "Ite, missa est," may have been the formula used to dismiss a civil proceeding); while the early Christian basilicas were closely related to Roman basilicas, which housed the judiciary or served as royal audience halls. Such royal imagery remains relevant today, even in an age of presidents and power-brokers, because Christ remains king even if there are no other kings to compare him to. Indeed, the royal dignity of Christ remains even more important today precisely because He is virtually unique, and because it represents our relationship to Him in a certain way that would be lost in any feast of "Christ the President."

That being said, it is not the Church that imitates the state in the Baroque, at least at its birth, but the state that imitates the Church, and once again in the case of the American capitol with its bloated Michelangelesque dome.

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