Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 29, 2011
Michael Snodin and Nigel Llewellyn, eds. Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence Exh. cat. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2009. 372 pp.; 350 color ills. Cloth $85.00 (9781851775583)
Exhibition schedule: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, April 4–July 19, 2009; Museé National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec, Québec City, February 11–May 2, 2010

Baroque 09 was a yearlong series of cultural events in the United Kingdom that celebrated the era’s art, music and culture. The Victoria and Albert Museum participated with the well-received exhibition, Baroque 1620–1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence, which ran from April 4 to July 19, 2009. Michael Snodin and Nigel Llewellyn’s volume of the same name serves as the catalogue for the exhibition. The book is more than this, however, as the catalogue itself comprises only twenty-eight pages located toward the back of the book. The preceding three hundred pages attempt to reconstruct the Baroque and present it to a wide audience. Making sense of the Baroque is a difficult challenge, but for the most part the authors have succeeded.

The book consists of five themed chapters, each interspersed with short passages that highlight specific works, events, or places mentioned in the main narrative. The volume makes use of, but is not restricted to, works in the exhibition. The first chapter, Llewellyn’s “The World of the Baroque Artist,” paints a broad picture of the era, hitting on key points ranging from the social and political structure of European nations, to the emerging global economy, to the era’s science, religion, and philosophy. The chapter concludes with discussions of the life of the Baroque artist, the art market, and art collectors, which delivers interesting facts such as the number of works produced for the Dutch market (perhaps a million) and Rembrandt’s speculated output (perhaps one thousand works) (68). Most important in the chapter, however, is Snodin and Llewellyn’s conception of the Baroque presented in the exhibition and book. They argue against a “convincing Baroque Zeitgeist” and instead reduce the Baroque to a mere style, a “stage in the development of the post-Renaissance classical language of design,” which they explore through such themes as “assemblage and synthesis, the visual exploration of physical space, the illusion of movement and naturalistic ornament” (20).

The Baroque style is fully examined in the second chapter, written by Snodin. After noting competing etymologies for the term “baroque,” he details the Italian and French origins of the artistic style (74). This Franco-Italian bias is clear throughout the volume, despite the authors’ repeated and proper attempts to present the Baroque as the first “world Style” (114). For Snodin, the Baroque style was chosen by sacred and secular powers who, in the pursuit of power, intended to overwhelm the viewer with magnificent displays. In short, the Baroque is “at root about performance” designed to further absolutist political structures (76). Examples of the power of the style to overwhelm range from Bernini’s Piazza San Pietro (1656–67) to Gaulli’s Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1674–79). As for the artistic lineage of the Baroque, it is indebted to Michelangelo (78), pioneered by Maderno’s Santa Susana (82), and brought to first flower in the sculpture of Bernini (98) and painting of Rubens (101). While we might accept some of this chronology, can we really overlook earlier architecture such as the Jesuit Church of Il Gesù, which is discussed for its interior rather than its façade (218), or diminish the contributions to painting of the Carracci and Caravaggio, who receive a mention but no sustained discussion? Easily the most interesting portion of this chapter is the discussion of porcelain and other new materials imported from Asia, which complements recent studies such as Alden Cavanagh and Michael Yonan’s The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010).

In chapter 3, “Performance and Performativity,” three authors consider three spaces designed for performance: the theater, the square, and the altar. Joanna Norman, who handles the section on theater, covers a wide range of topics, from the character of Baroque performances, stage design and machinery, and costumes, to permanent theaters, all unified by the somewhat-tired notion of Gesamtkunstwerk. Elaine Tierney’s discussion of urban festivals begins with a consideration of urban space as a stage on which was articulated “the power relationships between state and civic institutions and society at large” (188). She then proceeds to examine the events celebrated, processions, temporary architecture, participants, and spectators; her discussion culminates the documentation of these otherwise ephemeral events in the festival print. Llewellyn finishes the chapter with a discussion of the High Mass, finding the notion of performance to be as prominent in the “sacred spaces of chapels and churches” as it was in the “secular worlds of the square . . . and the theater” (189). He convincingly argues that the altar became a stage for a theological debate on transubstantiation that directly impacted the “works of art that were designed and made” to be used there (191).

Chapter 4, “Power and Piety,” discusses the range of religious devotion witnessed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this time of religious conflict, authoritative religions sought to control both content and artistic expression in works of art. At the same time, art was employed to disseminate religious thought; on occasion it became necessary to embrace cultural differences. Thus, the Catholic emphasis on the Mass found expression in churches erected by the Portuguese in India that emulated Hindu temples, and, more obviously, Catholic Marian devotion produced local versions of the Madonna (206). Llewellyn’s contributions on the expression of religious faith via the visual arts are surely the strongest sections of the book.

In the final chapter, “The Palace,” Snodin discusses the frenzy of palace building that swept Baroque Europe. Beginning with Louis XIV and continuing through the eighteenth century, the construction of palaces became a means for absolutist regimes to gain, assert, and maintain power. Two competing historical views of absolutist power emerge: one argues that Baroque ritual distracted the aristocracy from opposing the ruler, while the other insists that such ritual reinforced the Baroque political structure of ruler, aristocracy, and state (261). Snodin elucidates the Baroque palace by taking the reader through its spaces (gardens, galleries, apartments, and bedchambers) and recounting palace activities (promenading, dining, meeting the king). It is perhaps in this chapter that the book’s excellent illustrations are most successful in reconstructing the Baroque: images of dining sets and furniture coupled with paintings that recorded daily life in the palaces help bring back to life the pomp of Baroque palaces.

The exhibition and accompanying text document the Baroque’s long run, its appearance across four continents, and its manifestation in multiple media. Any attempt to encapsulate so vast a subject is sure to have errors or disappoint some readers. Yet, Snodin and Llewellyn deserve credit for an excellent effort. Because the intended readership is not scholarly, it is possible to forgive instances when long-standing general opinion is repeated rather than current state of the field research, such as the stock comparisons between Versailles and Vienna that cannot withstand Jeroen Duindam’s Vienna and Versailles: The Courts of Europe’s Dynastic Rivals, 1550–1789 (New York: Cambridge University Press: 2003). Harder to accept is the starting date of 1620, which ignores the first fifty years of the Baroque. In addition to the questions mentioned above concerning the development of the style, starting this late also leads to curious interpretations of patronage: were the Jesuits really only important in the dissemination of the style after the canonization of Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier in 1622 (40)? There are glaring omissions even within the long timeline Snodin and Llewellyn do cover, notably Guarino Guarini. Elsewhere, they pay scant attention to German courts, justifying this by arguing that the Thirty Years War left German-speaking lands “poorly placed to patronize the visual arts” (32). Yet the Baroque was resurgent in German lands after 1648, when dukes and electors embraced the style for political ends. Indeed, the court of Frederick I speaks eloquently for German participation in the Baroque. Meanwhile, the rest of northern Baroque earns only a dozen pages, surprising when one considers the flowering of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. This may be the book’s greatest weakness. While the Dutch Republic does not conform to the authors’ model of an absolutist state using a magnificent style to overwhelm for political ends, establishing such a model is not their only goal. This text attempts to construct a picture of the entire Baroque world, and such a picture is not complete without the Dutch, who were major world players for much of the period under consideration, despite Snodin and Llewellyn’s unconvincing dismissal (71). Nevertheless, they have produced an interesting book that expands the themes of the exhibition, affording the general reader a better understanding of the Baroque.

Matthew Knox Averett
Associate Professor, Department of Fine and Performing Arts, Creighton University