Mario Sabatini, Modelbau der Laterne von Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Rom,1999. Sammlung Albertina, Wien. Foto/Photo: TES

Baroque. Age of Contrasts

The word ‘baroque’ has a different meaning today than two centuries ago. It now stands for theatrical or exaggerated behaviour, language or appearance. The term derives from the Italian ‘Barocco’ and refers to a pearl with irregularities.

The Italian origin was the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This council was the Catholic Church’s response, the Counter-Reformation, to the Reformation in Europe that began in 1517. One of the outcomes was a new presentation and liturgy of the Catholic Church. It became the Baroque, the period 1580-1780.

The Council of Trent, 1770, copie after an original from 1563. Collection: Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum 

The Baroque was not limited to the Catholic way of life; Protestant and secular culture, science, fashion, art and music also became ‘Baroque’. The French royal court of Louis XIV is a symbol of this culture. Not only Versailles but several city palaces in Paris bear witness. One example is the Hôtel Lambert. Because of an auction of the interior, the complete Baroque interior can be viewed online. It gives an impression of Baroque splendour.

Detail of tapestry by Charles le Brun (1619-1690), 1668, the meeting between the French King Louis  XIV, the Spanish King Philippe IV and the Spanish infante  (future wife of Louis). Collection: Mobilier national, Paris

The garden of Versailles was developed by André le Nôtre (1613-1700). Arrival of Louis XIV, 1686. Reproduction, Palace of Versailles and Trianon, akg-images/Jean-Claude Varga.

Closer to home, at the Landesmuseum Zürich, the exhibition (Barock. Zeitalter der Kontraste) put the Baroque into European and Swiss perspectives. The show is chronological and thematic. After the ‘baroque’ entrance with a model replica of the Laterna of the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza chapel in Rome, there is an overview of Europe’s religious and political division using maps from the seventeenth century and digital screens.

It provides insight into the various religious and political powers and conflicts in Europe and European power struggles and trade in the New World, Africa and Asia. After all, it was the period of colonisation of other continents.

Limiting the religious divisions to mainstream Catholicism and Protestantism is an excellent choice. They determined the many (spiritual) wars, (colonial) trade and refugees and the rise of the Baroque in this period.

Other religions, such as Judaism or Anabaptism, did not play a significant role politically nor in the armed and economic conflicts between the superpowers. Although a formidable military power (the sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, for example), Turkey played a limited cultural role in the development of the Baroque,  influencing it only sideways, as was shown in another exhibition. 

Baroque music instruments. Collection: Museum für Gestaltung  Zürich/Kunstgewerbesammlung/Zürcher Hochschule der Künste

French court fashion, seventeenth century. Collection: Sammlung: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg

The title is also well chosen. The gold and glitter of the churches, the splendour of court life and the bourgeoisie, and the developments in science, arts, music, architecture and technical progress contrasted with the almost permanent wars and (trade) conflicts, diseases, hunger, cold (‘the little ice age’) and poverty for most of the population. The Thirty Years’ War and the flight of the Huguenots are the best-known c.q. Notorious examples.

Switzerland has a rich Baroque culture. Its citizens, ‘Zuckerbäcker’, politicians, scientists, merchants, mercenaries, immigrants and entrepreneurs were active in Europe and the colonies of European countries, adopting Baroque culture. Swiss artists and artisans also spread Baroque culture abroad; foreigners contributed to its development in Switzerland. It was a European world.

Carlo Maderno (1556-1629), Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), Domenico Fontana (1543-1607), Giovanni Viscardi (1645-1713), Enrico Zuccalli (1642-1724) and other architects and artists were particularly active in France, southern Germany, Austria (Voralberg) and Italy (Rome) and other places.

The main topics are being dealt with: the (global) role of the church, Jesuits and Capuchins in particular, church architecture and popular piety, Versailles and France as the standards of fashion, gardens, palaces, court life and residential culture, theatre, music and literature, science, pre-industrialisation (in Switzerland, among others, the silk, wool, watchmaking and (printed) textile industries, and the processing of spices, tea and coffee products), the role of Swiss citizens, mercenaries and immigrants in European colonies, the art collectors and their European networks.

Another exhibition in Switzerland currently highlights a specific subject of baroque culture.

Johann Baptist Cysat (1587-1657), 1619, world map of the presence of Jesuits and their martyrs.  Collection: Historisches Museum, Luzern

In short, it was a dynamic and contrasting period. Perhaps in two centuries, people will reflect on the present-day era similarly. The exhibition also clarifies that this period still influences today’s society and culture. The Baroque is not a thing of the past but a crucial stage in the development of today’s society.

(Source and further information: Landesmuseum in Zurich)

Pyramide of Tulips, Delft c. 1700. Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Andrea Sacchi, Jan Miel, Filippo Gagliardi, painting of the  Il Gesù in Rome, the mother church of the Jesuits, 1640, celebration of one century Order of Jesuits. Collection: Nazionali d’Arte Antica di Roma.