Gouache painting of a shop selling Chinese export wares, possibly from the Netherlands, 1680–1700. Museum no. P.35-1926

Hard-paste porcelain cup, China, 1630–40; Silver-gilt cover and mounts, probably England, 1660-70, probably by Wolfgang Howzer. Museum no. M.308-1962

The first global style

Baroque was the first style to have a significant worldwide impact. It spread from Italy and France to the rest of Europe, then travelled via European colonies, missions and trading posts to Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. The style was spread through international trade in fashionable goods, through prints, and also by travelling craftsmen, artists and architects.

Chinese carvers worked in Indonesia; French silversmiths in Sweden; Italian furniture makers in France; sculpture was sent from the Philippines to Mexico as well as Spain; London-made chairs went all over Europe and across the Atlantic; French royal workshops turned out luxury products in the official French style that were both desired and imitated by fashionable society across Europe. However Baroque also changed as it crossed the world, adapting to new needs and local tastes.

Art & performance

Marble portrait bust of Charles II by Honoré Pelle, probaby Genoa, Italy, 1684. Museum no. 239-1881

Marble portrait bust of Charles II by Honoré Pelle, probaby Genoa, Italy, 1684. Museum no. 239-1881

Baroque art did not stand shyly by, hoping to be noticed. Paintings, sculpture and decorative arts swirled with vigorous action and strong feelings. Figures have a sense of realistic immediacy, as if they had been stopped in mid- action. Facial expression, pose, gesture and drapery all played a part in the drama.

Human figures played a leading role in all the various art forms, from painting and architecture through to sledges and tableware. Allegorical, sacred and mythological figures took over the whole work, turning it into a drama in which the actors strove to convey particular messages and to engage the emotions of the viewer.

These figures were put into the service of both faith and dynastic ambition - in emotionally wrought religious paintings, and in heroic portraits of rulers, their heads held high above a mass of billowing drapery.

Architecture & performance

Baroque buildings were dynamic and dramatic, both using and breaking the rules of Classical architecture. Facades were full of movement, columns were twisted, and ground plans were composed of curves and ovals. Inside, painted ceilings seem to open to the sky, and hidden windows illumined domes and altars. All these designs conveyed meanings and emotions, such as the great curved colonnades outside St Peter's in Rome, representing the Church's embrace, or the repeated elements on the endless facades of Baroque palaces, signalling absolute power.

Baroque architecture was pioneered in papal Rome by Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669), Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) and Francesco Borromini (1599–1667). The new style was vigorous and imaginative but always controlled. Borromini's oval ground plans were based on a dynamic geometry of triangles and circles: the same geometry that lay behind the city plans of Baroque Rome.

Copperplate engraving of a European Pavilion at the Garden of Perfect Clarity in Yuanmingyuan, Beijing, China, after drawings by Yi Lantai, 1781–6. Museum no. 29452

Copperplate engraving of a European Pavilion at the Garden of Perfect Clarity in Yuanmingyuan, Beijing, China, after drawings by Yi Lantai, 1781–6. Museum no. 29452

 

Marvellous materials

A fascination with physical materials was central to the Baroque style. Virtuoso art objects made of rare and precious substances had long been valued and kept in special rooms or cabinets, alongside natural history specimens, scientific instruments, books, documents and works of art. However during the Baroque period the birth of modern science and the opening up of the world beyond Europe brought an increasingly serious interest in the nature and meaning of these exotic materials.

Rarities such as East Asian porcelain and lacquer became fashionable and were imitated in Europe. Some of the rarest materials were believed to have the very useful capacity to detect poison, among them the newly invented ruby glass (containing real gold) and rhinoceros horn, which also had the sexual connotations it still carries in some cultures today.

Turned ivory cup, by Pilipp Sengher also called Filippo Senger, Florence, Italy, 1681. Museum no. 74-1865

Turned ivory cup, by Pilipp Sengher also called Filippo Senger, Florence, Italy, 1681. Museum no. 74-1865

Black glazed red Böttger stoneware coffee pot, Meissen porcelain factory, Meissen, Germany, about 1710-13. Museum no. C.160-1937

Black glazed red Böttger stoneware coffee pot, Meissen porcelain factory, Meissen, Germany, about 1710-13. Museum no. C.160-1937


This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Baroque 1620 - 1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 4 April - 19 July 2009.

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