An Introduction to Baroque Architecture

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Characteristics of Baroque Architecture

Baroque interior of Saint-Bruno Des Chartreux Church In Lyon, France
Saint-Bruno Des Chartreux Church In Lyon, France. Photo Serge Mouraret/Corbis News/Getty Images (cropped)

The Baroque period in architecture and art in the 1600s and 1700s was an era in European history when decoration was highly ornamented and Classical forms of the Renaissance were distorted and exaggerated. Fueled by the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the philosophy of the Divine Right of Kings, the 17th and 18th centuries were turbulent and dominated by those who felt the need to exhibit their force—a timeline of 1600s & 1700s military history clearly shows us this. It was "power to the people" and the Age of Enlightenment to some; it was a time of reclaiming dominance and centralizing power for the aristocracy and Catholic Church.

The word baroque means imperfect pearl, from the Portuguese word barroco. The baroque pearl became a favorite centerpiece for the ornate necklaces and ostentatious brooches popular in the 1600s. The trend toward flowery elaboration transcended jewelry into other art forms, including painting, music, and architecture. Centuries later, when critics put a name to this extravagant time, the word Baroque was used mockingly. Today it is descriptive.

Characteristics of Baroque Architecture 

The Roman Catholic Church shown here, Saint-Bruno Des Chartreux in Lyon, France, was built in the 1600s and 1700s and displays many of the typical Baroque-era features:

  • Complicated shapes, breaking out of the box
  • Extreme ornamentation, often gilded with gold
  • Large elliptical forms, with curved lines replacing Classically straight
  • Twisted columns
  • Grand stairways
  • High domes
  • Ornate, open pediments
  • Trompe l'oeil paintings
  • Interest in light and shadow
  • Decorative sculptures, often in niches

The Pope didn't take kindly to Martin Luther in 1517 and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. Coming back with vengeance, the Roman Catholic Church asserted its power and dominance in what is now called the Counter-Reformation. Catholic Popes in Italy wanted architecture to express holy splendor. They commissioned churches with enormous domes, swirling forms, huge spiraled columns, multicolored marble, lavish murals, and dominant canopies to protect the most sacred altar.

Elements of the elaborate Baroque style are found throughout Europe and also traveled to the Americas as Europeans conquered the world. Because the United States was just being colonized during this time period, there is no "American Baroque" style. While Baroque architecture was always highly decorated, it found expression in many ways. Learn more by comparing the following photos of Baroque architecture from different countries.

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Italian Baroque

The Baroque Baldachin by Bernini, a four-poster ornate metal canopy
The Baroque Baldachin by Bernini at St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican. Photo by Vittoriano Rastelli/CORBIS/Corbis Historical/Getty Images (cropped)

In ecclesiastic architecture, Baroque additions to Renaissance interiors often included an ornate baldachin (baldacchino), originally called a ciborium, over the high altar in a church. The baldacchino designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) for the Renaissance-era St. Peter's Basilica is an icon of Baroque building. Rising eight stories high on Solomonic columns, the c. 1630 bronze piece is both sculpture and architecture at the same time. This is Baroque. The same exuberance was expressed in non-religious buildings like the popular Trevi Fountain in Rome.

For two centuries, the 1400s and 1500s, a Renaissance of Classical forms, symmetry and proportion, dominated art and architecture throughout Europe. Toward the end of this period, artists and architects such as Giacomo da Vignola began to break the "rules" of Classical design, in a movement that became known as Mannerism. Some say Vignola's design for the facade of Il Gesù, the Church of the Gesu in Rome (view photo), began a new period by combining scrolls and statuary with the Classical lines of pediments and pilasters. Others say that a new way of thinking began with Michelangelo's remake of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, when he incorporated radical ideas about space and dramatic presentation that went beyond the Renaissance. By the 1600s, all rules had been broken in what we now call the Baroque period.

Sources: Architecture Through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 424-425; Church of the Gesu Photo by Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (cropped)

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French Baroque

Chateau de Versailles and Gardens
Chateau de Versailles. Photo by Sami Sarkis/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images (cropped)

Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) lived his life entirely within the Baroque time period, so it seems natural that when he remodeled his father's hunting lodge In Versailles (and moved the government there 1682), the fanciful style of the day would be a priority. Absolutism and the "divine right of kings" is said to have reached its highest point with the reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King.

The Baroque style became more restrained in France, but grand in scale. While lavish details were used, French buildings were often symmetrical and orderly. The Palace of Versailles shown above is a landmark example. The Palace's grand Hall of Mirrors (view image) is more unrestrained in its extravagant design.

The Baroque period was more than art and architecture, however. It was a mindset of show and drama—an inclination present in today's society—as architectural historian Talbot Hamlin describes:

"The drama of the court, of court ceremonials, of flashing costume and stilted, codified gesture; the drama of military guards in brilliant uniforms lining a straight avenue, while prancing horses drag a gilded coach up the wide esplanade to the castle—these are essentially Baroque conceptions, part and parcel of the whole Baroque feeling for life."

Sources: Architecture Through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, p. 426; Hall of Mirrors photo by Marc Piasecki/GC Images/Getty Images

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English Baroque

Aerial View of Castle Howard, Yorkshire, UK
English Baroque Castle Howard, Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Photo by Angelo Hornak/Corbis Historical/Getty Images (cropped)

Shown here is Castle Howard in northern England. The asymmetry within a symmetry is the mark of a more restrained Baroque. This stately home design took shape over the entire 18th century.

Baroque architecture emerged in England after the Great Fire of London in 1666. English architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) had met the older Italian Baroque master architect Gianlorenzo Bernini and was prepared to rebuild the city. Wren used restrained Baroque styling when he redesigned London—the best example being the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral.

In addition to St. Paul's Cathedral and Castle Howard, The Guardian newspaper suggests these fine examples of English Baroque architecture—Winston Churchill's family home at Blenheim in Oxfordshire; the Royal Naval College at Greenwich; and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

Source: Baroque architecture in Britain: examples from the era by Phil Daoust, The Guardian, September 9, 2011 [accessed June 6, 2017]

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Spanish Baroque

Facade do Obradoiro at the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Facade do Obradoiro at the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

Builders in Spain, Mexico, and South America combined Baroque ideas with exuberant sculptures, Moorish details, and extreme contrasts between light and dark. Called Churrigueresque after a Spanish family of sculptors and architects, Spanish Baroque architecture was used through the mid-1700s, and continued to be imitated much later.

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Belgian Baroque

Interior of the St. Carolus Borromeus Church, c. 1620, Antwerp, Belgium
Interior of the St. Carolus Borromeus Church, c. 1620, Antwerp, Belgium. Photo by Michael Jacobs/Art in All of Us/Corbis News/Getty Images

The 1621 Saint Carolus Borromeus church in Antwerp, Belgium was built by the Jesuits to attract people to the Catholic church. The original interior artwork, designed to mimic an ornate banquet house, was done by the artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), although much of his art was destroyed by a lightening-induced fire in 1718. The church was contemporary and high-tech for its day—the large painting you see here is attached to a mechanism that allows it to be changed as easily as a screen saver on a computer. A nearby Radisson hotel promotes the iconic church as a must-see neighbor.

Architectural historian Talbot Hamlin might agree with the Radisson—it's a good idea to see Baroque architecture in person. "Baroque buildings more than any others," he writes, "suffer in photographs." Hamlin explains that a static photo can't capture the movement and interests of the Baroque architect: 

"...the relations between façade and court and room, in the building up of artistic experiences in time as one approaches a building, enters it, goes through its great open spaces. At its best it thereby achieves a kind of symphonic quality, building always by means of carefully calculated curves, by strong contrasts of light and dark, of big and little, of simple and complicated, a flow, an emotion, which finally reaches some definite climax...the building is designed with all its parts so interrelated that the static unit often seems complicated, bizarre, or meaningless...."

Source: Architecture Through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 425-426

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Austrian Baroque

Palais Trautson, 1712, Vienna, Austria
Palais Trautson, 1712, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (cropped)

This 1716 palace designed by Austrian architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656–1723) for the first Prince of Trautson stands as one of the many stately Baroque palaces in Vienna, Austria. Palais Trautson displays many of the high Renaissance architectural features—columns, pilasters, pediment—yet look at the ornamentation and gold highlights. Restrained Baroque is enhanced Renaissance.

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German Baroque

Overhead view of Moritzburg Castle, 4 red-domed turrets dominate the red hipped roof of this renovated hunting lodge nearly surrounded by water
Schloss Moritzburg In Saxony, Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

Like the Palace of Versailles in France, Moritzburg Castle in Germany started off as a hunting lodge and has a complicated and turbulent history. In 1723, Augustus the Strong of Saxony and Poland expanded and remodeled the property to what today is called Saxon Baroque. The area is also known for a type of delicately sculpted china called Meissen porcelain.

In Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe, and Russia, Baroque ideas were often applied with a lighter touch. Pale colors and curving shell shapes gave buildings the delicate appearance of a frosted cake. The term Rococo was used to describe these softer versions of the Baroque style. Perhaps the ultimate in German Bavarian Rococo is the 1754 Pilgrimage Church of Wies (view image) designed and built by Dominikus Zimmermann.

"The lively colours of the paintings bring out the sculpted detail and, in the upper areas, the frescoes and stuccowork interpenetrate to produce a light and living decor of unprecedented richness and refinement," states the UNESCO World Heritage site about the Pilgrimage Church. "The ceilings painted in trompe-l'œil appear to open to an iridescent sky, across which, angels fly, contributing to the overall lightness of the church as a whole."

So how does Rococo differ from Baroque?

"The characteristics of baroque," says Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, "are grandeur, pomposity, and weight; those of rococo are inconsequence, grace, and lightness. Baroque aims at astounding, rococo at amusing."

And so we are.

Sources: Pilgrimage Church of Wies photo by Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (cropped); A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Second Edition, by H.W. Fowler, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 49; Pilgrimage Church of Wies, UNESCO World Heritage Centre [accessed June 5, 2017]