a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

the italian baroque


people, terms, and concepts: Counter-Reformation, planar recession, diagonal recession, closed composition, open composition, 'pomp and splendor' Baroque, 'humble realist' Baroque, multimedia, tenebrism, foreshortening


The Counter-Reformation: By the mid-1550s, the Protestant movement was so powerful that the Catholic church felt the need to respond, so they formed a committee called the Council of Trent to study the problem and come up with a solution. The Council reasserted the importance of art as a way of educating the (largely illiterate) public about religion, and specifically recommended that artists should make their works less ‘confusing’ and more emotional (more expressive), both in order to communicate more clearly and to appeal to more people. This decree was a major factor leading to the development of the Baroque style in Italy, which differs from the Renaissance style as follows:

•  Renaissance art appeals to reason where Baroque art appeals to emotion

•  Renaissance art has a static and balanced planar recession into space where Baroque art tends toward a more dynamic and dramatic diagonal recession

•  Renaissance art has closed compositions where Baroque art tends to have open compositions

•  Renaissance art has even lighting (floodlight) where Baroque art tends to have dramatic lighting (spotlight)

How do the works below demonstrate these formal qualities?  How is Bernini's Ecstasy of St Teresa a perfect example of Baroque art both in terms of its style and of the story it tells?

Pomp and Splendor Baroque vs. Humble Realist Baroque: Although all Baroque art tends to appeal to the emotions, artists in Italy developed two distinct styles for doing so. One style (what we'll call the pomp and splendor Baroque, although that’s my own made-up term) tries to overwhelm the viewer with a rich and splendid multimedia display -- be able to discuss Bernini's Ecstasy of St Teresa as a good example. The other style (the humble realist Baroque) takes a different approach: instead of rich and sumptuous display, the humble realist style tries to appeal to ordinary people by showing realistic, usually lower-class people in much simpler and more somber settings. The art of Caravaggio and his followers is a good example. Caravaggio was also responsible for two other effects often associated with the humble realist Baroque style: the use of foreshortening as a means of opening the composition into the viewer's space, and the use of dramatic contrasts of light and dark called tenebrism.

As we will see, the pomp and splendor Baroque style was particularly adopted by Catholic and 'absolutist' nations (more on which later), while the humble realist style was adopted by Protestants and by certain Catholic works where a message of poverty or humility was to be stressed (e.g. depictions of St Francis or the Penitent Magdalene).

Caravaggio, The Entombment, Italian ‘humble realist’ Baroque, c. 1605

Tintoretto, The Last Supper, Italian Baroque, c. 1595

Bernini, David, Italian Baroque, c. 1625

Bernini, The Ecstasy of St Teresa, Italian ‘pomp and splendor’ Baroque, c. 1650 (chapel overall)

Bernini, The Ecstasy of St Teresa, Italian ‘pomp and splendor’ Baroque, c. 1650 (central group)