Baroque Architecture: The History, The Form, and The Artists


Baroque architecture is an exuberant style of architecture that first appeared in the eponymous era in the 16th century. A reaction against the previously mainstream Renaissance architecture, it started off in Italy and then slowly spread across Europe. Baroque architecture is also called Catholic style, for it was meant to represent the glory of the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, a good portion of Baroque buildings were churches and cathedrals. How did it evolve through centuries? How to recognize it? Who were the notable figures? Find out all the answers here.

Early Baroque (1584-1625)

The Early Baroque era was marked with the emergence of Roman religious architecture commissioned by the Catholic Church to counter the appeal of the Protestant Reformation as Protestantism was beginning to become more dominant. More or less a propaganda to attract more people to the Catholic faith, the mission was to awe people with the grandeur look. Roman architects’ works were mostly dominant during this era, notably the sumptuous Barberini Palace interiors designed by Pietro da Cortona, the colonnade of Renaissance-style St. Peter’s Basilica by the affluential Carlo Maderno, and Giacomo della Porta’s Church of the Gesù.

St. Peter's Basilica | Source:

High Baroque (1625-1675)

Baroque architecture saw its peak in the High Baroque era. Two of the most influential architects during this era was Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. Bernini, who was a child prodigy, was named as the chief Papal architect for Pope Urban VIII who later became the most significant figure of Baroque style. He was trusted with many mega-projects by Urban, including St. Peter’s Square, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, and Fontana della Barcaccia. Whereas Borromini, a remarkable architect on his own, designed the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Oratorio dei Filippini, and Sant’lvo alla Sapienza. Although they were each other’s biggest rival, both once worked together to complete and decorate Carlo Maderno’s Barberini Palace (1626-1629).

St. Peter's Square | Source:
Francesco Borromini's Santa Maria della Pace (1656-68) | Source:

During this era, the style gradually spread beyond Rome. In Venice, High Baroque notable works included Baldassare Longhena’s Santa Maria della Salute. In France, some examples of High Baroque are Jacques Lemercier’s Pavillon de l’Horlogeof the Louvre Palace and the Chapel of the Sorbonne, and also François Mansart’s Château de Maisons.

Santa Maria della Salute (1630-31) | Source:
Château de Maisons (1630-51) | Source:

Late Baroque (1675-1750)

In the end of late Baroque era, the style had already flourished across the entire Europe and to the Portugal and Spain colonies in the New World. Each country developed its own signature Baroque. In France, the late Baroque was rather ordered and classical, for instance, the Hall of Mirrors and the Chapel of the Palace of Versailles. In England, the important figure was Christopher Wren, whose reconstruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral was inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica model.

Hall of Mirrors in Palace of Versailles (1678-86) | Source:
St. Paul's Cathedral (1675-1711) | Source:

Central Europe saw the construction of many extraordinary late Baroque buildings. Some of those took elements from Versailles and Italian Baroque to create exuberant new effects. In Austria, the leading architect was Fischer von Erlach who built the largest church of Vienna, the Karlskirche, to signify the glory of Austrian Emperors. Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt’s designed grandiose stairways and ellipses at the upper and lower Belvedere Palace in Vienna. Balthasar Neumann was the leading Baroque architect in German. His Wüzburg Residence was famous for its staircase, becoming a late Baroque masterpiece. But the capital of the late Baroque was Prague and Vienna, where Christoph Dientzenhofer’s building featured counter-curves, complex curves, and elliptical forms.

The Karlskirche (consecrated 1737) | Source:
Staircase in Wüzburg Residence (1749-51) | Source:

Baroque Characteristics

It has been said that the term Baroque originally referred to a pearl that has movements, striations, elliptical or tear-shaped, with spirits of unusual form rather than going to absolute purity—which sums up the nature of Baroque arts. In architecture, Baroque carries a sense of extravagance, highly ornamental and theatrical, as well as rejection to harmony and concord for artistic effect.

Through and through, Baroque architecture was both an homage and reaction against Renaissance architecture. It borrowed its basic elements from the Renaissance, including colonnades and domes, but with Baroque, everything was higher, more decorated, dramatic, and theatrical. Baroque architects put a lot of interest on the façades, which features coupled columns, different sizes of openings, and lots of decorative sculptures. They were never aiming at peace, but rather pursuing artistic expression instead. The columns were pushed into space, giving off a theatrical vibe, and the bowing of the walls all charged the space with an emotional quality.

St. Peter's Square colonnades by Bernini | Source:
Giovanni Maria Bernardoni's Church of St. Peter and Paul (1605-19) | Source:

Inside, Baroque churches are as magnificent as it is on the exterior. While Protestant churches tend to be more straightforward with no ornament nor decoration, Baroque style Catholic churches were all about dramatic effects, implementing ornamental hierarchy on the altar—from God, to Jesus, to the Saints, to the Eucharists, to the priests. The interior features high dome-shaped ceilings with cupolas decorated with trompe-l’oeil painting that creates the illusion as if one is looking through the roof to heaven. Gold ornaments, dynamic marble sculptures, and cartouches occupied every available space.

Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta’s Church of the Gesù dome | Source:

Notable Baroque Figures

Part of the reason why Baroque architecture was highly successful was Carlo Fontana. The Italian architect took students from all over Europe, significantly aiding the spread of Baroque architecture across the continent. His notable work in Italy including San Marcello al Corso (1692-1697). But when it comes to Italy, the most significant figure would be Carlo Maderno, whom a great number of new generation Baroque architects work for. His façade for the ancient church of Santa Susanna was among the very first Baroque façades to reject Mannerism—a style that dominated Europe after the Renaissance before Baroque became popular. For this reason, many deemed him as one of the fathers of Baroque architecture.

Santa Susanna façade (1603) | Source:

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