The Great Illusionists

By Lavergnee, Arnauld Brejon de | UNESCO Courier, September 1987 | Go to article overview

The Great Illusionists


Lavergnee, Arnauld Brejon de, UNESCO Courier


The great illusionists

"COUNTER-REFORMATION art', "the Jesuit style' . . . these are but two of the countless designations that have been applied to baroque art. After a period of austerity which coincided with the end of the Mannerist school, ideas changed, the Church became less rigid in its attitude towards artists and there was a general resurgence in all the arts. Painting, sculpture and architecture combined to give birth to a new conception of the handling of space. Rome witnessed the genesis of a spectacular style, a spread by the Jesuits and backed by the Church, which encouraged a visual approach to the teaching of dogma. The painted ceilings of Roman churches are the masterprieces of this illusionist art, a triumph of the wondrous and of decorative effervescence.

The seventeenth century ushered in a new kind of painting. The Italian critic Luigi Salerno expressed its guiding principle in these words: "The image is no longer just a matter of line or colour; the artist wants to convey something which goes beyond lines, colours and perspective and which strikes the viewer's feelings and imagination.' To stimulate the imagination, the artist attempted to break down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art and to give his painting a "non-finite' aspect.

The Bologness painter Annibale Carracci's purpose seems to have been to bring the figures in his paintings closer to the space occupied by the viewer by creating the illusion that his paintings were a continuation of real space. The revolution introduced by Caravaggio, it would appear, was the sanctification of everyday life. A few years later it was Bernini's turn to complete the process and with him the frontiers between art and life were finally eliminated. What, then, were the stages in this artistic revolution which accompanied the development of the baroque style? Everything happened in Rome, in the space of three generations.

Annibale Carracci and the new style. In 1595, Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) arrived in Rome at the invitation of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. In addition to many easel paintings, he created one of the great masterpieces of seventeenth-century Italian art when he painted the ceiling vault of the gallery of the Palazzo Farnese (1597-1609) for which he took as his theme the Triumph of Love (Amor omnia vincit). Against a background of highly complex trompe l'oeil architecture (imitation vaulting, imitation of the wooden frames that usually surround paintings, imitation bronze and marble statues on which a golden light plays), Carracci unfolded mythological scenes that are inventive, joyful and dynamic, in accordance with the criteria of "ideal beauty'. The decorative scheme of the ceiling of the Farnese gallery was so richly inventive that it influenced ceiling decoration for generations and left its mark on both classical and baroque artists.

We must turn to the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945) for an explanation of the baroque style, which he distinguishes from the classical style on the following five counts:

the classical style is linear, stressing the limits of the subject which it defines and isolates. Baroque style is pictorial and its subjects have a natural relationship with their surroundings;

the classical style is a construction of planes, whereas baroque art is built in depth;

Classicism is a closed system, the Baroque is open;

the unity of the classical style is a composition of clearly distinct elements, the unity of the baroque style is an indivisible unity;

Classicism aims above all for clarity whereas the Baroque is less concerned with its personages as individuals than with their inter-relationships.

In its strict sense, the word Baroque (from the Portuguese word barroco, used to describe a pearl that is crudely or irregularly shaped) applies to an architectural style created in Rome at the beginning of the seventeenth century and which spread later to other countries. …

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