Magazine article The Spectator

Twisted Brilliance

Magazine article The Spectator

Twisted Brilliance

Article excerpt

What am I doing reviewing a documentary about the baroque?

I hate the baroque - have done for as long as I can remember - and I expect it's probably the same with you. Apart from being an essential sign of aesthetic superiority (we much prefer neoclassical in this country, don't we, those of us who've spent time living in places like Peck quad, what, what, what? ) hating the baroque is also the most wonderful time-saver. When you're on holiday in somewhere like Italy or Spain, it means that instead of having to waste hours being impressed by the various churches, you can just whizz round them in about ten seconds going 'urgh', 'argh', 'bleeuuch' and 'naaah', feeling you've done your cultural duty while simultaneously confirming yourself as a man of great taste.

But now Waldemar Januszczak has gone and ruined it for me with his series Baroque!

St Peter's to St Paul's, a repeat which I caught up with on Sunday on BBC4. Though I wouldn't go so far as to say he has made me love the baroque, he has suddenly made me very, very interested in it. Naples, for example. I'm really quite keen to go there now and experience for myself the squalid, decaying, menacing picturesqueness that Januszczak showed us so invitingly, and to see for myself the dark, sometimes terrifying work of the Cabal of Naples.

The Cabal comprised three painters - Jusepe de Ribera (known as 'the Little Spaniard'), Greek-born Belisario Corenzio and a nasty piece of work called Battistello Caracciolo. Together they conspired to bully, rough up or even kill any rival artists who dared to try to make a living on their patch. They'd put sand in their paint, they'd rub out their paintings and in the case of poor Guido Reni they attempted assassination. Reni's assistant copped it instead, forcing Reni to flee the city. When another young artist came to Naples to complete the work Reni had left unfinished, he was lured on to a boat in the Bay of Naples and never heard of again.

'Baroque' is derived from barroco, the Portuguese word for a deformed pearl.

Januszczak held up a pretty, smooth, round pearl to illustrate the Renaissance: 'perfectly formed, exquisite, delicate, so civilised, precious'; then he held up a barroco and put on a leering, pervy, dirty old man's voice:

'blobby, exuberant, misshapen, difficult to handle and exciting'. It made you desperate to want to like baroque for fear of being thought a terrible prude. …

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