Baroque exuberance frivolity or disquiet?

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Robert Harbison defines the Baroque in the 17th and early 18th centuries, which is so often characterised in contrast with the Renaissance by its excess and drama. In doing so, he challenges the reader to consider whether this artful style of subversion, tension, movement, gravity-defying feats and freedom was really one of whimsical frivolity or subversive disquiet.

Exuberance in the Baroque, the style dominant in Catholic Europe for most of the 17th and early 18th centuries, is a by-product of the desire to overturn Renaissance fixity, solidity and stable harmony. The subversion is perhaps most complete in short-lived forms like fireworks, but more satisfying in more permanent imitations of spontaneous effusion, ranging from asymmetrical decorative effects in flimsy materials to fluid or unstable geometrical forms like ovals or broken pediments, which are preferred to simpler curves or angles.

In the Baroque, before electricity made bright light cheap and commonplace, fireworks must have produced a much stronger impression on the senses than they do now. Then they often formed a crucial part of expansive displays of the ruler’s wealth and power in Baroque capitals like Rome, Turin and Vienna. They are the ultimate ephemera, and contributed to the Baroque love of sudden and momentary artistic effects that take spectators by surprise and sweep them away in a rush of excitement.

There are, of course, less fragile and temporary semiarchitectural forms of movement and the momentary, like those employing water – fountains and cascades, for instance, which reach new heights and frequency in the Baroque. Though fountains usually repeat themselves, they still give the sensation of being there, then not there, thus instilling the idea of a world founded on change, through which energy visibly pulses.

A fountain like Bernini’s Four Rivers transports a wild landscape into the centre of a city, a typical Baroque piece of exuberant impossibility. The seeming naturalism of this confection – its carved plant and animal life formerly brightly coloured – paradoxically increases the theatrical artifice of the strange machine.

Another sort of fountain appears to exist in unlikely symbiosis with the facade of a large building, as at the Trevi in Rome (1732), where the continuum of windowed walls with gushing torrents and rough-hewn boulders suggests alarming transformations of civilisation into barbarism. Here, architect and sculptors are pushing the boundary between the two and getting an exhilarating charge from the confusion thus created.

Viewing them from the intended subjective perspective, one can even detect exuberance in the sheets of still water in Baroque gardens like those at Versailles or Sceaux, because outlines of pools are seldom simple geometrical forms but incorporate curves and indentations, imparting a sense of constant change to a visitor circling them. Across these flat surfaces rush or ripple the changing spectacle of distorted reflections of buildings, trees and clouds. Clouds themselves have recently been the subject of surprising studies, interpreted as existing in exuberant freedom from necessities like gravity.

Exuberance in Baroque architecture is often expressed as defiance of gravity, in the cloudscapes overhead in Bavarian Rococo churches, in the punctured domes and vaults of Guarino Guarini and his follower Bernardo Vittone, mainly in Piedmont. Punctures generally occur in just those features of the building one counts on for structural soundness, so they feel pleasantly risky. Through their means one is granted a view of spaces beyond the present enclosure. This unexpected freedom recalls kinds of movement which become trademarks of the later medium of film. In fact, film teems with Baroque possibility in the hands of a director like Max Ophuls – most exuberantly in Le plaisir (1952), and Madame de… and Letter from an Unknown Woman (both 1953) – whose camera glides through a connected series of spaces ignoring obstructions like columns and railings, placed in his way just to show how free we are to override any such impediment to our comprehension of the fluid spatial medium the characters inhabit.

In some literal-minded sense, the punctures in Vittone’s domes are flaws, but in later Rococo pulpits or little groups of porcelain figures they increase an exuberant variety of form that persuades us that a rational approach is too narrow to keep up with the richness of reality.

One of the strangest ramifications of the Baroque motif of the rent or puncture is the taste for ruins, which began as an intellectual pursuit in the Renaissance and became thoroughly aestheticised in the centuries that followed, until Piranesi could almost make a career of the depiction of incompleteness in the most ragged form imaginable. It is a striking paradox that the 18th-century ruin-taste,

to which Piranesi is the greatest contributor, was not mainly melancholic and death haunted, but an extravagant prompting to sensuous indulgence, notably in the mock ruins that decorate English landscape gardens. Through this curious focus on decay one imbibes the idea of fragmentary ancient remains as almost alive, sharing many features of the life of creatures and therefore inviting an intensity of response one does not usually associate with the insensible stone of architecture.

Some of the most interesting writing (by Hans Sedlmayr and others) about the lighter Rococo which the Baroque gently modulates into, argues that all its apparent frivolity and light-headedness is an unconscious attempt to fend off knowledge of ageing and death. So it introduces the cult of youth and sexual love in flight from Christian notions of sin and adult responsibility. So it is that the favoured colours are fresh pastels, undeepened by later, sadder experience, and the favourite activities are childish games, pastimes in more than one sense. Perhaps one can say the same about all exuberance, and even all art, that it is really about what it is not prepared to discuss or to face, that it is a kind of smokescreen hiding what cannot finally be hidden.

Frivolity aside, there is such a thing as mindless or unreflective exuberance of course, but the Baroque is full of instances of rapture attained by holding contradictions in tension rather than denying them, a demanding state of mind and feeling, not an easy or complacent one. Naive examples are among the most enjoyable, like the Mexican facades or retablos that have no idea how much is enough or too much, which turn Ionic columns into piles of luxurious, illogical detail, each one an independent principality that imagines itself infinite. In this strange and magical world, a modern observer can never be sure how many of the fantastic ideas spawned by these pseudo-architectural tapestries to attribute to the Indian carvers. Perhaps these teeming facades are simply archetypal cases of non-cohering collage, barrages of uncommunicating moments.

Contradictions held in deliberate suspension lie at the heart of Bernini’s bravura pieces like the Ecstasy of St Teresa (1652) or the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1674), where violent energy and peaceful dissolution are present simultaneously in the same bodies. But it is preferable here to turn to the less obviously figural, more austere work of Borromini in the search for examples of thoughtful exuberance. Remarkably, in many of his buildings, like San Carlino (1638) at the beginning and Sant’ Ivo (1642) near the end, a detailed narrative is translated entirely into architectural form; that is, into geometrical solids without simple avatars in ordinary reality. And in Borromini the thrill always comes from the discomfort of needing to solve a puzzle before one can take the next step. Why does the dome of Sant’ Ivo twist and turn; twist and turn so much, in fact, that the whole idea of a dome is on the point of being lost? Why does the concave-sided pillar sit on an oval cylindrical base at the Propaganda Fide (1662)? Why, except that this discomfort is a stimulus to thought, and that the best thoughts arise from the exuberant variety that contradiction tolerated brings.

Of course in recent decades architects have gone much further than anyone could in the Baroque to produce antiarchitectural effects in buildings that look as if they could fall down or come apart, like Frank Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica (1977, revised 1993) caught in midexplosion, or Rem Koolhaas’ new CCTV in Beijing (2009), leaning and twisting as if it cannot possibly hold still. Of course, too, the more unlikely these illusions are, the more they send one back to the minds of their designers. As in the 17th century, the wildest contemporary forays are the starkest assertions of the power of human artifice, exactly the effect that many of the projectors thought they could avoid. Thus like the most vigorous Baroque works they create experiences whose visceral power does not last long except in uncomfortable oscillation with cerebral reflection that begins in the moments after the initial shock. It is up to the viewer or user to decide whether these designs are facile games indulged in simply because they are possible, or profound exposures of the contradictions always present in experience but unnoticed until someone like Borromini startles us into troubled appreciation.

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