CHIAVARI, Italy - First time visitors to the Vatican in Rome are often surprised to see just how wedding cake fancy the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica is. There seem to be curlicues and swirls and chubby cheeked angels in the most unexpected places, with hardly a straight line in sight.
The interior is the work of GianLorenzo Bernini, but it was the man who commissioned him, Pope Urban VIII, who demanded the flamboyant architecture. More curves, he said, more grandeur, more drama, and he wanted it not just for St. Peter’s but for all Catholic churches. It was all part of his plan, and Bernini and other 17th century architects delivered.
The Catholic Church was under attack. It was serious. Too many people were being lured away by Martin Luther and his Reformation Movement. The Church knew it had to fight back, and fight back hard, if it was going to stop the flow of once faithful Catholics from joining the Protestants.
While new religious groups, like the Calvinists, were preaching that churches and church services should be simple, stripped down affairs, the Catholic Church saw things differently. It argued that a God of greatness and power should be worshiped with the kinds of rituals, ceremonies and churches worthy of these divine qualities. It was this affirmation of the beauty and grandiosity of faith that led to the development of Baroque art and architecture, elements that would become the Church’s first line of defense.
In Rome, churches started popping up like mushrooms after a rain. It wasn’t long before the city began to take on a new look, becoming a city of beautiful churches, the city we see today.
But not all Romans were convinced the new fangle design ideas the architects were producing were good. One architect in particular seemed to draw a lot of criticism; his name was Francesco Borromini.
Time and time again his designs would cause the Romans to stop and look, and scratch their heads and wonder what in the world was he thinking. The curvy façade on the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, (called San Carlino by the Romans) is a good example. What kind of person thinks a curvy façade on a church is acceptable, the Romans wanted to know.
But it was more than just the façade of San Carlino they objected to. When Borromini topped the church’s bell tower with a roof that looked like a pagoda, they declared him totally mad.
But while his flights of architectural fancy were duly noted and loudly denounced, it was precisely because of them that the elaborate style became known as baroque, for in those days baroque meant abnormal.
Borromini’s greatest rival was GianLorenzo Bernini. Bernini was Pope Urban’s favorite artist, and much to Borromini’s dismay, it was Bernini the Pope turned to when he wanted to give the interior of St. Peter’s at the Vatican a makeover.
Bernini was good choice. His work was not only dramatic but also beautiful. Ask anyone who has visited St. Peter’s what they think of the soaring sculpted bronze canopy that covers the papal altar in the center of the Basilica. They will most likely tell you it took their breath away. Bernini had that kind of power.
He went on to become one of the most influential artists/architects of the time. You see his work everywhere in Rome: from the sculptured fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, to the Barcaccia (boat) fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps, to the statue of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.
But perhaps his greatest achievement is the colonnade that encloses the piazza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. To be held in that embrace as the Pope blesses the people of Rome and the world - urbi et orbi - is truly a heart stopping experience.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, Baroque had moved from religious art and architecture to the preferred style for grand palazzi throughout Italy. From Turin, to Venice, and all the way down to Sicily, Italy was soon afire with the beauty and complexity of this new style. It was everywhere.
In Turin, the Palazzo Carignano, considered the most flamboyant private house in the 17th century, would have made Borromini smile, while in Venice, the play of light and dark on the ornate façade of Ca’ Pesaro could have been in a painting by the artist Caravaggio.
In Sicily, Sicilian architects took the curves and flourishes of Roman Baroque, and by adding grinning masks and puffy-cheeked putti made it their own. The details in the decoration of the church of San Domenico in Palermo will both surprise and astound you.
Baroque began in Rome in the 17th century as a way to give the Papacy a means of restoring its place in the world, but it soon became so much more. As it migrated from Rome to all parts of Italy and beyond, it inspired artists and architects, writers and musicians around the world, and it still does today.
Copyright © 2016 Phyllis Macchioni