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Book Review: Baroque: Theatrum Mundi, The World as Work of Art, text by Barbara Borngässer, photos by Achim Bednorz

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It doesn’t seem that long ago that Baroque art was treated with something approaching disparagement. In a critical environment that favored the cleaner and simpler lines of Classicism, it seemed cluttered. It was overly ornate. It was pretentious.

In recent years that view has changed and the art of the Baroque has undergone something of a renaissance. What had been seen as bombast is now looked on as a kind of visual rhetoric aimed at fostering a set of values about the nature of the world.

Beginning in Italy in the late 16th century as part of the Counter Reformation, Baroque art had its roots in the church and religion. Religious art was asked to reach into the viewer’s deepest soul and evoke a sense of the divinity. The glorious churches, architectural wonders without and within were monuments to the glory of the creator, and if in the process they shed a bit of that glory on the nobles and churchmen who commissioned them, and even the artists who built them, well that was simply a little gravy.

Over the course of the next century and into the 18th, Baroque art spread through Europe and over those areas of the world the Europeans colonized. The Baroque aesthetic spread from the church to the secular world. The elaborate cathedrals begat gorgeous palaces. If art could inspire awe in the Creator, it could certainly do as much for his secular regents, the kings and nobles, and if the kings and nobles, why not the merchant kings and in the end whoever had enough money or clout to commission the artist. For good or ill, the idea of Baroque was to shape the 17th century.

Baroque: Theatrum Mundi, The World as Work of Art, one of the first two volumes now available in publisher H. F. Ullman’s new series The Collection of Art Epochs, is a massive attempt to illustrate and explain the scope and variety of the Baroque in all of its many iterations. Architecture, sculpture, painting, decorative art, it looks at it all. If the attempt is massive, the book is no less massive. Its hand-bound 568 pages in a 15 x 11-inch format is not the kind of book you will want to hold on your lap. It is the kind of book that belongs on an ornate table in a Baroque library. In many respects it is itself a work of art.

The series editor, Rolf Toman, explains that the aim of the new volumes is to look at broader contexts than the intensive encyclopedic studies of specialized bits typical of past studies. The intention is to cut a wide swath through the whole period, to look at representative examples from many countries. It is not meant to be a comprehensive history of everything Baroque; it is a selection. “It was important,” he tells readers in a brochure that comes with the book, “for us not only to present the objects particularly esteemed as significant by art historians, but also to show in depth such artworks whose special aesthetic quality makes them worthy of rediscovery.”

While the book doesn’t ignore the established Baroque icons — St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London, the Palace at Versailles, the Winter Palace in St. Petersberg, it makes an effort to take the reader on an intensive tour, three or four pages of text and photos a variety of lesser known artwork as well. For example, there are four pages and seven photos — exterior, interior, and details — of the Palácio Fonteira in Lisbon, emphasizing the “perfect harmony of palace and gardens, the bravura of the staircase and the complex and self-glorifying, cosmological pictorial program.” It explains the historical context of the Portuguese espousal of the Baroque as an attempt by nobles to demonstrate their new power when Portugal managed to get out from under Spanish domination. It gives a technical explanation of the use of azulagos, the decorative tiles used in Portugal instead of the usual frescoes because to the dampness of its Atlantic climate.

On the other hand after a short outline of the characteristics of Baroque sculpture, it looks at a view of Bernini’s “Pluto and Proserpina” and a full page detail and posits that he is the “epitome” of Roman Baroque sculpture. Indeed the whole discussion of sculpture outside of its appearances in architectural settings is quite limited. Painting is treated more extensively, but it is architecture that gets the most emphasis. Justly so, one would expect.

The photography which is the glory of the book is by Achim Bednorz. There are fantastic photos of church exteriors and interiors often complete with full or double page details of ceiling frescoes, pulpit carvings, or decorative alters. There are even a couple of four panel fold outs. Color, due in part to the technical opportunities provided by digital photography, is stunning.

The text by Barbara Borngässer is fine, but not quite as impressive. At times it seemed a bit too technical for the lay reader, using specialized terminology that wasn’t always defined. Although there is a glossary provided for the novice. On the other hand, sometimes it spent a lot of time calling attention to things that would have more than likely common knowledge for the initiated. I’m not sure that given the series’ stated intention, the text shouldn’t be focused more precisely on a target audience.

On the other hand, text aside, the photography alone is worth the price of the book. A companion volume, Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages is also currently available, and books on the Romanesque and Art Nouveau are in preparation: truly something to look forward to.

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