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.