Southern Baroque

Book Review: "The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome" by Alois Riegl

Today I finished reading Riegl’s The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome (2009, Getty Publications). As I mentioned in an earlier post, this publication is very significant, since it is the first time that Riegl’s writings on Baroque art have been translated into English. Apart from a few introductory essays, this book is comprised of Riegl’s lecture notes. Riegl taught lectures on Baroque art during three different university semesters in the late 19th and early 20th century. These lecture notes were first published posthumously in 1908, and now have appeared in English almost a century later!1

I have to say, I think that this book is very interesting in many respects, but it’s not a book for someone who has a casual interest in Baroque art. Although Riegl’s lecture notes are written in a relatively approachable manner (since the text was written with the intent of being spoken in a lecture hall), the publication itself is rather dense. Riegl takes many specific arguments in his lectures, and he assumes that his audience already has a solid foundation of Renaissance history. In fact, much of this book discusses Renaissance art, as opposed to the Baroque art that is commonly found in today’s art history textbooks. For example, I was surprised to see more discussion of Bramante than Borromini (the latter was hardly mentioned at all!).

One of Riegl’s arguments is that Michelangelo and Correggio should be seen as the earliest predecessors of the Baroque style. I think this is an interesting argument. On a whole, I think that today’s Baroque scholars don’t give a lot of attention or emphasis to Michelangelo, at least in comparison with Riegl. Michelangelo really is the core of Riegl’s text. I think that today it is more common for people to think of Correggio as a “proto-Baroque” artist than Michelangelo. Perhaps 20th and 21st century Renaissance scholarship has such a vice-like grip on Michelangelo, that Baroque scholarship has been forced to back off a little bit?

I thought quite a bit about historiography while reading this book, and it wasn’t just because I noticed a discrepancy between today’s scholarship and Riegl’s treatment of Michelangelo. Riegl also made a passing comment about naturalism, which caught my attention: “Naturally, for us northerners the naturalists are the most interesting [artists to discuss].”2 As an Austrian art historian, Riegl realized that his geographic area and cultural origins influenced the way he responded to artistic style. Is there more scholarly interest in “naturalist” Baroque artists because so many great Baroque art historians came from Germany and Austria? Perhaps so!3

As for the publication itself, I liked that many of the key ideas and artists were highlighted in bold text. This small detail helps the viewer to maneuver and search through the text quite easily. On the other hand, I was disappointed to see so few images included in the publication – and the images that are included are only black and white! Although I have a solid foundation of Renaissance/Baroque sculpture and painting, I am less familiar with the secular architecture that is produced during those periods. Without images to help me visualize Riegl’s descriptions of the architectural pieces, I found myself a little bored and frustrated in that section of the text.

That being said, I really enjoyed reading the sections about painting and sculpture; I wasn’t bothered by the lack of images since I am familiar with the works of art that were discussed. Since I had this mixed reaction to the images (and lack of images!) in this book, I really would recommend this book only to Renaissance and Baroque scholars. Without many pictures to entice or engage the casual reader, this publication could disappoint. However, if you are interested in early Baroque scholarship and historiography, this is a great resource!

1 Riegl died in 1905 at the young age of 47.

2 Alois Riegl, The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2009), 216.

3 One such “naturalist” artist is Caravaggio, as opposed to more-so classical artists (or “eclectic” artists, to use Riegl’s term) like the Carracci and Guido Reni. I personally think there is more interest in Baroque naturalism today, but I’m biased toward Caravaggio myself!

Thank you to H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem, Inbooks and Getty Research Institute for supplying the review copy.


Altar of Pergamon and Baroque Scholarship

I’m in the middle of reading The Origins of the Baroque Art in Rome by Alois Riegl. This recent publication is a really exciting and influential textbook in its own right, since it is the first time that Riegl’s essays on Baroque art have been translated into English. I plan on writing a full review of the book very soon, but I just wanted to write something that I found particularly interesting.

As an introduction to Riegl’s discussion of Baroque art, this book is prefaced with three essays. These essays largely deal with historiography in regards to Baroque scholarship. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. I was particularly interested in the discussion about the excavation of the Altar of Pergamon in the late 19th century. Fragments of the altar started to arrive in Berlin in 1879 (which, incidentally, was the same year that prehistoric cave paintings were first discovered. But that’s a topic for another day. My point: 1879 was a big year for art history.)

The Altar of Pergamon is from the Greek Hellenistic period (c. 175-150 BCE). It was excavated in the late 19th century by Carl Humann, a German road construction engineer. The continuous frieze depicts the Gigantomachy (“Battle of the Giants”) with extremely high relief figures, dramatic emotional expressions, lots of diagonal compositions, and light/dark contrasts (see detail on left). Baroque scholars (such as myself) eat this kind of stuff up, since the stylistic characteristics are very similar to those of the Baroque period. I think that even the placement of the frieze near the steps (as opposed to being placed above the columns, which is the traditional location for an Ionic frieze) ties into the Baroque characteristics of viewer participation and involvement.

So, how did the arrival of the Altar of Pergamon in Berlin change scholarship on Baroque art? Before this point, the Baroque period had been viewed with some disdain by art historians and scholars. In fact, in the 18th century Winckelmann used the word “baroque” as an abusive term (and unsurprisingly, Winckelmann also disliked Hellenistic art!). But the unquestionable quality of the Pergamon frieze caused 19th century scholars to reassess their previous negative interpretations of not only Hellenistic art, but Baroque art as well. In fact, the Hellenistic period began to be known by scholars as the “ancient Baroque.”2

Consequently, because of the Altar of Pergamon’s influence, German art historians began to write about Baroque art. Heinirch Wölfflin wrote his seminal book Renaissance and Baroque in 1888, less than a decade after the Pergamon altar began to arrive in Berlin. Wölfflin even wrote in the preface “that he had intended to include an evaluation of the ‘ancient Baroque’ but that his ‘little book’ did not afford enough scope for this project, and he promised to return to it at a later date.”2 Unfortunately, Wölfflin never returned to write about the “ancient Baroque,” though other scholars (such as Arnold von Salis) did. Now, I think that Baroque scholars take the connection between the Hellenistic and Baroque period for granted. But Baroque scholarship is quite indebted to the Altar of Pergamon. Without the arrival of the altar in Berlin, perhaps “baroque” would still be a demeaning term in art history.

1 Alina Payne, “Beyond Kunstwollen: Alois Riegl and the Baroque” in The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome by Andrew Hopkins and Arnold Witte, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010), 8.

2 Ibid.

*Image for Pergamon altar photograph © Raimond Spekking (via Wikimedia Commons) CC-BY-SA-3.0


Versailles and France as "Art Capital" of the World

I think Versailles is a big deal. And I don’t mean that the palace of Versailles is big in terms of physical space (that fact is beyond obvious!), but I have long thought that Versailles needs to have more recognition for its role in art history – particularly in terms of why France became the art capital of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Up until this point, I’ve never seen a fantastic explanation for how and why the artistic scene shifted from Italy (and Southern Europe) to France. A lot of possible ideas for this shift could be put forth, such as the establishment of the Academie de peinture et de sculpture (Paris) in 1648. Obviously, this artistic academy helped to promote art and establish France within the artistic scene, but I don’t think that this event caused Europe to focus its attention on France. Likewise, if one looks to the 18th century, it is easy to pinpoint how the establishment of the Louvre museum in 1763 was connected to France’s preeminence among the arts (not only so that artists could study art, but in terms of France becoming a major artistic attraction for tourists).

Although these are both very significant events, I don’t think that either the Louvre or French Academy was the initial cause of a major geographic shift in Europe’s artistic scene. Instead, I really think that it was the redesign of Versailles which brought France to the forefront of the European art scene. Versailles, which originally functioned as a hunting lodge, underwent a major redesign and enlargement in the 17th century. One of the major additions to the palace was begun by the architect Le Vau in 1668. Subsequent additions, remodels, and changes were made over the next several years (including he creation of the “Hall of Mirrors,” which was begun in 1678 by Hardouin-Mansart and Le Brun). Louis XIV finally moved to the palace in 1682, and eventually required his court to live at the palace as well.

Versailles was over-the-top in terms of luxury, space, and design. It was so huge and so ostentatious that it immediately attracted the attention of other countries. In fact, Versailles was so impressive that many European monarchs wanted to model their own palaces after Versailles. Subsequently, Baroque palaces popped up all over Europe. You can see a great compilation of Baroque residences here (complete with photographs). One such Versailles-inspired palace was the Würzburg Residenz, in Würzburg, Germany (1720-1744, shown above). In essence, Louis XVI became a major trend-setter with Versailles. Everyone wanted to live like him. And, consequently, I think that this is the reason that the art world moved to France. Europeans focused their attention to French art and architecture, a focus that would continue for over two centuries.

Although I don’t think that Versailles is the sole reason that the artistic scene shifted to France, I think the remodeling and establishment of court at Versailles are very pivotal points in art history. Obviously, I’m a little biased as a Baroque scholar, but I can’t overlook Versailles on this point. It’s just too big - both physically and metaphorically!

Can you think of historical events which helped to foster (or solidify the presence of) the artistic scene in France?

*Photo of Versailles courtesy of Eric Pouhier, as found on Wikipedia.


A Halloween Medusa

Since Halloween is here, I wanted to highlight a creepy painting to delight (and horrify!) my readers. If you think that Peter Paul Rubens only painted rosy-faced saints and voluptuous women, think again. A few weeks ago I came across Ruben’s painting Head of Medusa (c. 1617, shown above). This is the creepiest painting by Rubens that I have ever seen. Medusa’s dead eyes stare into the distance, while her snakelike hair continues to writhe and squirm. Eek!

Actually, I am reminded of one other Rubens painting which includes some similarly dark subject matter. Miracle of St. Ignatius Loyola (c. 1617, about the same time as the Medusa painting) also has wide-eyed demons writhing in the background. In fact, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (which owns both paintings) suggested that there are some stylistic comparisons between the demons and Medusa.

It is thought that when making the Head of Medusa, Rubens was influenced by Italian masters like Caravaggio (who had painted the same subject matter in 1598-99). I tend to agree with the argument that Rubens made this painting for a connoisseur (and perhaps collector) of both paintings and natural objects. Rubens certainly pays keen attention to the various types of snakes, bugs, and creepy-crawly things.

Do you know of any other “dark” works by Rubens? These are the only two of which I am aware, but there may be more out there.

Have a Happy Halloween! (If you haven’t submitted a post for the upcoming art history carnival, please send me one today!)


Why Don’t I Like New "Masterpiece" Discoveries?

My friend heidenkind recently brought my attention to this article, which asserts that The Education of the Virgin (17th century, shown right), a painting discovered in the basement of Yale Art Gallery, is not by Velasquez (as was thought earlier this year). I have to admit, I was pretty pleased that the painting was unattributed to Velasquez. Is that strange? I would assume that most people are thrilled when they learn that a possible new work by Velasquez, da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc., has been discovered. And I rarely (if ever) feel thrilled about such news – particularly if the work has immediately been attributed to a great master. Instead, I get pleased when the painting is demoted from any “great master” status.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel this way. Some of you may remember me earlier post along these lines, in which I discussed my skepticism on the plethora of new discoveries. I haven’t quite pinpointed all of the reasons for my skepticism/hesitation regarding new discoveries, but I thought that writing this post might help me to organize my thoughts. I think that I mostly resist hasty attributions to great masters because I know a little bit about the politics behind art attribution – it’s tempting for a connoisseur to attribute a painting to a great master, since such an attribution would help further the publicity and career of that connoisseur. I’m particularly reminded of Abraham Bredius, the connoisseur who “discovered” the “Vermeer” paintings by the forger Han Van Meegeren. Bredius is lucky that he passed away soon after Van Meegeren’s confession in 1945.

Anyhow, there are lots of other motivations for a work of art to be attributed to a great master, and most of them are financial. The owning museum, institution, or gallery will push for such an attribution, since it will be monetarily beneficial. And hey, the connoisseur could also get a nice fat check for such an attribution.

But is this political/financial reason why I don’t get excited about discoveries? I also wonder if my might have something to do with the historian side of me. If there are unknown works by great masters, then this forces me (as a historian) to reshape the artist in my mind as a historical figure. And I think I resist such reshaping a little bit. Does that make sense? In some ways, I feel like I know great artists quite well, and having a new work of art means that there is some aspect to their lives and work that was hidden from me. (I guess it’s kind of like the artist was doing something “behind my back.”) I know, it’s a little silly. Yet, at the same time, I love learning new things about artists. So maybe I experience some kind of inward struggle (i.e. the desire to learn vs. feeling deceived) when a new work of art is discovered, and that’s why I shy away from such discoveries. I don’t know.

Ironically, though, I rarely feel skeptical when archaeologists announce that a new work of prehistoric/ancient art was discovered or excavated. I always think, “Hey, awesome!” and move on with my life. So my skepticism (and emotional attachment?) must be somehow related to the idea that these works of art are attached to early modern “masters” (i.e. individuals). There isn’t enough information about specific prehistoric/ancient artists (or even some cultures!) for me to get as defensive and protective as a historian. Instead, I almost always get excited about ancient discoveries.

So, that’s what I came up with this evening: political/financial reasons and my silly protectiveness as a historian prevent me from embracing new “masterpieces.” What about you? Am I the only person who is continuously skeptical? Do most people get excited about attributions and “masterpiece” discoveries? Do any other historians get protective about an artist’s biography/oeuvre?


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.