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.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Super review, and many interesting points M!

    It has always been fascinating to note how branches of a discipline claim an area of knowledge and then jealously guard it!

    It happens all the time in the health sector as well. Entire departments dedicated to treating the same conditions talk with each other very little – and sometimes are in plain conflict. It's quite ridiculous.

    It will be hard to shake off the legacy of pioneers of art history who sought to bless us with neat labels and periods of art.

    Due to time period Michelangelo lived in, and the development of his style, there are obvious parallels to be found when examining his work from a Renaissance, Mannerist or Baroque perspective.

    I also think it was important to clarify the intended audience for this book in the review. It is not a swanky catalogue with glossy pictures, all the marvellous stuff is in the words, and they thoughts they provoke.

    Kind Regards

  • heidenkind says:

    I can see how Michelangelo–and Raphael–anticipated the Baroque style. I'm surprised that's not a more common argument in Baroque scholarship.

  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    @ heidenkind:
    I believe this is simply down to the fact that today most art historians will define the late style of Raphael or Michelangelo, or the work of artists like Correggio, as Mannerist (and, of course, most art historians will agree that Mannerism as a whole anticipated the Baroque style).

    The thing is, though, that the idea of Mannerism as an intermediate period between Renaissance and Baroque only got established among art historians around 1920. (On a side note, Riegl's former student Max Dvorak had a lot to do with that.) Riegl, writing in 1908, however, still operated with the concept of the Renaissance being immediately followed by the Baroque without an intermittent period between them – which means that the entire Mannerist era got filed under "Baroque".

    So, basically, what this boils down to is that Riegl means something quite different than we do when he uses the word "Baroque". Which, of course, goes to prove m's point that Riegl's book really is more for the scholarly than the casual reader…


  • M says:

    Thank you for the comments!

    @H: Yes, the marvelous thing about this book is the words. In some ways, I even think it is appropriate that this publication uses black and white photographs; such images do not detract from the text at all.

    @heidenkind: I also see some parallels between Raphael's style and the Baroque. Although Raphael's Transfiguation of Christ was completed after his death, I can see how his painting could relate to both Mannerist and Baroque stylistic characteristics. I think that Raphael's dark/light contrasts, and his use of compositional diagonals, relate to the Baroque style.

    @c: Thanks for the building up a little more historiography. I am not familiar with Max Dvorak's contribution in regards to Mannerism, but now I'm interested to read some of his work!

    As you mentioned, the definitions for "Baroque" and "Mannerism" were in flux in the early 20th century. Riegl mentions Mannerism in his text, but includes Mannerism as a part of the Baroque style. Riegl said, "The second half of the austere Baroque style is incontestably represented by Mannerism. What do we call Mannerism? The superficial imitation of characteristics in the art of Michelangelo, and also of Raphael, in his last Michelangelesque phase…[here are] some things [that were] imitated: 1. the immense, nude limbs in unnatural, wrenched poses, foreshortening into and outside the picture plane 2. the treatment of color as a mere addition, usually [employing] bright, multicolored, and cool colors" (p. 209).

    These definitions fit with our understanding of Mannerism today, but seem a little different from our current definition of Baroque. I also didn't agree with all of Riegl's definitions for Mannerism (at least by our current definition). He wrote that "Italian Mannerists seldom crossed the line of caricature: normally, they retained proper drawing and proportions" (p. 209). This may be true for Michelangelo and Raphael, but not for other Italian artists that we commonly understand to be Mannerist (like Pontormo and Bronzino)!

    All this being said, I do think that some of Riegl's interpretations of Michelangelo's work tie into our current definition of Baroque than Mannerism. I was particularly struck by his discussion of Michelangelo's architecture. Reigl focused on the light and dark contrasts created by architecture (see p. 155 for one example). He also was interested in exploring the idea of architectural depth and space. I think that a lot of Baroque art explore these same ideas – and not only architecture, but painting and sculpture too!

  • Margarida Elias says:

    I like this post a lot. I am not a baroche schollar because I am specialized in 19th century painting, but I think there are many connections betwin 17th and 19th century art. I woul like to read that book.

  • Val S. says:

    There are certainly good arguments for labeling some of Michelangelo's work as either Mannerist or Baroque. The thing that struck me about one of the Riegl quotes was where he calls the later Baroque austere. To me it is the earlier Baroque that is austere, and that would be where Michelangelo fits. His Medici tombs are more severe – and static – than the late-Baroque monument to Alexander VII by Bernini, for example.

  • M says:

    Interesting observation, Val S! I should probably explain a little bit about Riegl's system of classification, because in some respects I think you and Riegl might be thinking of the same chronological period as "austere."

    Riegl's text begins by exploring Michelangelo and Corregio as the earliest examples of Baroque art. He sees a shift in style happening about 1520. He actually discusses the Medici tombs in this section, and mentions that a new phase of art has begun, since "the tombs and statues no longer function as autonomous entities but are related to each other and to the wall in front of which – and into which – the monuments are set." (p. 36).

    Then, in Riegl's chapter on architecture, he subdivides the Baroque into two periods. The "austere Baroque" (1550-1590) is a period in which painting and sculpture do not participate except in a decorative mode (p. 18). Riegl's does not name his second period (1590-1630), though he mentions that the architecture of this period enjoyed more freedom and tended toward more painterly principles (p. 37).

    After 1630 is considered to be the mature Baroque period for Riegl, in which Bernini dominates the scene. Riegl doesn't discuss this period too much in "The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome" (which isn't surprising, since the text focused on early origins, not a period of maturity!).

  • M says:

    Margarida: I agree, there are many connections between 17th and 19th century art! I think you might enjoy this book. The essays at the beginning of the book discuss some of the reasons why Baroque art became popular in 19th and 20th century scholarship. I think you would find those essays especially interesting.

  • heidenkind says:

    The Transfiguration of Christ was exactly the painting I was thinking of. That, and the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, are both such incredible works, and seem very Baroque to me.

    I know Mannerism is often cited as the intermediary between Renaissance and Baroque styles, but I never saw it with Raphael, and certainly not with Michelangelo. Mannerism seems way too stylized and concerned with form to fit into Michelangelo's later style, which to me is all about emotion.

    What do you think?

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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.