Italian Baroque

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After the restraint of the Renaissance and the aesthetic twisting of Mannerism, in Papal Rome there was an awareness of the need for a new type of art. The independence of the Italian republics was not what it had been after two centuries of struggles between the European powers to gain control of the Republics' flourishing market, centred in the Mediterranean. Moreover, the discovery of America had moved the economic pole towards the Atlantic, where maritime routes were dominated by the Spanish, Portuguese and English. This led to the Italian republics regrouping under a stronger power and those which did not fall under foreign control (of Spain and France) bowed to the influence of Rome, or more precisely to the Vatican States, ruling in the style of a theocracy. In order to govern legitimately, the upper spheres of ecclesiastical power dominant in Rome had to be purged of corruption. People had been voicing their discontent in the previous fifty years, and the Catholic Church had been divided by the Lutheran Reformation, whose theologians, Calvin, Zuingli and others, accused the Church of nepotism and simony. The need for reform in the structures of the Catholic world led to the setting up of the Council of Trent and the badly named Counter-Reformation. Rather than countering something, the Catholic Reformation looked for a way to adapt to the new times. This new situation had a significant impact on the art world from the very beginning. The theologians that met in council, on the whole Spaniards, proclaimed certain dogmas that artists serving the Church had to represent with dignity, meaning that the Virginity of Mary, the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and so on became important artistic subjects. Even before the absolutist monarchies that exercised power parallel to the Vatican, the Church was the first to realise art's unlimited power as a vehicle for propaganda and ideological control. This is why it contracted legions of artists, recruiting the very best and also many second-raters who increased production levels to satisfy the huge demands of the faithful. All the artists were forced to distance themselves from sophisticated elaborations and theological mysteries, to produce simple, direct, easy to read art that any believer who entered a church could understand straightaway. The figures had to be close to the people; saints were no longer dressed as courtiers and instead looked more like beggars, with common faces painted on a large scale. The emphasis was on dramatic appeal: the order of the day was winning the believer over through emotion. The scenes became dynamic, away from the timeless solemnity of previous styles. Compositions became more complicated to offer greater variety and colour. Light, colour and shadow were multiplied to offer a bright and attractive image of religion and its protagonists. Away from the patronage of the Church, private patrons increased: the eagerness to collect art led painters to produce small or medium-sized paintings to add to the curiosity cabinets of rich merchants and important nobles. In the era of philosophers such as Bacon and Descartes, art was collected in the same way as scientific objects and exotic goods imported from the Indies or the Americas. The secularisation of this period favoured the revaluation of profane genres, such as the still-life and the landscape, which started to acquire unprecedented dominance. The complex Baroque compositions, the diversity of light sources, the abundance of elements, can all be applied perfectly to a landscape, as can be seen in Canaletto's the Reception of the French Ambassador in Venice. The Baroque as a style was only a base intention. The forms that were adopted in practice were extremely varied. However, there were two dominant poles, grouped around two great rival figures of the period, Caravaggio who led the painters of Tenebrism and Annibale Carracci, who worked with his brother and cousin in a classical style.


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