A History of Baroque Roman Art and Architecture

It was a focus for tourists and artists and a watershed of inspiration throughout the Western world.

By Jean Sorabella
Art Historian


In the seventeenth century, the city of Rome became the consummate statement of Catholic majesty and triumph expressed in all the arts. Baroque architects, artists, and urban planners so magnified and invigorated the classical and ecclesiastical traditions of the city that it became for centuries after the acknowledged capital of the European art world, not only a focus for tourists and artists but also a watershed of inspiration throughout the Western world.

Urbanism and Architecture

Queen Esther Approaching the Palace of Ahasuerus (1658). This magnificent compositional study, which came to light in the late 1980s, stands out in Claude’s graphic oeuvre for its high degree of finish and detail. / MMA, Public Domain

Although Rome gained in magnificent buildings and monuments during the Renaissance, it also suffered the attacks of Reformation theologians and invading armies; although home to major centers of religious pilgrimage and venerable remains of Imperial Rome, the city’s haphazard street system impeded circulation and diminished spectators’ vantage on its monuments. To remedy this situation, Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585–90) promoted his vision of “Roma in forma sideris,” that is, Rome in the shape of a star. He engaged Domenico Fontana (1543–1607) and other planners to lay out processional avenues linking the great basilicas, such as Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni in Laterano, with other strategic points; routes emanated like the rays of a star from focal piazzas marked with Egyptian obelisks brought to Rome in ancient times.

Today the papacy controls only the small zone known as Vatican City, but its domain in former times was not so restricted, and papal patronage transformed the entire city. Three energetic popes, Urban VIII (r. 1623–44), Innocent X (r. 1644–55), and Alexander VII (r. 1655–67), charged the versatile talents of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), Francesco Borromini (1599–1667), and Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) with commissions meant to monumentalize and beautify areas all over Rome. Bernini executed several projects at the Basilica of Saint Peter, the center of papal authority: he created the superb bronze baldacchino (canopy) over the high altar for Urban VIII, and for Alexander VII he designed the sculptural adornment of the chair of Peter in the apse and the sweeping round colonnades that frame the facade. Nearby, Bernini designed the Ponte Sant’Angelo, a bridge across the Tiber embellished with angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s passion, which eased movement between the Vatican and the important commercial area across the river.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577–1633). He was the influential nephew of Pope Paul V and an enthusiastic and refined art collector. / MMA, Public Domain

All the popes used the official residence in the Vatican, but they also lavished attention on their own palaces in other parts of the city. Innocent X, for example, developed the Piazza Navona, commissioning Borromini to design facades for the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and for his palace next door, and engaging Bernini to create the spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers, whose gushing waters, colossal sculpture, and crowning obelisk form the centerpiece of the square. The introduction of fountains and monumental stairways throughout the city induced pedestrians not only to move easily from place to place but also to linger in beautified transitional spaces. A prime example is the Spanish Steps, a symmetrical system of landings and curving staircases that connect two neighborhoods formerly divided by an impassably steep hill. Although several artists proposed solutions to the problem, the Steps were finally built to the elegant design of Francesco De Sanctis and completed in 1726.

The Building and Embellishment of Baroque Churches

The Denial of Saint Peter (1610). Caravaggio’s late works depend for their dramatic effect on brightly lit areas standing in contrast to a dark background. / MMA, Public Domain

Throughout the seventeenth century, churches were constructed along Rome’s newly cut thoroughfares, and existing buildings were modified in keeping with Baroque taste. Borromini designed innovative churches, such as Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, in which complex harmonies of curved and rectangular forms create surprising, sculptural interiors. Borromini also remodeled the ancient basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, incorporating stuccowork by Alessandro Algardi, gilding, and an abundance of colored marbles, materials lavishly applied in many other Roman interiors. At the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Bernini used sculpture, architectural elements, and hidden light sources to transform a family chapel into a theatrical re-creation of Saint Teresa of Ávila ecstatically receiving an angel with an arrow of divine love. As a result of Pietro da Cortona’s new convex facade for Santa Maria della Pace, the little church seems to swell into the piazza outside and beckon to the viewer turning down the street in front.

Painters also embraced the challenge to create integrated environments (un bel composto) meant to heighten religious experience. By 1600, in three famous paintings illustrating the life of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio made the light represented within each picture consistent with the actual illumination of the chapel where the pictures were to hang. In the 1640s and 1650s, Pietro da Cortona adorned the vaults of Santa Maria in Vallicella with spectacular portrayals of the Trinity in Glory and the Assumption of the Virgin, in which monumental groups of figures seen from below enact heavenly events as though occurring in the viewer’s own experience. Pietro’s ceiling frescoes set the standard for many later masterpieces, including the radiant Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1676–79) in Il Gesù, the principal church of the Jesuit order, painted by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, and Andrea Pozzo’s Glory of Saint Ignatius (1691–94) in the Church of Sant’Ignazio, where the ceiling seems to open to reveal the saint ascending into heaven over a hovering assembly of angels and personifications.

Painting and the Decorative Arts

The Coronation of the Virgin (after 1595). This majestic picture—a window onto heaven—was painted for Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini (1571–1621) following the artist’s arrival in Rome in 1595. / MMA, Public Domain

The concentration of willing patrons in Rome attracted artists from all over Europe, and painters continued to argue the primacy of technique based alternatively on drawing (disegno) or coloring (colorito). Among the artists hailed for reconciling the two approaches was the Bolognese-born Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), who applied his gifts as both draftsman and colorist to the emerging genre of landscape as well as traditional religious subjects; his Coronation of the Virgin, for instance, combines a compositional scheme derived from Michelangelo with subtle lighting in the spirit of Titian.

Marcantonio Pasqualini (1614–1691) Crowned by Apollo (1541). A celebrated male soprano, Pasqualini is crowned by Apollo, who had been victorious in a musical contest with the satyr Marsyas (shown in the background, defeated and tied to a tree with his bagpipes beside him). / MMA, Public Domain

In a famous public debate probably conducted in 1636, Andrea Sacchi (ca. 1599–1661), whose Marcantonio Pasqualini Crowned by Apollo displays his reliance on drawing, made claims for compositions with few figures and pure contours, while Pietro da Cortona opposed him, advocating instead great assemblies of figures and freer brushwork.

The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1633-1634). According to Roman mythology, the neighboring Sabines were invited to a festival with the intention of forcibly retaining their young women as wives. When the Roman leader Romulus raised his cloak, his warriors seized the women. / MMA, Public Domain

Sacchi’s influence is visible in the work of the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), who made his career in Rome, painting scenes from biblical and classical history; in his Abduction of the Sabine Women, he uses bold colors, sharp contours, and figures derived from Greco-Roman sculpture, all characteristic of his art.

Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children (c.1616-1617). Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the heroic central figure in Italian Baroque sculpture. The influence of his father, the Florentine-born Pietro, can be seen here in the buoyant forms and cottony texture of the Bacchanal. / MMA, Public Domain

The exuberant theatricality of seventeenth-century projects on an urban scale also animates smaller examples of sculpture and decorative art. Bernini’s early Bacchanal includes figures in characteristic twisting poses in a composition different from every point of view.

Holy-water stoup with relief of Mary of Egypt (c.1702). The goldsmith and designer Giovanni Giardini made this object for Pope Clement XI (r. 1700–1712), who presented it to Giovanni Battista Borghese, King Philip V of Spain’s ambassador to the Holy See. / MMA, Public Domain
Harpsichord (c.1670). This gilded case encloses an Italian harpsichord of typical design but unusual length. Decorated with a frieze depicting the Triumph of Galatea and supported by three Tritons, the harpsichord originally formed part of Michele Todini’s Galeria Armonica and was described in his catalogue of 1676. / MMA, Public Domain

Giovanni Giardini’s holy-water stoup depicts Saint Mary of Egypt in a concave silver panel framed in lapis lazuli, and Michele Todini’s harpsichord carried by tritons of gilded wood is conceived as the centerpiece of a mythic musical contest.

Further Reading

Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2003, under the terms of a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.



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