Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence
V&A, LONDON, UNTIL JULY 19
There are few examples in our cultural history that can match the extraordinary release of visual imagination that occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries in Catholic countries throughout the world. There was an urgent return to the visual by Catholicism after the Reformation, most of whose leaders and adherents denied any role of the visual in religion – since it led, so they affirmed, to idolatry. As a result the Protestant half of Europe is hardly represented at all at the Victoria and Albert Museum if we take away the pictures of elaborate family tombs and monuments and the enormous amount of family silver that the nobility and the gentry surrounded themselves with.
As a consequence we are shown an essentially Catholic civilisation – and this was made possible, more than anything else, by the discovery of gold, silver, diamonds and other riches in the new world of Mexico and South America. As the Spanish poetic genius Luis de Góngora said: “Born in the Indies, they were taken to Spain, passed through Seville, and are now safe in the vaults of Genoa.” So, the means for this extraordinary cultural expansion were there, and were they used? The Council of Trent, with its insistence on dogmatic certitude and discipline of conduct and the expressive energy of visual art, and the hope it gives, enabled Catholic Europe to burgeon into such a life as had never before been seen. This marvellous stimulus of faith, hope and charity resulted in the mind-blowing energy of the imagination that gave courage and self-renewal to the whole of Catholic Europe.
The catalogue of this exhibition is highly informed and scarcely leaves out anything. It is odd that art critic Sacheverell Sitwell is not noted at all, since it was he who started the whole reexamination of the Baroque. The ecclesiastical parts of the catalogue are well done, but Catholics have to put up with references to “Roman Catholics” and the “Roman” Church in a manner that almost suggests that we are being told about a historical occurrence which, by this time, we are all passed.
The question of Catholic doctrine is particularly irritating in this way; it is not sympathetically described, and the result of the marvellous doctrine of the Real Presence is not understood in depth. And this is a pity, since the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is the reason for all the extraordinary expressive decoration and statuary surrounding the altars within the newly built churches all over Europe, Mexico, Brazil, and eventually Goa and the Far East. Yes, the Baroque was the first truly international style there ever was.
Having said that, we must admit that the objects, pictures, tapestries, silverware, vestments and church furnishings assembled here are as amazing and unique a collection as we will ever see. The age of magnificence had come – and visual magnificence was an indication of unarguable authority – but also of arguable self-indulgence on a scale never before attempted, on the part of sovereigns and nobility. It was an opera on wheels.
And then, in spite of the cloying and annoying music in the ecclesiastical galleries of this exhibition, we must remember that the beginning and fulfilment of opera was essential to the Baroque. In the 18th century Venice had an opera house for almost every parish in the city. They were small but well attended. It was like going to the flicks every week. Something new all the time. And the singing talent that this stimulated was extraordinary in its vivid expression and confidence. The public enthusiasm for opera made an enormous difference to the selfconfidence of courts and courtiers, as we are shown in this exhibition. The display of massed costumes and uniforms was, again, the expression of a theatre of authority. Even fireworks had their own music – though that particular Handel number of 1749 for George II wasn’t a great success on the night. (It rained and the whole thing was put off.) Altogether this is an exhibition well worth seeing, though we should admit that the total civilisation of the Baroque was so extensive that no exhibition could possibly cover everything – and all the places it extended to. The Jesuits were the greatest spreaders of Catholic civilisation. They thought up the Summer Palace for the emperor of China – and incidentally brought back lavatory paper to Europe for the first time from the Imperial Court where it was used. We are not reminded, in the case of Bavaria, Franconia, Austria and Hungary, why the late Baroque – the rococo (invented in France, it must be said) was such a compelling experience. The date 1683 is not mentioned in the exhibition or the catalogue. Yet it was that year which saw the complete and utter defeat of the Ottoman Turks outside the walls of Vienna. This monumental defeat removed the constant menace and pressure of the Turks, who were intent on destroying Christian civilisation and had been a source of frightening apprehension for about 250 years – and now it was over. Thank the Lord; and as a result the energy expended in the building of churches and new monasteries was enormous – and the thanks offered up to God took the form of that marvellous joy and innocence that we can experience in going to Mass on Sunday in Die Wies church, near Munich, and other rococo churches in south Germany. It is a case of “rejoice in the Lamb”. Something of the same sort of relief came through Europe at the collapse of the Soviet regime in the last century.
Therefore it is best understood that the Baroque and the rococo were thanks to God, the maker of our universe. And, if in such thanks, there was exaggeration, naughtiness and a few blistering surprises – well, we’ll have to take it in our stride. Sacheverell Sitwell did.