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Baroque through to Neoclassicism

The Baroque style flourished in European visual culture during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although the movement shared the naturalism and often religious or mythological subject matter of the Renaissance style, it is typified by an elaborate and extravagant application of decoration; in general, Baroque artists worked to distance themselves from their Renaissance predecessors. The style was greatly encouraged by the Catholic Church, who considered it an enticing contrast to the austere Protestant art and architecture that had been popularised following the Reformation in the 16th century. Most works of the Baroque period share a common goal: to convey a heightened sense of drama. In painting this is often achieved through energetic compositions and a luminous application of colour, whilst in sculpture, dynamic forms dominate. Such drama, the Catholic church believed, would instil piety among the congregation, and a sense of awe for the church.
 

Beginning in Rome, the style quickly spread across Europe. Countries in which the Catholic faith dominated (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Southern Germany, Poland), embraced the movement in its fullest expression. In Northern Europe, where the Protestant faith was prevalent, the style was more restrained and often non-secular. Although Baroque artists favoured high drama over the Renaissance quest for harmony and balance, in parts of Europe, particularly France, an interest in the ideals of the ancient world endured. This strand of Baroque art is known as Baroque Classicism, a movement which spanned the 17th century. In France, the early 18th century ushered in a new, if short-lived, mutation of the Baroque style, sometimes described as the final expression of the movement – Rococo. Building upon the awe-inspiring opulence of the Baroque, the Rococo style, which also found popularity in England, expressed grace, frivolity and sensuousness, though to no less extravagant effect. 
 
By the mid-18th century, the excess of both the Baroque and Rococo styles was beginning to fall out of favour. Increasing numbers of young European aristocrats were undertaking the fashionable Grand Tour, an expedition around Europe taking in the major cultural centres of the day, as well as those of civilisations past. The new science of archaeology was also bringing classical civilisations to the fore, with spectacular discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Neoclassicism was the movement that united these events, once more drawing on the Greco-Roman principles of symmetry, simplicity and mathematics. As a movement, Neoclassicism remained popular until the mid-1850s, although academic artists continued to engage with classical themes and ideals until the end of the 19th century.
 
Key Figure: Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi was born in 1571 in Caravaggio, Italy, and was known throughout his professional life by the name of his hometown. He is considered the father of the Baroque style and the high drama of his paintings is matched by a dark and tempestuous personal life. As a young man he moved to Rome, initially selling his work on the street until he caught the attention of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, an eminent art collector who recognised the young man’s talent. Through del Monte, Caravaggio gained his first public commissions, which proved so sensational upon delivery that he became an instant celebrity, gaining a number of prestigious commissions thereafter. Caravaggio’s often violently theatrical work employs an extreme use of chiaroscuro, a painting technique that describes the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. His extension of the technique is known as tenebrism and is even more severe in its use of contrast, spotlighting his subjects within a creeping and aggressive darkness. Experience the drama of Caravaggio alongside countless other masterpieces on our study tour celebrating the fabulous museums of Berlin.
 
Key Work: Castle Howard, Yorkshire, UK
Castle Howard is considered to be the first English building to truly express the Baroque style. Commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Carlisle it was designed by John Vanbrugh, who was, up to the point of this commission, known as a playwright. With no formal architectural training, Vanbrugh enlisted the help of Nicholas Hawksmoor, who assisted in drafting and executing his elaborate vision. Construction began in 1699 but was not completed for 100 years, although Vanbrugh received a number of subsequent commissions as a result of the ongoing project, most famously for Blenheim Palace. Perhaps the finest expression of the English Baroque style, notable architectural features include a dazzling Great Hall, resplendent under a painted and gilded dome some 80 feet above. Wander the rooms of Vanbrugh’s first architectural masterpiece as part of our study tour, Georgian Arcadia.
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