Baroque art and literature are important characteristics of the human being and personify beauty in several ways. There have been several artists who came out with various beautiful works such as Michelangelo, Bernini from Italy as well as French ones such as Fragonard and Boucher although the latter correspond more to the classical period. In ‘The Theatrical Illusion’, the author discusses several terms as length and one can observe a certain sense of exuberance in the works of Bernini for example whilst the portrayals of Michelangelo especially in his 'Pieta‘ series conveys a sense of contrast between the pain of suffering and the glory of transfiguration. Perhaps one of the most powerful works is the ‘Conversion of St Paul’ by Michelangelo where the dark elements and lines come across as very characteristic of the baroque period of expression whilst in ‘The Ecstacy of Saint Teresa’ Lorenzo Bernini portrays similar expressive power in his depiction of the great transfigurative saint. So in a way, all these works portray a sense of exuberance and irregularity as well as a contrast in their artistic expression.
In Life’s a Dream, the playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca attempts to analyse the political climate of the time and here we can test the thesis that irregularity is an essential part of human nature. The play is set in Poland where Basilio who is the king there decides to throw his son into prison for no other apparent reason apart from the fact that he thinks that disaster will befall his country if the son is left running around. In a twist which is similar to the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas the king informs his subjects that his son passed away during birth. In another twist, the king then reveals that his son did not actually die but was imprisoned and after the court votes in favour of his release, the son moves out and eventually turns violent, actually fulfilling the prophecy of the king. Here we observe the contrast in characters which is typical of baroque literature. The eventual defeat of the king’s forces by rebels and the intrinsic knowledge that the son is now free leads him to believe that he is still in a dream. This creates an intrinsic reflection for all of us who attempt to lead a normal life but are left pondering on what might have been. Calderon de la Barca is an expert in weaving the strands of the play together and creating a crisis of belief and self-doubt which culminates in a powerful finale that is a wedding.
Where life and dreams are as one;
And living has taught me this,
Man dreams the life that is his,
Until his living is done.
The king dreams he is king, and he lives
In the deceit of a king”, (Calderon, p1)
This great play by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille was written in 1636. Here we are faced with the hugely interesting concept of a theatre within a theatre and we can observe the diverse layers which make up the whole work as items of contrast as well as those of self-aggrandisement. There are also a number of levels within the play such as the upper surface where one may observe conflicts as well as complications. Corneille also introduces two characters who are Pridamant and Alcandre – these act in the drama but are also observers thus creating a considerable contrast between each other. There are also two other levels where we have two lovers who are Clindor and Isabelle who have their own story whilst at the end there is a performance of a play within the same drama that concludes proceedings.
This play is a classic attempt where so many different strands are present that the reader ends up becoming confused. This is in keeping with the idea of Baroque Theatre where the stage is actually a portrayal of life in the best sense of the word. Thus we have a mix between original characters as well as fictitious ones. There is also a lot of identity difference as well as disguise which permeates the play and here we have the theme of irregularity explored at considerable length. In fact the story is unstable in that its linearity is changed and altered several times. The plot intersects with other subplots while the amorous fidelity of the characters is also called into question. Here we can also observe how there is no real change between reality and fiction, a true masterstroke in the whole play.
The change of settings is also an important element in the play especially when a period of time passes by such as the change of locations from Touraine, Bordeaux and Paris. Some drama critics have also espoused the theory that the play is not really baroque but is inspired by Classical tragedy although this has also been intrinsically disputed. There are also elements of the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ in the play where there is also an important element of improvisation all around. The differences in the characters morals are also important elements of the play where we can observe the contrast between heart and mind. Other elements include the pastoral element and the tragic element which come across quite often in the play.
This wonderful work is an important example of baroque sculpture and is situated in the church of Santa Maria delle Vittorie in Rome. The work is considered as being one of the great masterpieces of the High baroque and it certainly has all the elements to achieve that status. The portrayal of St Teresa d’Avila is powerful indeed and the combination of the diverse materials used, demonstrate the skills of the sculptor in every department.
This work can be said to convey a spiritual and spectacular exuberance especially since it was a religious commission by a cardinal, specifically the Primate of Venice who was Cardinal Federico Cornaro. The sculpture was commissioned to adorn the cardinal’s tomb and can be seen as a typical form of self-aggrandisement which was a popular method of power and patronage amongst the powerful religious clergy. There are also a number of effects in the work which seem to suggest drama and theatre and that are what is going on here with the cardinal’s family actually observing the re-enactment from their excellent vantage point. Again the elements of drama and a play within a play come across as extremely powerful indeed on all fronts.
Personally I feel that Caravaggio’s painting is one which definitely strikes to the heart and which has an incredible portrayal of the events which are going on in the work. His aesthetic treatment of the subject in question is quite brilliant as is everything else which is going on making the painting a rather busy one in this respect.
This commission by Cardinal Tiberio Cerasi who was the Treasurer to Pope Clement VIII dates from the early 1600’s and demonstrates the skills of the artist in using the chiaroscuro elements and styles. Here Caravaggio is very stark in his portrayal of the conversion of St paul which is deemed to be an extremely important moment in the history of the Christian Church. The style creates several elements of contrast, the grandiosity of Paul’s attire as well as his eventual submission to the light of God which seems to blind him from all angles. There is also a sense of panic and irregularity especially with the figures and the way objects are arranged in a sort of discordant manner.
Several artistic commentators have noted that the style is radically original for its time and the way that St Paul holds his head as he is blinded by light is an intriguing exercise in conflict and contrast.
Two important Baroque works which can also be compared are Massaccio’s, The Tribute Money by Masaccio and The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio. Massaccio’s work is a vast canvas which depicts Christ talking to the money lenders in Jerusalem. The work includes a substantial number of persons in it and the colours are also very clear especially the blue which is exemplary and very beautiful in its shades. The static portrayal of the figures is very much in keeping with Renaissance art and all is rather bland however intriguing. Massacio’s Christ also has a certain spiritual allure about him which is rather striking and which is very much in keeping with the mysticism of Renaissance portrayals of Christ as a sort of ethereal figure. The stark brushwork and intense coloration also make this very much a Renaissance painting especially when comparing the expressive faces of the apostles and the money lenders.
In The Calling of St Matthew by Caravaggio, one can immediately sense that we are on a different artistic level here. To begin with the figures are etched in the present and not in the past and the lifelike portrayal of the same figures are quite striking to say the least. Caravaggio’s extensive use of the chiaroscuro element in this work is also extremely important as it brings out certain aspects of the darkness associated with moneylenders which in those days was seen as an intrinsically bad profession. The shades of light which permeate the piece are a personification of Christ’s calling of St Matthew to become one of his apostles and the whole piece is quite striking. It exemplifies Baroque art to the full especially when compared to the rather static Massaccio which is simple in its execution.
All these works be it plays or works of art clearly demonstrate the diverse strands of baroque art as well as the direct message of the playwrights, artists and sculptors. The elements of exuberance and contrast are present in all these works.
Racz, Gregary (2006), Pedro Calderón de la Barca: Life is a Dream, Penguin, p. viii,ISBN 978-0-14-310482-7
Hutier, Jean-Benoît, "L'illusion comique" (1635–1636), Pierre Corneille, Paris, Hatier, 2001.
Bruce Boucher (1998). Thames & Hudson, World of Art, ed. Italian Baroque Sculpture. pp. 134–143.
John Gash, Caravaggio (2003), ISBN 1-904449-22-0
Sayre H; The World of Art; London, Prentice Hall, 2006 Print
Vasari G; The Lives of the Artists, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998, Print