GUIDE TO PLASTIC ARTS
EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
Baroque Sculpture (c.1600-1700)
The Baroque period did not lack sculptors, although few of them were outstanding - perhaps only Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), who was even greater as a sculptor than as an architect. Those sculptors who did rank as the foremost in their occupation were employed with unprecedented intensity, for despite the importance of Baroque architecture, sculpture was the most characteristic Christian art form of the Baroque age and was certainly the most widespread. Not only did it succeed, unlike architecture and painting, in the creation of an artistic idiom largely common to all Europe, but it affected the appearance of almost every artistic artefact produced during that period. In short, the first recognizable characteristic of Baroque sculpture is its omnipresence.
TYPES OF SCULPTING
Plastic art produced in this period can be divided into two broad categories: those intended for decoration, to add the finishing touches to architecture; and sculpture in the usual sense of the word, as an item in itself.
Architecture made use of decorative sculpture in three typical ways. The first was in the form of a horizontal line of statues or other sculptures to complete the top of a building. Again this was not a Baroque invention, but it was in the Baroque period that it became a conventional stylistic feature, a systematic method. It derived from the custom which became fashionable in the seventeenth century of surmounting a building by an 'attic'. In effect this was a low parapet concealing the sloping sides of a roof, which gave the building seen from below the appearance of ending in a horizontal line. This feature came to be almost always decorated with a row of statues regularly placed and standing out against the sky. Examples include St Peter's Basilica, Rome, whose oval colonnade was the work of Bernini himself, and the palace of Versailles, where the place of statues is taken by huge urns and friezes. From the attic or roof of a building the practice was extended to other horizontals - the walls enclosing gardens, the parapets of bridges, and so on.
Another architectural use of sculptured elements such as statues was to replace columns as supporting features, whether as caryatids (uprights in the female form) or telamons (those in male form). This use had a history going back to classical Greece and became a vogue especially in the Baroque of Austria and Germany.
The third and most typical use of sculpture in combination with architecture was in friezes, groupings of coats-of-arms, scrolls, trophies, and similar elements. The combination of sculpture with architecture even reached the point where sculpture seems to be, or actually becomes, architecture, as in Bernini's baldacchino in St Peter's, in which the roles of the two forms mingle to a degree very much in keeping with Baroque taste.
Such, then, were the ways in which sculpture was linked with architecture.
The work traditionally undertaken by the sculptor in former ages, on tombs, altars, commemorative monuments and the like, continued meanwhile to be produced in the Baroque period. It generally had designs which approached, or could even be taken for, scenography, with a theatrical approach akin to stage-setting - perhaps appropriately in a period that saw the rise of melodrama and the modern theatre. Thus in a side-chapel Bernini presents the ecstasy of a saint as a theatrical event, with members of the family who commissioned the work portrayed life-size, seated in boxes just as though they were in a theatre watching the spectacle. (The Ectasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52) Marble, Capella Cornaro, Rome - SEE BELOW.)
Traditional Baroque sculpture typically had two outstanding characteristics. Firstly, it was technically perfect. The skill of the Baroque sculptors constituted a true virtuosity in, for example, rendering the appearance of human skin according to whether the subject was man or woman, old or young. Curls, drapery, different fabrics such as wool and silk, the texture of armour - all were precisely imitated. Such was the mastery of the sculptors over their material that in statues carved from marble it is impossible to deduce or imagine the original shape of the block. Michelangelo, epitomizing the ideals of Italian Renaissance sculpture, had said that a statue should give the impression of being able to roll from top to bottom of a hill without being harmed. No such thing could have been said of Baroque sculptures. They have what might be called a photographic objective - to perpetuate a movement. This involves the use of free, loose design, and also of shapes for the human form far more slender than those considered desirable by Renaissance sculptors.
In sculpture the other special characteristic of the period - and the most important - was the appearance of movement. Figures are never depicted in stillness or in attitudes of repose but always in motion, and most typically at that moment of least equilibrium which is the climax of a movement, the imperceptible but dramatic moment, for example, when a vaulter is no longer rising but has not yet begun to descend and is motionless, in an attitude of potential, in mid-air. When he wished to portray Apollo in pursuit of Daphne, Bernini chose the most dramatic moment, when Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree to escape from the god: the moment of climax of the action. (Apollo and Daphne (1622-5) Marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome.)
It was because of the preference for movement that the outline known as the figura serpentinata, the serpentine figure, enjoyed such a vogue in the seventeenth century. As a way of representing the human figure it first came to the fore in the second half of the sixteenth century, the period immediately preceding the Baroque. This shape facilitated the representation of the body in the act of performing a spiral movement, or in swift rotation as in an athlete throwing the discus, or a struggle - see: The Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-3, Marble, Piazza della Signora, Florence) by Giambologna.
Sometimes the composition became exaggerated in a way suggestive more of agitation than of motion. The artist was sometimes so enamoured of the effects he was producing, of his technical skill, that he lost sight of the harmony of the total composition. Such an effect was always likely, however, when from the work of masters we pass on to that of the journeymen. One merit of the Baroque was that it created conditions in which second rate work could be assimilated into the execution of complex works of greater artistic value: the great fountains inhabited by bearded figures, satyrs, nymphs, dolphins, and assorted monsters which adorned the piazzas and the avenues of Baroque cities and gardens, the decoration of the great staircases in the palaces of the time, down to the stucco work and other profuse ornamentation of galleries, salons, churches, in every sort of interior. In these works the overall impression created was sometimes merely orgiastic; generally, however, the Baroque style achieved an effect of triumph.
Among the greatest sculptors of the Baroque era are the following:
Francesco Mochi (1580-1654)
See also: Italian Baroque Artists.
Gaspard and Balthazar Marsy (1624-1681)
Jean Baptiste Tuby (1635-1700)
See also: French Baroque Artists.
Jorg Zurn (1583-1638)
See also: German Baroque Artists.
Martinez Montanes (1568-1649)
Pedro Roldan (1624-1699)
Pedro de Mena (1628-1688)
Here is a short list of some of the greatest sculptures (statues, reliefs and other traditional works) carved or modelled during the Baroque, listed by sculptor.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52,
Marble, Capella Cornaro, Rome)
Tomb of Pope Leo XI (1634-44, Marble,
St Peter's Rome)
Statue of St Andrew (1629-33, Marble,
Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican)
Milo of Crotona (1671-82, Marble,
Apollo Tended by Nymphs of Thetis
(1666-72, Marble, Palace of Versailles)
Fountain of Apollo (1671, Stone,
Chateau de Versailles)
Horse Restrained by a Groom ("The
Marly Horse") (1739-45, Louvre, Paris)
Mercury Tying his Talaria (1753,
Lead, Louvre, Paris)
Monument to Peter The Great ("The
Bronze Horseman") (1766-78, Decembrist Square, St Petersburg)
Woodcarving of a Cravat (c.1690,
Limewood, Victoria & Albert Museum)
Apollo (1715, Marble, Staatliche
Equestrian Statue of Prince Elector
Friedrick William The Great (1689-1708, Bronze, Schloss Charlottenburg,
For more about the history and styles of plastic art, see: Art Encyclopedia.