In the previous two instalments (A Tradition Matured, The Classical Dilemma), we discussed the effects that having a stable and secure knowledge of the classics had on the literary world. We took specific interest in the early stages of this new age and associated it with the word ‘baroque’. Baroque comes from the Spanish barroco, ‘a large irregular pearl’. A lot can be inferred about the baroque period from this etymological base. It is a beauty compressed but also a beauty that is almost at breaking point, barely containing the bounds of its control.  The compressed form of the pearl is what we now often associated with the baroque period – an art and literature that is formal, symmetrical, and frigid. At the time that frigidity was valued as being powerful control over a burning passion which lurked, dangerously and tantalisingly, beneath the surface. Perhaps the citizens of the baroque age had merit in appreciating the control, for, when that control vanished amid the sweeping events of Revolution, it was not long before the Terror arrived.

The greatest form of control was exerted in the European theatre by the supreme controller – the Grand Monarch. And there was none more grand than Louis XIV, the chief figure of the age. His pristine court, with its emphasis on elegance and beauty, was unmatched. Yet beneath the frontier of elegance King Louis was an extremely passionate soul – his relationships with the voluptuous Marquise de Montespan and the serene and spiritual Marquise de Maintenon encapsulate, at the highest level, the baroque attempt to control the passions.

In England the chief baroque character is William III, whose conquest of England in 1688 is known as the Glorious Revolution. Macaulay, writing in the nineteenth century, wrote of that king:

He was born with violent passions and quick sensibilities: but his sense of his emotions was not suspected by the world…Those who brought him good news could seldom detect any sign of pleasure. Those who saw him after a defeat looked in vain for any trace of vexation…but those who knew him well and saw him near were aware that under all this ice a fierce fire was constantly burning.

His was the spirit of the age. The same tensions characterise the work of its artists and writers. The below table summarises the forms and emotions we can expect from Baroque art:

Form Emotion
Satire/Epigram Venomous but polite
Tragedy Passionate but stilted and formalised
Female Statues Swooning, yearning, and elegantly posed, conventionally draped
Churches and Cathedrals Symmetry, florally decorative, swooping arches, and sumptuous purple and gold colours
Music: The Prelude or Toccata Free and emotional
Music: The Fugue Rigidly formal and intellectually disciplined
Music: Cadenza Intricate, with the opera-singer yearning upwards like the female statues

The best artists of the era who would engage in these forms and emtions are as follows:

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Name Field Nationality Lifetime
Robert Adam Architecture Scottish 1728-1792
Asam Brothers Interior Design German 1686-1739;1692-1750
Johann Sebastian Bach Music German 1685-1750
Gian Lorenzo Bernini Architecture Italian 1598-1680
Nicolas Boileau-Despéraux Satire & Criticism French 1636-1711
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet Oratory French 1627-1704
José Benito de Churriguerra Architecture Spanish 1665-1725
Pierre Corneille Tragedy French 1606-1684
John Dryden Tragedy & Satire English 1631-1700
Henry Fielding The Novel English 1707-1754
Edward Gibbon History English 1737-1794
Luis de Góngora Poetry Spanish 1561-1627
El Greco Painting Greek/Spanish 1541-1614
George Friedrich Handel Music German/English 1685-1759
Jean-Baptiste Lully Music Italian/French 1632-1687
Pietro Metastasio Operatic Tragedy Italian 1698-1782
Moliere Comedy French 1622-1673
Claudio Monteverdi Music Italian 1567-1643
Alexander Pope Satires & Poetic Epistles English 1688-1744
Nicolas Poussin Painter French 1594-1665
Henry Purcell Opera English 1659-1695
Jean Racine Tragedy French 1639-1699
Peter Paul Rubens Painter Flemish 1577-1640
Alessandro Scarlatti Music Italian 1660-1725
Domenico Scarlatti Music Italian 1685-1757
Jonathan Swift Satire Irish 1667-1745
Giovanni Tiepolo Painting Italian 1696-1770
Titian Painting Italian 1488/90-1576
John Vanbrugh Architecture English 1664-1726
Paolo Veronese Painting Italian 1528-1588
Christopher Wren Architecture English 1632-1723

So what part did Greece and Rome play in the influence of the lives of the above greats?

  1. It supplied themes:
    • Racine’s greatest heroine was a prehistoric Greek princess
    • Purcell’s finest opera is about Dido and Aeneas
    • Handel’s best-known song comes from an opera about Xerxes
    • Pope and Boileau both strove to reincarnate Horace in themselves, with partial success
    • Gibbon spent his life writing the history of the later Roman empire in consciously Roman cadences
  2. It supplied forms:
    • Tragedy
    • Comedy
    • Satire
    • Character-sketch
    • Oration
    • Philosophical Dialogue
    • Pindaric and Horatian Ode
  3. It acted as a restraining force (along with religion and social prestige):
    • Graeco-Roman Stoicism
    • The simple beauty of its architecture, as opposed to the often-grotesque gothic (compare the tortures of classical hell to that of Dante)
    • The Jesuits took it as an entry point for the purification of the soul – the school gave us Tasso, Moliere, Descartes and Voltaire to name but a few.
Louis XIV
The Court of Louis XIV

Aesthetic control of the Baroque era would become synonymous with the idea of classicism –to such an extent that it became a slur for those who strove for a more passionate expression of life. During the Revolutionary Era, Graeco-Roman literature was to emerge as a force for liberation as well as restraint. They would learn you could cast off Baroque classicism without casting off the classics. In conjunction with the three influences mentioned above, the classics also worked as the glue which produced the intellectual unity of Europe and the two Americas. It was a common realm of imagination and discussion that could transcend nationality and bridge religious divide. Just as the European empires were imposing themselves across the world, the cultural empires of Greece and Rome were imposing themselves on the souls of those very Europeans who felt themselves in the ascendancy.