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:
|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:
|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|
|José Benito de Churriguerra||Architecture||Spanish||1665-1725|
|John Dryden||Tragedy & Satire||English||1631-1700|
|Henry Fielding||The Novel||English||1707-1754|
|Luis de Góngora||Poetry||Spanish||1561-1627|
|George Friedrich Handel||Music||German/English||1685-1759|
|Pietro Metastasio||Operatic Tragedy||Italian||1698-1782|
|Alexander Pope||Satires & Poetic Epistles||English||1688-1744|
|Peter Paul Rubens||Painter||Flemish||1577-1640|
So what part did Greece and Rome play in the influence of the lives of the above greats?
- 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
- It supplied forms:
- Philosophical Dialogue
- Pindaric and Horatian Ode
- 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.
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.