We and their Baroque

By Alex P. Vidal

“For my own singing, I used to be attracted by the baroque, the flashier the better, but now I prefer a simpler, purer style.” – Renee Fleming

WHEN European culture started to generate a new artistic style, known as the Baroque and Rev. Martin Luther was having an amazing success in spreading the Reformation, the Filipinos had their own unique “contribution” in world history.

In that period, Lapu-Lapu had killed Portuguese invader Ferdinand Magellan and many parts of the Philippines had already been “Christianized” as a fulfillment of the Spanish-sponsored voyage in the Limasawa Island.

The term Baroque means “irregular” if taken literally and is applied generally to the dynamic and undisciplined artistic creativity of the 17th century, according to historians.

The Baroque style grew out of the Catholic pomp and confidence accompanying the Counter-Reformation, at first.

As the style spread north, it later became popular at royal courts, where it symbolized the emerging power of the new monarchies.

Historians further tell us that “the Baroque approach was likely to exhibit some combination of power, massiveness, or dramatic intensity, embellished with pageantry, color, and theatrical adventure wherever it showed itself.”


The Baroque reportedly sought to overawe by its grandeur without the restraints of the High Renaissance or the subjectiveness of Manneristic painting.

Historians said Baroque painting originated in Italy and spread north. One of its Italian creators was Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1565-1609), whose bold and light-bathed naturalism impressed many northern artists.

The Italian influence was evident in the works of Peter Paul Rubens (1557-1640), a well-known Flemish artist who chose themes from pagan and Christian literature, illustrating them with human figures involved in dramatic physical action.

Ruben also did portraits of Marie de Medicis and Queen Anne, at the French court of Louis XIII.

Another famous Baroque court painter was Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), whose canvases depict the haughty formality and opulence of the Spanish royal household.

A number of Italian women were successful Baroque painters, including Livonia Fontana (1552-1614), who produced pictures of monumental buildings, and Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1652), a follower of Caravaggio.

While the Baroque style profoundly affected the rest of Europe, the Dutch perfected their own characteristic style, which grew directly from their pride in political and commerical accomplishments and emphasized the beauty of local nature and the solidity of middle class life.


Dutch painting was sober, detailed, and warmly soft in the use of colors, particularly yellows and browns.

Almost every town in Holland supported its own school of painters who helped perpetuate local traditions.

Consequently a horde of competent artists arose to meet the demand for this republican art.

Only a few among hundreds can be cited here. The robust Frans Hals (1580-1666) employed a vigorous style that enabled him to catch the spontaneous and fleeting expression of his portrait subjects.

He left posterity a gallery of types – from cavaliers to fishwives and tavern loungers. His most successful follower, whose works have often been confused with those of Hals, was Judith Leyster (1609-1660), a member of the Haarlem painter’s guild with pupils of her own. Somewhat in contrast, Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) exhibited a subtle delicacy. His way of treating the fall of subdued sunlight upon interior scenes has never been equaled.

Towering above all the Dutch artists-and ranking with the outstanding painters of all time-was Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). While reflecting the common characteristics of his school, he produced works so universally human that they not only expressed Dutch cultural values but also transcended them.

His canvasses show tremendous sensitivity, depicting almost every human emotion except pure joy. This omission arose partially from his own troubled consciousness and partially from his republican, Calvinist environment.


Nevertheless, his work furnished profound insights into the human enigma.

He has been called the “Dutch Baroque version of da Vinci.”

Baroque architecture, like painting, was centered in Italy, from whence it permeated western Europe.

The most renowned architect of the school in the 17th century was Giovanni Bernini (1598-1660). He designed the colonnades outside St. Peter’s Basilica, where his plan illustrates the Baroque style in the use of vast spaces and curving lines. Hundreds of churches and public buildings all over Europe displayed the elaborate Baroque decorativeness in colored marble, intricate designs, twisted columns,

scattered cupolas, imposing facades, and unbalanced extensions or bulges.

Stone and mortar were often blended with statuary and painting; indeed it was difficult to see where one art left off and the other began.

The seventeenth century also brought Baroque innovations in music. New forms of expression moved away from the exalted calmness of Palestrina and emphasized melody supported by harmony. Instrumental music – particularly for organ and violin – gained equal popularity, for the first time, with song.

Outstanding among Baroque innovations was opera, which originated in Italy at the beginning of the century and quickly conquered Europe. The new form utilized many arts, integrating literature, drama, music and painting of the elaborate stage settings.


The literature of the Baroque age before 1650 showed a marked decline from the exalted heights of the northern Renaissance.

Even before 1600, however, Puritanism and the Counter-Reformation inclined many writers toward religious subjects.

In England, this trend continued in the next century and was augmented by a flood of political tracts during the civil war.

Religious concerns were typical of the two most prominent English poets, John Donne (1573-1631) and John Milton (1608-1674).

Milton’s magnificent poetic epic, Paradise Lost was planned in his youth but not completed until 1667. French literature during the early 1600s was much less memorable.

The major advance came in heroic adventure novels, pioneered by Madeleine Scudery (1608-1701).

Most other French writers, influenced by the newly formed French Academy, were increasingly active in salon discussions but more concerned with form than with substance.

(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two dailies in Iloilo)