Retrace the tour. Continue the tour...

Architecture in the Baroque Period


Recall that Renaissance architects often borrowed elements from classical (Greek and Roman) architecture, thinking of themselves as heirs of that ancient tradition. Their buildings followed "rules," were rational, using mathematical proportions and symmetry, and were generally rectilinear -- that is, they used straight lines and right angles rather than curves, except for the "perfect" hemispherical arch. (Click here to review example of Renaissance architecture.)

While Baroque architecture continued to use classical elements, Baroque buildings are much less rational and orderly than Renaissance buildings. Instead of the rectilinear elements of Renaissance buildings, curvilinear elements, undulations (in and out movements), and concave niches with sculpture dominate Baroque buildings. Instead of the rational rectilinear plan of Renaissance buildings, Baroque buildings often use an oval plan or other curvilinear elements in the plan. In general, Baroque architects incorporated emotion, drama, and surprise in their works.

Baroque architecture began in Rome and by the eighteenth century Baroque buildings were built throughout Europe, particularly in Catholic countries.

Sant'Andrea al Quirinale
Rome, from 1658


This is the first work we will see by Bernini, one of the greatest artistic geniuses of the Italian Baroque. The son of a sculptor, he felt sculpture was his true calling but he was also an architect, painter, and poet. Only Michelangelo before him was held in similar esteem by popes, the great, and other artists. Bernini worked primarily in Rome --designing everything from fountains to tombs to portrait sculptures-- in addition to the works we'll look at here.

PlanLike most Baroque churches, this is a small church. The exterior is less decorated than some Baroque churches but note the curvilinear elements. The porch swings out with curved semicircular steps flowing down from the entrance. Low walls on each side of the exterior swing out like arms and behind them in a counter circular movement is the curvature of the church itself--actually a drum enclosing a dome.

The plan is an oval with the short axis from entrance to altar; curved niches are around interior.

Altar Dome

The altar is opposite the entrance and is decorated with vari-colored marbles. Baroque interior designers often use colored marbles and other stone, gilding, and sculptural elements whereas Renaissance interiors are less colorful -- and some might say less "gaudy." Note also the broken pediment --an irrational and emotional element-- with St. Andrew (for whom the church is named) rising toward the dome. The painting above the altar is also of St. Andrew.

Francesco Borromini
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
Rome, 1665-7

Exterior Facade detail Facade

Dome interior

Another small church with an oval plan, San Carlo also has counter motions (concave and convex) on the facade. The undulations and movements make this architecture closer to sculpture. Unlike rational Renaissance architects who liked right angles, Borromini is said to have eliminated the corner in architecture. Note too the use of sculptural ornamentation in niches on the facade; this is characteristic of much Baroque architecture. In general, then, this church illustrates the restless, dynamic quality of much Baroque architecture in contrast to the calm, rational quality characteristic of most Renaissance architecture.

Vignola and della Porta
Il Gesł
Rome, begun 1568

Exterior Interior

Before leaving Baroque architecture, we should look at one additional church, sometimes considered the first Baroque church -- even though it lacks a strong sense of undulation and exterior sculptural decoration. Historically, it is very important and it was copied throughout Europe and Central and South America. Why this church? It is the mother church of the Jesuit order (Society of Jesus) founded by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556). Jesuits were especially active in countering the Reformation and were important missionaries in Europe, Asia (St. Francis Xavier), the "New World," and Canada. Loyola was canonized in 1622 and in the ceiling painting below he is transported to heaven.

Entrance of St. Ignatius into Paradise
Ceiling of nave, Sant'Ignazio, Rome, 17th century

Ceiling of nave

This illusionistic fresco is on the ceiling of the nave of a church dedicated to St. Ignatius Loyola. The architecture is painted, but if one stands at the correct place, the painted architecture seems to extend from the real architecture of the walls of the nave and the ceiling seems open to heaven where the viewer sees the miracle--the Saint transported into Heaven. This kind of illusionistic ceiling became very popular in baroque churches in Catholic countries.

Art History for Humanities: Copyright © 1997 Bluffton College.
Text and image preparation by Mary Ann Sullivan. Design by Gerald W. Schlabach.

All images marked MAS were photographed on location by Mary Ann Sullivan. All other images were scanned from other sources or downloaded from the World Wide Web; they are posted on this password-protected site for educational purposes, at Bluffton College only, under the "fair use" clause of U.S. copyright law.

Page maintained by Gerald W. Schlabach, Last updated: 14 April 1998.