By: Jenna Curry
One evening in 1655, the powerful Barberini family of Rome presented an elaborate theatrical performance for an audience of 3,000. The show concluded with a parade of actors fighting in a mock battle against a fiery dragon. Such ornate productions were not created merely for entertainment purposes; they were also a means to gain political and religious power. (The guest of honor that night was Christina, who had relinquished the crown of Protestant Sweden four years earlier to join the Roman Catholic Church.)
This elaborate and dramatic approach to art, design, theater and architecture, known as the Baroque style, reigned in Europe from the mid-17th century until about 1800. “Baroque art and design was opulent and impressive, dramatic and moving, but also very serious in its purpose,” says Michael Snodin, cocurator of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition Baroque 1620–1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence, running April 4–July 19. “The growth of the style was closely linked to the establishment of great European empires ruled by absolute monarchs such as Louis XIV, and also the growing power of the Roman Catholic Church.”
Although Baroque is often understood in terms of excess, Snodin says it’s important to remember that the style developed as a way to convey the messages of the church and the absolute monarchs. The London exhibition aims to capture the essence of Baroque scenes by presenting about 200 examples of furniture, silver, ceramics, painting and sculpture, by pioneering artists such as Gianlorenzo Bernini, sculptor and architect to the popes; Charles le Brun, chief painter and designer for the French court; and Peter Paul Rubens, who led the Baroque painting style. In Rubens’ Descent From the Cross, explains Snodin, “expressive faces give the painting an emotional intensity. This sense of drama was intended to inspire the viewer with a deep sense of religious passion and faith, in keeping with the spirit of the powerful Roman Catholic Church during this period.”
Decorative objects commissioned by royal families, like the violin by Ralph Agutter, which was most likely made for Charles II or James II of England, were used as decoration and in performances. On the instrument’s back is an intricately carved pattern of scrolling leaf ornament with flowers—a Baroque design that spread across the continent as the power of the European monarchs did the same.