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The Baroque Era: A Historical Context Paper

January 22, 2014

The Baroque era is often referred to as “The Long 17th Century” as it musically spans from 1600-1750. The word Baroque originally derived from art critics to describe something that was “abnormal”, “bizarre”, “exaggerated”, and “grotesque”. However in the 19th century, the term was given a more positive outlook, as it became equated with the flamboyant, theatrical, and expressive tendencies of the 17th century art and architecture. The Baroque era follows the Renaissance, which was considered the age of enlightenment and rebirth. It was a time that allowed people to have more freedom of expression in the arts and scientific developments. The Baroque era is an extension of this development, as freedom to explore and create outside the box became quite evident in mediums such as science, philosophy, literature, theatre, architecture, and art.

In the world of science there was an entire revolution with people like Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, and Sir Isaac Newton leading the way during the 17th century. In the previous century, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) studied astronomy, optics, mechanical engineering, anatomy, and natural science, which paved the way for many scientists. Many historians believe that the Renaissance slowed down the advancement of science, as there were conflicts with religion and higher interest in politics and history over natural philosophy or applied mathematics. Da Vinci believed that the planets revolved around the sun, but it wasn’t until 1609 that Kepler convincingly proved how the planets, including the earth, move around the sun in an elliptical orbit with varying speeds depending on their distance from the sun. In ten years’ time Galileo was able to demonstrate the laws of motion and use the newly developed telescope to discover sunspots and the moons of Jupiter. Descartes posited that the world could be understood through mathematics, logic, and reasoning from the first principles, which collaborated with Newton’s law of gravitation. This law was developed in the 1660’s and combined a mathematical sense of the universe with strong observation to develop a rigorous scientific method that included hypothesis, theory, and results, and the comparison of the outcome to the prediction. These scientific methods set patterns for centuries to follow, and emphasized the overall need to find solutions for what is useful and effective, as opposed to the old thinking of what was hallowed by tradition.

The 17th century was the birthplace for modern philosophy, as it developed away from Scholasticism – a method of critical thought that was taught by academics in universities that sought to resolve contradictions of theories that were derived from philosophy, theology, etc. – an otherwise medieval approach. Even though scholasticism was critical and deployed reason, it still relied heavily on traditions. Like science, philosophy looked for what was useful and effective, and ultimately employed scientific method. As a result, 17th century philosophy has been regarded as the age of reason and rationalism, as this new philosophical thinking succeeded the Renaissance philosophy era, and precedes the age of enlightenment.

The end of the Renaissance brought forth one of the greatest writers in literature of all time: William Shakespeare, along with Miguel de Cervantes and Giambattista Guarini. Many artists pulled texts from these author’s pieces (i.e. Don Quixote & Il Pastor Fido) to create tone poems and operas. The theatre of the Baroque era was thriving on the works of Shakespeare along with Molière. Plot turns and complex situations were on the rise in theatre, and were eventually used in opera as well. Theatre became a multimedia experience, as technology allowed actors to come down from the skies and quick scene changes through stage rotation. Ropes, pulleys, and side actors could be hidden with the new framed-in design of the stage, allowing the audience to see only a specific action. The advancements of theatrical technologies from this era are still used today for Broadway shows and commercial plays. It was an extraordinary time for theatre advancement.

In terms of architecture, much was changing as well. In the Renaissance, architecture relied on simple, straight lines with some detail, but in the Baroque era it was all about ornamentation. Straight staircases became extravagant and showy with many curls and exaggerated details. It is this ornate style that fueled the Baroque name itself. Power was being exaggerated with monuments lie the Palace of Louis XIV, containing over 1000 rooms, whilst churches also needed grandeur, to promote the power of God. Many were refurnished and renovated to include more ornate decoration and make the overall church structure more imposing.

Drama and movement were large components in Baroque art, particularly sculpting. Just like the architecture, the simplicity of the Renaissance, Baroque art turned into heavily detailed ornate styles. Michaelangelo’s Statue of David is a primary example of changing styles. It evokes Greek statuary and illustrates Renaissance humanism, nobility, balance, and calmness. Whereas Bernini’s David provokes movement, emotion, and drama. Theatricality was being introduced to painting through the usage of motion and emotion. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes shows both violent actions and psychological reactions, which are both deep emotions that were never expressed in such a way in art before. Statues like the Ecstasy of St. Theresa provoke sexual and dramatic tension through expression and the meticulously detailed folds in her clothing while golden light pierces down upon the angel and her as the angel prepares to stab her heart with a golden arrow.

Huge advancements were seen between the Renaissance and Baroque era, with many of the advancements from the Baroque era still being in use and circulating today. So many achievements and successes were had in the 150 years that was this era, and it is not hard to see how music had advanced as well. It was a time of growth in knowledge and understanding. It was a time to promote individual thought and expression, understand and recognise drama and creativity, and indulge in the grandeur that was the powerful. It was a time that led to the Age of Enlightenment, a time of questioning traditions and creating new ideals based on scientific methods and discoveries. It was a time of immense change that ultimately changed the rest of history.

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