The Age of the Baroque and Enlightenment 1600-1800: Architecture and Design

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Renaissance Inheritance and Catholic Renewal


In Italy, architecture and urban planning began to move in a grander direction in the years around 1600. Since the eighteenth century this style has been known as the “Baroque,” a word that comes to us from the Portuguese baroco. Originally, this term referred to pearls that were rough and heavily encrusted with sediment. When the neoclassicists of the eighteenth century adopted the word to describe the architecture of the period that preceded their own, they did so to criticize the imposing grandeur and often heavily ornamented style that had been popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They found this style decadent and corrupt; in its place, they longed to develop a purer classicism with simpler and more harmonious features. The label the neoclassicists applied to the period stuck, although today it retains little of its negative connotations. While the word “Baroque” still sometimes disapprovingly suggests an art, architecture, or literature that is overly complex, stylized, or contrived, modern historians of art and architecture have come to realize that the designs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries possessed considerable variety and vitality. Today, in other words, the architecture of the Baroque has been restored to its important place in the history of Western culture, and the designs of the architects and urban planners of this period have come to be valued on their own terms as well as for their important role in shaping modern notions about cities and urban planning.

Origins of Baroque Architecture

In sixteenth-century Italy, two important styles of building—High Renaissance classicism and the more willful and artful designs of later Renaissance Mannerism—rose to prominence. High Renaissance classicism first began to emerge in Milan, Florence, and Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and its design elements had been articulated most forcefully in the works of Donato Bramante (1444-1514). Bramante’s design principles stressed restraint in ornament, harmonious proportions derived from an intellectually conceived program, and monumental scale. The period of the High Renaissance was short, lasting only for about three decades following 1490. While these years saw the construction of a number of important structures in northern and central Italy, political and financial realities frequently dogged High Renaissance projects, as did issues of sheer technical complexity and scale. Many of the great designs of the period were too large to be completed without armies of laborers and artisans, and, given the political, financial, and religious instabilities of the time, their sponsors soon shelved or abandoned them even before they moved beyond their initial stages. The largest and most important of building projects undertaken at the time were in and around Rome. At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Julius II (r. 1503-1513) signaled his determination to transform Rome into a grand capital of all Christendom. During the Middle Ages the city had grown into a tangled web of dark, winding streets filled with mud huts and brick tenements. Julius wanted to redesign Rome, to transform it into a city of squares, impressive churches, and imposing public buildings that made use of developing architectural ideas. While few of his projects fulfilled his lofty vision, he set the agenda that would dominate architecture in Rome for the century that followed by demolishing the ancient St. Peter’s Basilica, a structure that had stood since the fourth century on the Vatican Hill outside the city. He chose Bramante to serve as the chief designer for the church’s rebuilding, and although neither figure lived to see the project carried forward beyond its initial stages, Bramante and Julius fixed the scale and proportions of the church by constructing four great piers to support its planned dome. In the century that followed, the greatest architects of the age, including Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Gianlorenzo Bernini, perfected and enhanced Bramante’s plans. At times, political realities, religious crises, financial problems, and sheer technical complexity stalled the project. And in an indirect way, the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica even contributed to the rise of the Protestant Reformation, since Julius’s successor, the Medici Pope Leo X (r. 1513-1521), resorted to corrupt and unscrupulous sales of indulgences in order to carry on construction of the new building. The marketing of these indulgences prompted Martin Luther to attack the church in his famous Ninety-Five Theses, one of the documents that precipitated the rise of religious controversies throughout Europe. Those disputes, as well as the Sack of Rome at the hands of German armies in 1527, cooled for a time the artistic and architectural ambitions of those within the church’s capital. Despite the controversial nature of the project and the problems that stalled its completion, the construction of the building dominated architectural achievements in Rome until the mid-seventeenth century.

Mannerist Complexities

In the relatively brief period of the High Renaissance, designers like Bramante favored a language of restrained and imposing classicism and they planned buildings and urban squares that might have impressed their viewers by their austere noble proportions and sheer monumental scale. As the High Renaissance began to fade, a new fashion for buildings that were less classical in spirit developed. Historians call this style “Mannerism” and the word has long been used to refer to developments both in architecture and the visual arts. Many Mannerist artists followed the lead of the willful and highly personal style that Michelangelo developed during his middle age. During the 1510s and 1520s, he had spent much of his time working for the Medici family in Florence, designing the family’s mausoleum in the Church of San Lorenzo in that city, as well as the Laurentian Library at the same site. While his architecture in this period made use of classical design elements, the artist played imaginatively with these features to create spaces that made use of repetition and a seemingly strange juxtaposition of objects. Michelangelo later rejected his own highly personal style when he became overseer of the construction of the new St. Peter’s in the mid-sixteenth century. At this time his designs returned to the more thoroughly classical style of the High Renaissance. Yet his works in and around Florence inspired a taste for Mannerist design continued by architects like Giorgio Vasari, Giulio Romano, and Bartolommeo Ammanati. These figures continued to violate the norms of High Renaissance classicism in favor of designs that were elegant, willful, and often artificial. In contrast to the severity and monumentality of the High Renaissance, these Mannerist architects favored the repetition of purely decorative elements and played with the language of classical architecture, remolding it to create new and unexpected features that appeared on their façades and in their interiors. While the High Renaissance style never completely died out in Italy, Mannerism came to compete against it, particularly in Florence and other Central Italian towns. Both styles—Mannerism and High Renaissance classicism—became a wellspring of inspiration to later Baroque architects as they created a number of new buildings in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century.

Rome Resurgent

Elements of Baroque style first began in the many churches under construction in Rome during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Following Rome’s Sack in 1527, few great churches had been built in the city, a result not only of the depression that the attack caused, but also of the Protestant Reformation, which had criticized the costly outlays on church building that had occurred in the later Middle Ages. Toward the end of the century, though, a broad and ever-deepening movement within Catholicism gathered strength. Known as the Catholic Reformation, this movement matured in Italy sooner than in other parts of the continent, in part because of the peninsula’s central position within Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation inspired a number of new religious orders, groups like the Jesuits, Theatines, Capuchins, and the female order of teaching nuns known as the Ursulines. These groups dedicated themselves to renewal in the church, and as they became officially recognized, many began to build new churches in Rome to commemorate their newly acquired status as official orders within Catholicism. As they set up institutions elsewhere in Italy and throughout Europe, groups like the Jesuits also commissioned scores of new churches throughout the continent. The stimulus that the new orders thus gave to church construction soon inspired elites in Rome and in Catholic cities throughout the continent to patronize church building projects, too. As a result, many medieval and Renaissance churches came to be rebuilt or remodeled in the new style, one that favored elaborate adornment, display, and imaginative new shapes and decorative elements. Through this style, architects aimed to impress worshippers with an image of the church as a powerful celestial and earthly institution—to capture the imagination, in other words, and lift a worshiper’s mind towards Heaven. Much Baroque church architecture was thus monumental in spirit, and even when the scale of religious architecture was small, architects aimed to create spaces that might inspire and awe viewers.

Catholic Reform

The developing ethos of the Catholic Reformation also stressed the importance of the sacraments—particularly the Eucharist—as central elements of Catholic life. The movement embraced effective preaching as an important goal of the priesthood, while at the same time teaching that an individual’s participation in the process of working out salvation was necessary. Catholic reformers vehemently rejected one of the central tenets of Protestant teaching—that salvation was a free gift of God’s grace—and instead taught that a diligent participation in the life of the church as well as frequent good works paved the road to Heaven. Architects tried to give visual expression to these teachings as well. One of the first places that the effects of Catholic reform can be seen is in the Gesù, the home church of the Jesuit Order in Rome. Il Gesù was a massive, barrel-vaulted church completed in the city during the later sixteenth century, and later Baroque designers imitated many of its design features. The church’s plan provided for broad expanses of ceiling and wall space, ideal surfaces on which seventeenth-century painters and sculptors could celebrate the richness and variety of the church’s history and its teachings. At the same time the sight lines of Il Gesù led inexorably to the church’s choir, the place in which the Eucharist was commemorated at the High Altar. The complex of side aisle chapels that had long existed in many medieval structures was thus downplayed at the Gesù and in the many buildings that imitated its plan. Instead the attention of worshippers who visited these places was focused on the altar and the pulpit, the sites from which the sacraments and preaching issued. Following the example of the Gesù, early Baroque architects labored to lend drama and a climactic force to their creations. Many of their constructions frequently suggested movement, underscored by the massing of decorative details at a church’s door and along the path to the structure’s culminating altar. Thus in contrast to the serene and often static character of High and Late Renaissance buildings, Baroque architecture was, from its very inception, dynamic—an architecture, in other words, that embraced movement.

Influence on the Cityscape

As Rome revived from the flagging morale with which it had been afflicted in the mid-sixteenth century, the city began a host of new grand public works projects. These projects began under the reign of the “building” pope, Sixtus V (1585-1590). The enthusiasm with which Sixtus approached the reconstruction of Rome encouraged the church’s major officials as well as Rome’s noble families to pursue new projects as well. This program of rebuilding intensified after 1600, as one of Sixtus’s successors, Pope Paul V (r. 1605-1621), brought new sources of water to the capital by restoring the ancient Roman aqueducts that had once supplied the city. Rome now had a guaranteed, sufficient supply of water that lasted for a century. To celebrate the achievement in providing fresh water, Paul began to build a series of new fountains throughout the city to call attention to this achievement. Thus he helped to create one of the most attractive features of modern Rome: its many fountains set within attractive city squares. Paul commissioned plans for many new churches to minister to the throngs of pilgrims returning to Rome at the time. His architects planned broad avenues to link the city’s major pilgrimage churches, and they set ancient artifacts like obelisks as focal points within squares throughout the city. In the years following Paul’s pontificate, the resurgence evident in Rome did not diminish. Instead, by the mid-seventeenth century Rome gained even more construction sites. As a result, it became a city populated with an almost incomprehensible number of jewels of Baroque architecture. These monuments included many new and remodeled churches, impressive private palaces, civic buildings, and new quarters for the church’s bureaucracies. In this process of expansion and refurbishment, Rome emerged as a model for other European capitals, and rulers throughout the continent soon evidenced a desire to imitate elements of the city’s revitalization.

The Rise of the Baroque Style in Italy

Qualities of Roman Baroque

The buildings constructed as a result of the Baroque architectural revival displayed both great variety as well as certain common traits. The first architect to express many of the features of the new style was Carlo Maderno (1556-1629). In the façade he designed for the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome (1597-1603), he imitated many of the design elements from the earlier Jesuit Church of the Gesù, while giving these a completely new interpretation. Both structures were two-stories high, decorated with a profusion of columns or pilasters, and were crowned with central pediments. Maderno, however, massed his decorative detailing on the façade of Santa Susanna in such a way as to accentuate the central door of the church. He set the sides of the façade back to make the doorway to the church appear to protrude outwards, a welcoming effect to worshippers as they approached the structure. To enhance this impression, Maderno used double columns on both sides of the door while placing single rounded columns at the central bay’s sides and barely visible squared pilasters at the façade’s corners. In the earlier Church of il Gesù, the designer had finished the structure with a rounded arch that contained within it a triangular-shaped pediment, an awkward device that Maderno avoided at Santa Susanna. Instead he crowned the building with a simple gabled pediment, and he repeated this triangular shape above the door as well. These details made the structure’s sight lines all seem to converge on the church’s portal. Maderno’s designs for Santa Susanna’s façade included a wealth of decorative detailing, yet curiously this ornamentation never seems to be out of control. Rather, these decorative elements appear to enhance the critical design features of the structure. This search for ways to mass ornament and decoration to create dramatic effects and to suggest movement soon became a central quest of other Baroque architects working in the city.

St. Peter’s

Even before he completed the façade for Santa Susanna, Maderno became chief architect for St. Peter’s, a position that had been held by the sixteenth-century cultural giants Donato Bramante and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Bramante had originally designed the church in the shape of a Greek cross, that is, as a structure in which the four radiating arms were of equal length. His plans intended to crown the Vatican hill, the site of St. Peter’s martyrdom and tomb, with a monumental domed temple that was thoroughly classical in spirit. Subsequent architects abandoned many features of his designs, although Michelangelo revived and reinstated the crucial features of Bramante’s plans. Workers finished the construction of the dome during the pontificate of Sixtus V. Michelangelo’s designs, while reinstating the spirit of Bramante’s original plans, also treated the dome and the church like a gigantic sculptural mass. Today this feature of his work can only be appreciated from the rear, that is, from the Vatican Gardens, a place that few tourists ever see. The masking of his achievement occurred for several reasons, all of which served the demands of the Catholic Reformation that was underway during the seventeenth century. Although the construction of St. Peter’s was well advanced by the time of Maderno’s appointment in 1605, Pope Paul V (r. 1605-1621) was anxious to cover all the ground at the site that had originally lain within the ancient basilica, and thus he commissioned the architect to extend the church’s nave. In this way the shape of the church conformed to the more traditional pattern of a Latin cross, a style recommended by influential reformers like St. Charles Borromeo. This considerable expansion, however, was incompatible with Michelangelo’s immense dome, since it obliterated views as worshippers approached the church toward its main entrances. The resulting compromise, however, increased the scale of the church to truly monumental proportions and made St. Peter’s undoubtedly the largest church in Christendom for many centuries to come. In the façade he designed for the building, Maderno again massed design elements, as at Santa Susanna, to make the center doorway the focal point and he emphasized the entrance again with a triangular pediment. But the addition of an upper story to the façade was another departure from the original plans set down by sixteenth-century architects, and one again that was not in keeping with the spirit of the original plans. It further obliterated views of the massive dome. Religious rituals like papal blessings, though, necessitated a loggia, or gallery, from which the pope might appear before the crowds who gathered in the square below, and so Maderno obliged by adding an upper story onto his façade. His plans also called for two bell towers to flank the façade at both ends, structures that might have relieved the horizontal emphasis of the structure as it stands today. These towers, though, were not immediately built. Somewhat later, Gianlorenzo Bernini, one of Maderno’s successors at the site, commenced their construction, although he extended their height even further. When the first of the bell towers was built, its foundations soon proved inadequate. Fearing that it might collapse, Bernini had the tower torn down, and the project was soon completely abandoned. Thus, since the seventeenth century the façade of St. Peter’s has stood as a compromise, one that, although imposing and grand, is not completely in keeping with its original plans. If the exterior of St. Peter’s presents a not altogether satisfying appearance, Maderno’s interior decoration remains an unsurpassed example of Baroque ornamentation. With the extension of the church, the architect faced the task of decorating a vast expanse of vaulting overhead as well as the massive columns and piers that supported the structure. In the additions he designed for the church, Maderno opened up broad vistas from his nave by using enormous arches. These arches provided views into the side aisles, which he decorated with broken pediments set atop columns of richly colored marble. To deal with the enormous expanse of vaulted ceiling, Maderno designed an elegant pattern of gilded coffering. Later architects at St. Peter’s added to his decoration. Most notable among these additions were those of Gianlorenzo Bernini, who guided the design team that completed the massive bronze and gilt baldachino, a canopy that soars almost 140 feet over the church’s high altar. Bernini also paneled the columns of the church’s main aisle in richly colored marbles, and he placed many sculptures as decorative elements throughout the church. Yet the dominant decorative spirit within St. Peter’s is Maderno’s, and the use he made there of richly colored marbles mingled with much gilded ornamentation had numerous imitators in other architects of the period.

The Achievements of Gianlorenzo Bernini

Dominated Seventeenth-Century Art

While Maderno’s designs proved to be influential in shaping the direction of the Baroque style, it was Gianlorenzo Bernini who dominated artistic and architectural developments in Rome for much of the seventeenth century. Bernini was in many ways similar to the great “universal men” of the Renaissance. An accomplished sculptor, architect, and painter, he also wrote for the theater and composed music. By his mid-twenties he had produced a string of sculptural masterpieces, and was beginning to undertake architectural commissions for Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-1644). These included the famous baldachino and sculptural decorations for St. Peter’s as well as a series of tombs for Roman notables, and a large number of stunning fountains located throughout the city. A student of urban design, Bernini’s sculptural fountains ennobled many Roman squares and gave the city numerous attractive focal points. In this way he achieved one of the visions that Renaissance designers had longed for: the creation of handsome monuments set in attractive public squares where city dwellers might meet and congregate.

St. Peter’S Courtyard

While Bernini decorated the city as a grand canvas, his most important architectural achievement was the courtyard he created in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, an enormous public space capable of holding crowds of hundreds of thousands of people, yet made inviting by its enveloping colonnades. He ingenuously designed the shape of these structures to hide less attractive buildings within the papal complex. Unlike many more highly decorated colonnades at the time, Bernini’s design was far simpler, calling for four rows of simple Doric columns progressing out from the basilica, first in a straight line and then bowing to form a circular shape. In all, there are 300 columns in this massive structure. They enclose a square with two large circular fountains at the sides and an Egyptian obelisk in the center. Atop the colonnade’s simple, unbroken entablature Bernini placed a large number of statues of the saints of the church. While massive and severely unadorned, the colonnade nevertheless suggests the “arms of mother church,” Bernini’s own phrase to describe the space he wished to create.

Parisian Interlude

As a result of achievements on this truly massive scale, King Louis XIV recruited the architect to plan his remodeling of the medieval and Renaissance palace of the Louvre in Paris. A jumble of conflicting wings and buildings had collected at this site from the Middle Ages onward, and Louis initially believed that Bernini was the architect who might bring order out of this architectural chaos. When he first arrived in Paris, he pronounced the Louvre beyond redemption, and argued that it should be torn down. Over time, though, he became convinced that the façade of the enormous palace might be rebuilt to give the structure unity and coherence. One of his designs for the structure was highly imaginative and included a curved façade, although Bernini eventually altered that design to reflect the more severe and classical tastes of the king and court. While he participated in the ceremony to lay the new foundation stone for the remodeling of the palace, his plans were rejected immediately after his departure from Paris. Back in Rome after only five months abroad, Bernini continued to sculpt, to design, and to supervise many projects until his death at the age of eighty. He remains one of the most prolific artists of the seventeenth century, and as an architect he was especially important for his grand contributions to urban planning and design. His plans for buildings are fewer in number than other great architects of the day and included only three small church projects built in Rome. Yet these structures demonstrated imaginative uses of the more fluid shapes Baroque architects championed at the time.

The Tempestuous and Fanciful Baroque


An altogether more tempestuous spirit and highly imaginative genius animated the architectural visions of Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), the architect of a number of churches in and around Rome in the mid-seventeenth century. Unlike the amiable Bernini, Borromini was a loner who was quick to take offense and who eventually ended his life in suicide. While his competitor Bernini reveled in interiors filled with opulent displays of gold, colored marbles, and sculpture, Borromini’s designs usually called for stark white, highlighted only by touches of gilt. Into these spaces he poured strange symmetries, curving walls and entablatures, and concave pediments—in short, shapes that had never been seen before in such close juxta-position. Trained as a sculptor like Michelangelo and Bernini, he obsessed over small details in his designs, treating buildings as if they were sculptural forms. His plans almost always reveal his sophisticated knowledge of geometry. One of the best examples of his unusual architecture is the small Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, a structure in which Borromini used many intersecting elliptical shapes. Inside, these shapes give the viewer the impression that the church is alive because of the constantly shifting dynamic flow of its curved lines. A more mature and larger work resulted from Borromini’s designs for the Church of Sant’Ivo, a domed structure unlike any built up to this time in Europe. Borromini built the church at the end of a long courtyard for a school that later became the University of Rome; from the outside, the structure’s dome and cupola appear as if they were a ziggurat, an ancient stepped pyramid dating from Mesopotamian times. These designs had become known in Europe during the sixteenth century, but only Borromini ventured to make such bold use of this shape. The footprint of the church is in the form of a six-pointed star, although, inside, Borromini’s alterations to this shape quickly become apparent. Rather than ending in the angular shapes of a triangle, three alternating points of the star are rounded into semi-circular niches, a motif repeated even more forcefully in the dome above. Thus, as one stands inside the church in any direction the shapes constantly oscillate against each other, and the form that is behind one is exactly the opposite of that which is in front. This highly intellectual architecture had many admirers, particularly in a seventeenth-century world fascinated by the properties of mathematics and geometry. Yet Borromini’s works also evidenced a playful and unexpected side, too. In the Church of Sant Agnese he designed in the Piazza Navona in Rome, the architect made the façade appear as if it was a traditional church with side aisles and a nave. He strengthened this illusion by the placement of towers at both ends of the façade. Once inside, however, the viewer finds that the shape of the church is an ellipse that runs parallel, rather than perpendicular, to the square outside. The façade at Sant’Agnese, too, manages to complete Michelangelo’s vision for unobstructed views of a church’s dome. Flanked by its corner towers, the dome of the church soars above and is framed by high towers, thus accomplishing what the papacy’s revisions in the design of St. Peter’s destroyed at the great basilica. Here, as in most of his structures, Borromini also played with the traditional language of architecture to create a space notable for its decorative imaginativeness as well as its undeniable beauty. While he was not the only Italian Baroque architect to have a profound effect in Northern Europe, his works were especially revered in Germany and Austria, and knowledge of his achievements eventually inspired a climate of experimentation and innovation in these regions.

Ricchino and Longhena

The development of a dynamic Baroque architecture soon occurred in other places throughout Italy. At roughly the same time that Bernini and Borromini began their careers in Rome, several figures—working primarily in Venice and Milan—began employing design techniques similar to those taking shape in Rome. At Milan, Francesco Maria Ricchino (1583-1658) experimented with combinations of rectangles and octagons within the Church of San Giuseppe. Designed in the early seventeenth century, the structure broke away from reigning conventions to include a central-style interior composed of two octagons. The resulting structure bore great resemblance to the curving, undulating lines that Borromini developed at roughly the same time in Rome. Ricchino, once dubbed “the most imaginative” of seventeenth-century Baroque architects, inspired a native school of Baroque architecture in Milan that developed roughly contemporaneous with the more familiar and famous Roman style. Slightly later in Venice, the designer Baldassare Longhena (1598-1658) made similar experiments with the Baroque style in the Church of Santa Maria delle Salute, a structure prominently placed at the end of the city’s Grand Canal. Begun in 1631, the church was intended to commemorate the cessation of a recent outbreak of the plague in the city. The building was constructed in the central style, that is, it radiated outward as an octagon from a single point at its center, a form of construction generally disfavored by ecclesiastical leaders at the time. Inside, the interior was fairly typical of churches built at the time, yet on its exterior Longhena massed 125 decorative sculptures, rounded volutes, or scroll-shaped decorations, that served as buttresses, and other ornamental elements so that the entire structure took on the effect of a gigantic sculptural confection. It remains one of the most fanciful churches on the Venetian scene to this day, providing the city with one of its most unforgettable and dramatic views, and one that is strategically placed in an important crossroads at the city’s center. It is, in other words, an effective, grand note of drama and whimsy at Venice’s core.

Guarino Guarini

In a somewhat different vein the architecture of Guarino Guarini (1624-1683) made use of elements drawn from Borromini, although he deployed these to a completely different effect. A member of the Catholic reform order of the Theatines, Guarini spent his youth in Rome, where he became aware of the experiments with new forms and styles being conducted by Maderno, Borromini, and Bernini. As he came to maturity, he became one of the great traveling architects of the seventeenth century, designing buildings in Sicily, Paris, and at Lisbon, as well as completing from a distance designs for churches at Munich and Prague. Later he moved to Turin, where he planned many buildings, most of which unfortunately have been destroyed since that time. A few examples of his work do survive, however. Although in some regards his use of curved shapes and unusual juxtapositions of geometric figures was similar to Borromini’s and shows his influence, Guarini became even more obsessed with geometric patterns in his work. Much of this inspiration he derived from the knowledge he acquired of Islamic architecture while working in Sicily and Spain. In addition, late Gothic or Flamboyant architecture with its highly decorative vaulting provided another source of inspiration. In the designs for two domes he created in Turin, for example, he made use of intricate webs of triangles. For the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in Turin’s cathedral, Guarini created a complex pattern of ever-shifting hexagons that move up the dome and frame its culminating oculus, a window which is in itself made up of a kaleidoscope of circles, semi-circles, and triangles. This pattern refracts and throws the light that enters the chapel in a way no less spectacular than in the greatest of Gothic cathedrals. Guarini’s creations were, above all, intellectual exercises in the deployment of geometric figures to create spaces that strike their observers as suave, elegant, and highly intellectual. In their wealth of decorative ornamentation and flamboyant detailing, Guarini’s works anticipate the elegance of the Rococo style of the eighteenth century.

Diffusion of the Baroque Style Beyond Italy

Through the travels of figures like Gianlorenzo Bernini and Guarino Guarini, the accomplishments of Italian seventeenth-century design came to be known throughout continental Europe. The popularity of engraved architectural etchings and theoretical treatises written by Italians also spread knowledge of the innovations underway in the peninsula, as did the travels of European designers in Italy, too. Throughout the continent, many of the features of Italian design inspired similar experiments with space, ornament, and monumental scale. The Baroque, as it developed elsewhere in Europe, was not just slavishly copied or imitated from Italian examples. The breakthroughs of figures like Bernini and Borromini were instead assimilated to varying degrees within native styles. One of the chief accomplishments of Roman Baroque architects in the first half of the seventeenth century had been to create a dynamic architecture that suggested movement—movement bolder than the passive, static, and intellectualized spaces favored by the designers of the High Renaissance and Mannerist periods. Baroque buildings invited viewers to enjoy their complexities from multiple angles. The asymmetrical lines and the curving spaces of their interiors demanded that viewers walk about these structures to explore the many facets of their interiors. All of these elements, though, were carefully calculated to produce a climactic impression, an impression that often bespoke of power and authority. In the many churches that sprouted on the cityscapes of Rome and other Italian cities, this element of power had been carefully harnessed to support the resurgence of religion underway as a result of the Catholic Reformation. Elsewhere, the use of the new dynamic and monumental techniques of Baroque architecture found their way into an almost innumerable number of urban palaces, country villas and châteaux, as well as churches and civic buildings. For their abilities to command the environment and to suggest control, buildings constructed in the Baroque fashion quickly became the preferred style for seventeenth-century kings and princes desiring to present an image that coincided with their absolutist political rhetoric and theories.

Architecture in France in the Seventeenth Century

A Century of Greatness

The later sixteenth century had been a time of great troubles in France, with religious and civil wars threatening on many occasions to tear the country apart. The accession of Henri IV (r. 1589-1610) paved a way for an era of greater peace and stability. Henri’s conversion to Catholicism in 1593, and the granting of a limited degree of religious toleration to French Protestants through the Edict of Nantes (1598) were both controversial measures at the time. Yet both royal actions provided a foundation for France’s relative domestic peace and stability in the seventeenth century. Although Henri IV was to die the victim of an assassin’s dagger in 1610, France weathered this crisis and did not return to the chaotic civil conflict of the kind that had raged in the sixteenth century. As a result, the seventeenth century saw a period of unprecedented growth in royal power and authority, a growth reflected in the architecture of the period. The new political goals and ideology of the age have frequently been called absolutism, meaning that the king was the sole source of political authority in the realm. In practical terms, this meant that seventeenth-century French kings aimed to strengthen their power by reforming the government’s finances and administration, by weakening the local control of the country’s nobles, and by enlarging French territory and the country’s role on the international scene through military engagements. The emerging Baroque style in architecture provided an ideal way in which to express the enhanced power of France’s royal government, and for much of the seventeenth century it was the city of Paris that benefited architecturally from the wealth and resources that France’s new stability afforded. In Paris, the seventeenth-century French monarchy supported a number of new projects that made use of the developing tenets of Baroque design. At the same time the Baroque in Paris re-interpreted the dramatically imaginative and irregular spaces Italian designers favored so that monuments built in Paris during the seventeenth century displayed a more severely classical, if no less monumental imprint.

Paris in the Seventeenth Century

In 1600 Paris was one of continental Europe’s largest cities. Although the developments that most tourists associate today with Paris—the city of attractive squares, public monuments, and grand boulevards—were largely creations of the nineteenth century, Paris was still one of Europe’s fastest growing seventeenth-century cities, and one that was beginning to be shaped by the techniques of urban planning. At the time, new districts and suburbs were continually being opened up for settlement, and many projects undertaken in these areas anticipated, if on a smaller scale, the grand Paris of modern times. A growing willingness, too, to attack and surmount the problems that nature presented is evident in many of the projects undertaken during the Baroque period. Two districts—the Marais and the Île Saint-Louis—show the appetite that existed for land for development close to the heart of the city. Though they were less-than-ideal sites, their proximity to the medieval core of Paris made them prime locations for townhouses for the city’s nobles and wealthy burghers. The Marais—meaning literally “swamp” or “marshland”—lay directly east of Paris’s early medieval walls. During the Middle Ages, the Knights Templar and several other religious orders had drained the area of its swamps, and set up religious houses in the district. Eventually, the area was brought within the town’s walls, and Paris’s Jews were allowed to settle there. In the fourteenth century, two royal residences were built at the north and south edges of the district, making the Marais a center of artistic and cultural life in the later Middle Ages. By the late sixteenth century, though, much of the Marais was still susceptible to flooding, and its previous medieval and Renaissance glory had languished as the court had again taken up residence in the Louvre. Henri IV decided to reinvigorate the area, and he devised a plan to construct Paris’s first purpose-built square, the Place Royale, later known as the Place des Vosges. Plans for the area had already been set down during the time of Catherine de’ Medici in the 1560s but, given the turbulence of the later sixteenth century in France, they had not been undertaken. In 1603, Henri began to sell plots to buyers who agreed to construct their houses along the predetermined designs for the site. The result produced one of Europe’s most dignified and attractive city squares, a site that has changed little since the seventeenth century. The houses of the Place des Vosges were constructed from stucco and brick. Facing inward toward the square, the buildings were united by a single continuous colonnaded arcade with the projecting stories of the houses that lay above providing shelter from the elements. On both sides of the square, two taller and larger houses were reserved for the king’s and queen’s use, while the other houses cannot be distinguished from one another, except by looking at the lines of the mansard, or steeply pitched, roofs. Elaborate festivities commemorated the inauguration of the site in 1612, and the square quickly became a favorite for nobles and wealthy burghers who served the court. By the mid-seventeenth century, Henri IV’s foresight had reinvigorated the Marais as the center of Parisian life and culture. In the mid-to late century one of its more famous residents was Madame de Sevigné, a noblewoman and author of a voluminous correspondence with her daughter, one of the most revealing records of upper-class French life at the time.

The Île Saint-Louis

Only a few years after the death of Henri IV, his wife, the regent Marie de’ Medici, undertook a similarly ambitious project on a long-neglected island adjacent to the Marais in the Seine. At the time, the island was known as the Île Notre Dame, since it had once belonged to the canons of Notre Dame and lay directly beside the city’s cathedral on the Île de la Cité, the heart of medieval Paris. The Île Notre Dame had long served as pasture land and a place where Paris’s washerwomen beat clothes on the river shores. The island’s dubious notoriety had also been sustained by its venerable status as a dueling ground. Low lying, the area was regularly subjected to flooding, and a channel dug through it in the fourteenth century cut one side of it off from the other. It was, in fact, a poor site for a residential quarter, although the aplomb with which these problems were solved suggests some of the ingenuity and determination with which Baroque architects and urban planners aimed to conquer nature. In 1614, the crown awarded the island to a partnership consisting of several military engineers and financiers hired to supervise the filling in of the channel and its development as a residential quarter. The group’s finances were always shaky, and a portion of those who had bought land on the island eventually took over the project’s control, ensuring that, by 1650, the channel between the two parts of the island had been filled in and that a series of quays 32 feet high now kept the river at bay. On this safe surface above the Seine, grand rows of townhouses began to take shape, while a bridge conveniently connected the island with the Marais that lay to the north. On this small site—less than 120,000 square feet—towering town-houses became an undeniable testimony to Paris’s wealth and the seventeenth-century’s will to surmount nature. The arrangement of these houses, too, points to a changing sensibility among Paris’s upper class about the River Seine, a changing sensibility that has defined Parisian life since the seventeenth century. For centuries, the river’s role in Paris had been either lamentable or utilitarian. On the one hand, the Seine had been a highway for provisioning the city; on the other, it had been an ever present cause of misfortunes made palpable in perpetual dampness, flooding, and disease. Now on the safe promontory that the island’s quays provided, the prominent designers Le Vau, Mansart, and Le Brun built elegant houses for the city’s wealthy that looked outwards toward the river. Nature, tamed in the way it had been in the middle of the Seine, now served as an enhancement to real estate.

Other Parisian Ventures

Attentions similar to those showered on the development of the Marais and the Île Saint-Louis focused elsewhere throughout the city of Paris in the seventeenth century. During the reign of Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) many of these projects continued along the lines of the Mannerist style that had been popular in late sixteenth-century France, including the construction of the Luxemburg Palace (b. 1615), just outside the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank of the Seine. The palace became home to the Queen Mother Marie de’ Medici. Its style, however, was largely traditional and there was as yet little of the elegant garden that eventually so enhanced the palace’s rather small scale. Another project of Louis XIII’s reign imitated the style of early Baroque newly ascending to popularity in Rome: the construction of the Chapel of the Sorbonne, the university’s church designed by the architect Jacques Lemercier and begun in 1635. This domed structure largely copied the Church of San Carlo ai Catinari, completed in Rome in 1620. Cardinal Richelieu, Louis’ powerful minister, ensured that this building could be properly seen from its street angle by demolishing a group of medieval buildings that had stood on the site. In flavor, though, the building remains a conservative imitation of the grand Italian style, and nowhere in Paris does one find the kind of daring uses of dramatic and unusual shapes and spaces like those that prevailed in the architecture of Borromini and Guarini in Italy. Instead, the native French Baroque architects of the time looked conservatively to late Renaissance models or to those of the early Baroque, rather than to more innovative designs. Although more conservative in spirit, the buildings of the period nevertheless embraced a monumental scale similar to those being constructed in Italy at the time. Examples of this monumentality can be seen in the new additions and remodeling undertaken at the Palace of the Louvre. This grand structure, the largest urban palace in Europe, was almost continually in a state of repair, refurbishment, and remodeling until the nineteenth century. Renaissance alterations at the site had included the destruction of the medieval tower of the original castle, and the construction of two new wings according to designs set down by Pierre Lescot. These structures were the first truly Renaissance designs in the city of Paris. Slightly later in the sixteenth century, Catherine de’ Medici took up residence in the Louvre and began to construct a second enormous building, the Palace of the Tuileries, to the west of the original Louvre complex. Although a mob eventually burnt down that palace during the Revolt of the Paris Commune in 1871, a long Gallery constructed during the reign of Henri IV joined both the Tuileries and Louvre together. Louis XIII and Louis XIV continued to add to the palace, with Louis XIII beginning the construction of the massive Cour Carrée, the square courtyard that was four times larger than the original internal courtyard of the Renaissance palace. This enormous project consumed the efforts of the architect Jacque LeMercier for many years before finally being completed under the direction of Louis Le Vau. By the 1660s, and the reign of Louis XIV, the only major project left at the Louvre included the construction of a new façade for the palace’s East Wing, an important part of the entire venture since it faced eastward toward the city of Paris.

To complete this project, Louis first imported the Roman architect Bernini, who drew several plans for the site—plans that, if they had been undertaken, might have completely altered the Renaissance appearance of the structure. Not entirely convinced of the wisdom of Bernini’s designs, the king’s ministers solicited plans from French designers, too, and soon after Bernini’s return to Rome, the king selected designs drawn up by the architect Louis Le Vau and Claude Perrault, a physician, scientist, and scholar, as well as a writer on architectural theory.

The Foundations of French Classicism

The project for the East Wing of the Louvre was of major significance in setting design standards that prevailed in public buildings in France for much of the rest of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While massive in its proportions, the façade’s arcade of paired columns rising above a story of simple arched windows suggests a thorough knowledge of Roman temple architecture. The only break in the entablature running across the entire façade is in the single pediment that stands in the center, while at both ends of the structure simple pavilions with three windows, the center one arched in a Palladian manner, complete the structure. The serene and majestic face of the building became a premiere example of French “good taste” in construction. Shortly after the building’s completion in 1670, Louis XIV’s minister, Colbert, made the bold move of establishing the Royal Academy of Architecture in France, an academic body charged with meeting regularly to discuss and set the canons for public buildings. This body rejected the extravagantly ornamental forms favored by architects like Guarini and Borromini, and instead insisted that the canons of French architecture that had prevailed since the Renaissance should be safeguarded. Usually, the body supported “French restraint” in building as superior to Italian Baroque innovations. In particular, the academy rejected broken pediments and other Italian innovations, and instead insisted on the use of a harmonious and rationally understandable classicism inspired by Antiquity. It generally supported the use of the steep French, or mansard, roof as generally well adapted to the country’s northern climate. In addition, the French Academy’s influence penetrated into the building industry itself, as it became a body charged with establishing standards for construction and for the materials used in buildings as well as for stipulating correct building practices.

From Vaux-le-Vicomte to Versailles

The foundation of the Royal Academy of Architecture in Paris established the canons of French classicism as normative in public building projects undertaken in the country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the same time, the construction of private residences and country châteaux displayed considerable variety as well as a taste for extravagance. One of the most significant of the many country retreats built in this period was the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte, constructed for Louis XIV’s chief minister of finance, Nicholas Fouquet. This massive project, perhaps the most comprehensively successful of the many French country châteaux completed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was a collaborative project undertaken by the architect Louis Le Vau, the interior designer Charles Le Brun, and the garden designer André Le Nôtre. Although Vaux-le-Vicomte’s extravagance eventually spelled disaster for Fouquet, the structure was important in that it was one of the first highly successful integrations of outdoor landscaping, architecture, and interior design. Seen from its gardens, Vaux embodies many qualities of elegance, particularly its domed central salon adapted from Italian Baroque architecture of the period. Less exuberant than similar palaces constructed in Italy at the time, the structure and its gardens, nevertheless, were the envy of French nobles at the time. Shortly after completing the structure in 1661, its owner, Fouquet, entertained the king and the court at a lavish celebration, which included impressive fireworks and even a specially commissioned comedy written by Molière. Even before the king arrived, however, Fouquet’s undoing had been planned. Convinced that Foquet had long embezzled from the royal treasury, Louis accepted his minister’s hospitality before imprisoning Fouquet for life two weeks later. The king seized Fouquet’s pride, the Château at Vauxle-Vicomte, as well as his other possessions. The extravagant displays that he had seen while in Vaux-le-Vicomte steeled Louis’ resolve to punish the extravagant upstart. While at Vaux, though, Louis was so impressed with the quality of the château’s garden, its interior decoration, and façades that he recruited the team of designers—Le Vau, Le Brun, and Le Nôtre—to join his service. Within a few years, these three collaborated on the greatest project of the age: the Palace of Versailles.

A Royal Hunting Lodge

The building that became known as the wonder of the age, Versailles, began as a simple hunting lodge, constructed for the pleasure of Louis XIV’s father in 1624. Its rise to prominence as the seat of the French monarchy began in the 1660s for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the restiveness of the country’s nobility, which had recently been evidenced in the Fronde of 1648-1653. This series of rebellions of French nobles and parlementarians occurred in and around the city of Paris during Louis XIV’s minority. Since he had acceded to the throne when he was only five years old, Louis’ government had been largely presided over by his mother, Anne of Austria, and her chief minister, the Italian Cardinal Mazarin. Their actions to strengthen the power of the crown and set royal finances on a firmer footing angered the Parlement of Paris, which rose up in revolt in 1548 and 1549. Slightly later, a faction of nobles rebelled, too, raising an army against the crown and succeeding in driving the king, the Queen Regent, and Cardinal Mazarin from Paris. For a time the city fell under blockade, but the successful quashing of the rebellion actually enhanced royal authority. Although Louis had been only ten years old when these disturbances began, he never seemed to forget his humiliation at the hands of the country’s nobles, and his later decision to move his government to Versailles, away from the Parisian nobles, was in large part inspired by the embarrassment of the fronde. With the death of his chief minister Mazarin in 1661, Louis resolved to rule alone, and, particularly, to bring into submission the French nobility. When he first began to visit his father’s small hunting lodge at Versailles in the 1660s, though, Louis considered it no more than a place of diversion. To make the site more suitable to royal entertainment, the king enlisted Le Nôtre to design lavish gardens there for court festivities. A few years later, in 1668, Louis decided to extend the small château that stood at the site, adding three large wings constructed from stone rather than the original brick and stucco. With these additions, he completely dwarfed the rather modest structure that had originally stood at the site. In truth, Versailles was always a poor choice for the construction of Louis’ ambitious designs. The land was marshy and had to be extensively drained. An inadequate supply of fresh water meant that a complex system of pumps had to be built to bring water miles from the Seine to the château in order to feed its 1,400 fountains as well as its enormous canal. The palace that Louis built had an unyielding symmetry and logic, and this made Versailles a cold and drafty place, where opposing windows and cold marble floors produced many a chill and pain in the joints. Equally unwieldy was the complex and highly contrived court etiquette that developed for the courtiers who attended the king there. Every move of the court and the king had to be choreographed according to an unbending etiquette that lasted long after Louis had died. The king intended these intense displays of court ritual to tame his nobles, to make them into obedient subjects. Curiously, perhaps the only one that Louis showed deference to at Versailles was his father: he carefully preserved his father’s original hunting lodge as the core of the château, continuing to build around it for the rest of his life, even though its style was greatly at odds with the Italianate palace that sprang up around it.

The Seat of Government

The Roman Baroque style of the period heavily influenced the interiors of this palace, although in subsequent alterations, parts of Versailles took on a more classical flavor. The huge structure and its surrounding gardens always remained a hodgepodge of conflicting elements and styles, yet they all curiously adhered to each other by virtue of the palace’s overwhelming grandeur and scale. At the center of this structure there was one constant: the king’s bedroom, where his rising and going to bed became one of the central rituals of the state. At the height of the society Louis created there, more than 10,000 courtiers were often in attendance at court. During the late seventeenth century, Versailles was almost constantly under construction. Within a decade of the major expansions begun in 1668, a second set of alterations began, this time with the purpose of moving the court and royal government permanently to Versailles. Thus, between 1677 and the transfer of government to Versailles in 1682 a small city sprang up around the palace to serve the king and his courtiers. The king’s architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart supervised this second expansion, which included two gigantic wings built at the north and south of the structure. These radiated off at perpendicular angles from the U-shaped block that now stood at the center, and they brought the total width of the palace’s front façade to more than 600 yards. Seen from this angle, Versailles remains a not-altogether pleasing construction, although one that nevertheless continues to amaze and confound visitors by its sheer size. It is from the gardens, however, where the palace’s design clearly shines. The geometric patterns created by the gardens’ many walks and broad avenues and the placement of the fountains and more than 4,000 pieces of sculpture combine to make the palace’s enormous garden façade appear strikingly beautiful, even delicate, against the sky. As in the palace proper, the central placement of the king’s bedroom and the daily path of the sun from east to west were the major principles around which the gardens were organized. Known as the “Sun King,” Louis ensured that this motif of the sun recurred in many other places at Versailles.

Other Constructions

As Louis and his court settled in Versailles as a permanent residence in the 1680s, even the king began to tire of the elaborate protocol and uncomfortable spaces of his creation. In 1687, he commissioned his chief architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, to build a smaller palace at the far edges of Versailles’ garden, where a small village known as Trianon had once stood. This “Marble Trianon” replaced a small Chinese pavilion constructed at the site in the 1670s. Louis intended the Grand Trianon, as it later became known, to be a private retreat, where he might bring ladies from the court for private suppers. The gardens were more informal and the scale of the small palace less forbidding than the great château. Unlike the many-storied creation of Versailles, the Trianon had a single story of family bedrooms and drawing rooms. When completed, the palace had two large wings separated by a marble colonnade. As Louis mended his wayward marital habits later in life, the Trianon took on more the nature of a family house in which the king, his children, and wife might escape the pressures of court life. In these later years the king also constructed Versailles’ sumptuous royal chapel, an oval two-storied construction where the king heard Mass from the balcony above. The lines of this high building can be seen today towering above the town façade of Versailles, and even at the time of its construction the chapel was criticized for destroying the view of the palace from the front courtyard. Inside, however, was one of Hardouin-Mansart’s most beautiful and restrained creations. Below, a colonnade of Roman-style arches are decorated with simple, yet elegant reliefs, while, above, on the second-story balcony, plain white Corinthian columns support a broad entablature that runs around the structure’s oval shape. Simple arched windows emit a striking light into the chapel, whose ceiling is decorated with gilt and murals. The royal chapel was the first freestanding church to be built upon the grounds at Versailles, although five smaller chapels had preceded it. It was completed only in 1710, five years before the king’s death. Its light and airy spaces reflect the developing tastes that made Rococo architecture so widely popular among nobles and wealthy city dwellers in France in the early eighteenth century. Still, the overwhelming feeling that the chapel presents is of a restrained classicism, one that since the mid-seventeenth century French architects had been anxious to develop as a native style. Louis reputedly built the structure to satisfy his second wife, the commoner Madame de Maintenon, whose piety was well recognized at the time, and who helped wean Louis away from his self-indulgent nature. Nevertheless, the structure is fully consonant with the aims of Versailles, which were, in large part, to create spaces befitting of a monarch with grand pretensions and a love for the adulation of his subjects. The daily hearing of Mass that occurred within the space was in and of itself one of Versailles’ most important rituals.


Even in his own day, Louis XIV’s Versailles was often criticized as a palatial stable, and it was attacked for its bad taste and lack of comforts. Yet despite the frequent aesthetic judgments that have been made against the structure from the seventeenth century onward, it is difficult to overestimate Versailles’ influence on the palace architecture of Europe during the early eighteenth century. In Germany and central Europe, in particular, where scores of territorial princes competed against one another for political advantage and glory, Versailles came to be widely imitated. A host of smaller Versailles, in other words, soon popped up on the European landscape. The widespread emulation of the French model involved more than just creating public spaces and gardens that imitated Versailles, for courtly taste adopted the elaborate etiquette and rituals that prevailed in the French palace, too. Versailles, in other words, embodied the absolutist and courtly aspirations of the age.

Parisian Developments

The king’s and court’s move to Versailles, some fifteen miles southwest of the center of Paris, consumed an inordinate amount of France’s state treasury at the time. As a result, few great architectural projects could be completed in France’s largest city in the later seventeenth century, although there were several important exceptions. In 1670, Louis founded the Hospital of the Invalids, a home for France’s war veterans. Over the years, this complex grew in the western part of the city to accommodate more than 4,000 veterans. A handsome addition to the complex was the construction of its massive, domed church, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and begun in 1687. At Les Invalides, as it has long been known, Hardouin-Mansart used a design detail, the cut-off ceiling, adopted from the repertory of his uncle François Mansart. In the interior of the high dome, in other words, he included an inner dome that was much lower than the external structure, yet cut off at the top to allow views to the much higher structure above. The result creates an impression of soaring height and a dramatic vista from the floor of the church below. The exterior of this structure, too, makes use of the severe classicism that French designers favored at the time. The project of Les Invalides, taken up in the west of Paris and on the Left rather than the Right Bank of the Seine, also signaled an important shift in the city’s population. As the court congregated more and more outside the city at Versailles, the wealthy and cultivated elites that remained began to move from the Marais and other districts on the edge of Paris’ medieval core westward, particularly into the regions around St. Germain-des-Pres, an ancient abbey that had once stood on the western fringes of the city. At the end of the seventeenth century the area began to be filled with handsome townhouses. Further south of the heart of medieval and Renaissance Paris, new suburbs began to spring up on the Left Bank, too. This shift in residential development in the city continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, making the Left Bank one of the most desirable locations for residences in the city, while leaving the former residential areas of the Right Bank open more and more to commercial development. One final important project begun during the late seventeenth century was the construction of the Place Vendôme, under the direction of the royal architect Hardouin-Mansart. This planned square stood at the time on the Right Bank north and west of the Louvre, in an as yet little settled area. The square had been planned as early as 1685 to accommodate a group of public buildings, but the project stalled because of lack of funds. Eventually, Hardouin-Mansart laid out the square and began to build a series of classical façades, but a royal shortage of funds forced the king to sell the entire project to the city of Paris. At this point, the project languished until the 1720s, when the French king’s Scottish financier, John Law, succeeded in precipitating a real-estate boom in and around the square through the skillful sale of stock in its development. From Law’s time, the classically inspired square has managed to remain one of the most stylish areas of Paris.

Different Directions in England

Modest Means

In comparison to France, England had always been a relatively poor country, where the rituals of court and government had long been celebrated on a far more economical scale. The country’s population—about four million in 1600—was only one quarter of that of France. Although the grandeur of the Tudor court might appear considerable to modern observers, Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) was notoriously tight-fisted by the standards of her era. With the accession of James I (r. 1603-1625) and the rise of the Stuart dynasty upon her death, greater luxury and opulence did come into fashion in the circles that surrounded the crown. Still James’ wealth was considerably more limited than that of the French king. He may have desired to present an elegant face to the outside world, and he did try to do so, but the shortage of funds was an endemic problem and one that always threatened the monarch’s efforts to create architectural monuments on a grand scale. Still, in the years of his reign several important projects, designed mostly by the talented architect Inigo Jones, laid the foundation for English classicism, a style that was persistently revived over the following two centuries and molded to fit the changing tastes of the time. Jones’s style was considerably more restrained than the Italian Baroque and less monumental in scale than the French classicism of the time. He imitated many elements of the sixteenth-century architecture of the northern Italian, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). During his long career Palladio had created a number of important public buildings and country villas, as well as several influential churches in the Venetian Republic. His ideas for a relatively unadorned architecture that nevertheless made use of elegant, often sinuous lines had been communicated in Northern Europe through the publication of his important architectural treatises. Nowhere, however, did these ideas take root more forcefully and pervasively than in England.

Inigo Jones

Born in 1573 in London, Jones had few of the advantages of the great gentlemen architects that came after him in England. Despite his humble situation as the son of a clothmaker, he managed to travel to the continent in 1603, his visit perhaps financed by a nobleman. Somewhat later he returned again to Italy where he made a detailed study of ancient Roman architecture. Largely self-taught, he rose in the court circles of Stuart England, and together with Ben Jonson he staged some of the most elaborate court masques of the early seventeenth century. These entertainments required great skill in staging as well as a thorough knowledge of design. Under both James I and his successor Charles I, Inigo Jones received a number of commissions for large-scale houses and he began work on the Queen’s House in Greenwich outside London during 1616. Slightly later, Jones received the commission for the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Both structures survive and demonstrate the architect’s thorough mastery of Palladian design principles. They are two of the first buildings to integrate the High Renaissance style in England, although by the standards of the time they might have looked rather severe and small in scale to continental observers. The Queen’s House—intended for James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark—was built on the grounds of the royal palace at Greenwich, although that larger palace has since been destroyed. Jones ingeniously devised the Queen’s House to provide a bridge over a local road that cut the royal park in two. To solve this problem he built an H-shaped structure with two wings joined at the upper story by a bridge (the crossbar in the H). Later this design feature was covered up when the road was redirected and the center portion filled in. The ground floor of the structure was constructed from rusticated stone, with simple squared pediments as the only decoration above the windows. On the second floor, Jones used smoother masonry, yet repeated the same simple windows. A balustrade finished the structure. The entire mood of the Queen’s House is somber, yet elegant, and thoroughly Palladian in its elements. The appearance of the Banqueting House, by contrast, is less severe, and the structure makes use of a greater range of decorative details. Although its interior is a single block, the structure appears from the street as a three-story structure with a rusticated ground floor. The first floor that rises above has alternating circular and triangular-pedimented windows and its columns are of the Ionic order, while on the floor above Jones used the Corinthian order and squared pedimented windows. To finish the structure, he created a decorative garland frieze and a simple balustrade. At the time of the building’s construction in London in the early 1620s, nothing this classical in spirit had ever been seen before on the streets of England’s capital. While Jones received many commissions during his long career, none of his subsequent work ever matched the influence of these two projects, although one of his most important achievements was his design of Covent Garden in London beginning in 1631. This was, like the Place des Vosges in Paris and several earlier examples in Italy, a purpose-built square, the first in London. It derived many of its features from the earlier Parisian example. It was to be followed in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by many other handsome squares, most of them built in the western part of the city. In those years, Jones’s architectural examples also inspired a string of designers who were even more accomplished in applying Palladian classicism to the English environment.

Rebuilding London

The greatest of Baroque English architects was Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), a figure who left a major imprint on London after the city’s catastrophic fire of 1666. Wren was the son of an eminent clergyman who eventually became the Dean of Windsor, the site of England’s largest royal castle. Thus, the young Wren moved in powerful circles from an early age; his playmates were members of the royal family, and by virtue of his superior education, he matured into something of a Renaissance man. He attended Wadham College, Oxford, at the age of sixteen, where he worked under a brilliant anatomist and conducted some of the first experiments in the use of opiates as anesthesia. When he completed the Master of Arts degree, he received a prestigious fellowship to All Souls College, also at Oxford, a position he held for the next twenty years and which allowed him to pursue his research interests in astronomy. While still a fellow, he also accepted an academic appointment at Gresham College in London, where he gave regular lectures in Latin and English. While in London, he and a close friend founded the Royal Society for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, the institution that remained England’s premiere national academy for scientific research. Appointed to a prestigious professorship at Oxford in 1661, Wren began to dabble in architecture after his uncle, the bishop of Ely, asked him to design a chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge. Several small commissions followed, but his rise to prominence began soon after the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed more than two-thirds of the City of London, including the medieval core. Within a few weeks of this catastrophe, Wren presented the king with comprehensive plans for rebuilding London. As a result of Wren’s travels in Europe, he longed to remake London into a city filled with monuments in the French classical and Italian Renaissance styles. The king and court admired his plans, but decided they were too costly to ever be completed. Wren wanted to demolish much of what was left in London and fill the rebuilt city with grand avenues and broad squares. Charles II instead appointed him to the post of Surveyor General, a position he held for half a century. Like Paris, London had outgrown its medieval core by the seventeenth century, although the area destroyed in the fire had been the center of commerce and of civic and religious life. Eighty-nine of London’s almost 100 churches had been destroyed in the fire. Wren’s plans for rebuilding included designs for only 51 churches. Thus, his architectural renewal had a long-lasting effect on the city’s spiritual life, since his design resulted in an ambitious, but very controversial program of parish consolidation. Today, only a portion of the handsome churches Wren created survive; many were lost in bombing raids during the Second World War while others have been destroyed by terrorist attacks since the 1970s. Still, enough of Wren’s achievement survives to point to the vibrancy of his architectural style, as well as its ready adaptability to many different kinds of circumstances.

Wren’s Style

The architect’s crowning achievement was his plan for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a structure that imitates the massive proportions of the Baroque, yet in most respects owes much to the High Renaissance designers Bramante and Palladio. Initial plans had called merely for the repair of the surviving Gothic church at the site. Wren soon realized that the destruction was too considerable to be repaired, and so he planned a central-style church to be constructed in the form of a Greek cross. The canons of St. Paul’s, however, reacted bitterly to the design as impractical for the demands of worship. Wren responded by adopting the more traditional Latin cross as the basic shape. The final structure demonstrated his encyclopedic knowledge of the major buildings constructed during the previous century in continental Europe. While much of the flavor of the building derives from the High Renaissance, the building’s dramatic sense of energy seems more a feature of the Baroque. This emphasis on drama can be seen in the two-storied portico that Wren designed for the building’s west façade. Here he grouped paired columns together, as in Perrault and Le Vau’s east wing of the Louvre. As at that structure, he included a central pediment as a culmination point, although he placed this pediment between two bell towers that borrowed from the Roman architect Borromini’s plans for the Church of Sant’ Agnese in Rome. The dome that rises to be seen through this portico is more than 35 stories high, and its design again shows much indebtedness to continental models, especially to those pioneered by Michelangelo and Bramante. The dome’s drum is encircled with a colonnade in the manner of Bramante’s High Renaissance Tempietto at Rome (constructed in 1502), while the shape of the structure that rises above it is pure Michelangelo. In short, the building long appeared to many observers as the perfect integration of many Renaissance and Baroque design elements, and for this reason it influenced many other structures in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world. It was the only truly monumental Protestant church to be constructed in Northern Europe during the seventeenth century, although, inside, some of the weaknesses of the union between Protestant theology and monumental church architecture become apparent. Queen Victoria, for instance, dubbed the interior dreary, and many have agreed. In comparison with similar Catholic churches of this magnitude, the absence of gilt and of decoration—rejected by Protestants as too ostentatious and wasteful—makes the interior appear severe. These problems became accentuated over the decades, since the inferior-quality stone of the massive building required that the church interior be painted to hide its flaws. Rather quickly over time, the pristine white walls of the church grew gray with soot, a grime that is only now beginning to be removed by a painstaking process of restoration. Still, the details of Wren’s interior show a faithful integration of the Corinthian order as well as other classical design elements. In the long Gothic space of the church, though, these elements prove to be inadequate to sustain the visual interest of most viewers.

Other Projects

There are a number of other masterpieces among the fifty other churches that Sir Christopher Wren created to replace those burned in the London fire of 1666. At St. Mary Le Bow, for instance, Wren used the church’s pre-existing foundation, as he often did in the rush to complete these structures. Since these medieval foundations were of varying height and width, he sometimes imaginatively deployed these irregular spaces in his creations. At Mary Le Bow, he designed his first great steeple, which again made use of the medieval belfry’s foundations. Palladian-arched windows adorn the first upper level of the belfry, which is decorated with classical pilasters. Above a round, colonnaded temple, similar to Bramante’s famous Tempietto in Rome, supports a smaller second colonnaded structure from which rises a final obelisk as a steeple. Wren’s fertile mixing of Renaissance, Baroque, and classical elements as in the Church of St. Mary Le Bow, was for many years one of the most distinctive features of the London skyline. Before the advent of the twentieth-century glass and steel skyscraper, the forest of steeples with which Wren endowed London was one of the city’s most recognizable elements. These steeples, too, were widely copied wherever English settlers moved, finding their way into the town squares of villages throughout North America and in places as distant as Australia and New Zealand.

Classicism and City Planning in the Netherlands

Restrained Grandeur

As in England, a severe classicism free from a great deal of ornamentation was typical of most Dutch architecture in the seventeenth century. As a trading empire, the country’s merchants were in frequent contact with the world that lay beyond their canals, dikes, and interior seas. Dutch traders and architects were frequent visitors to Italy, France, and England, although they generally shunned the elaborately ornamented spaces of the Roman Baroque as well as the severe grandeur of the court culture of nearer Versailles. During this Golden Age in the country’s history, a fondness for classical design, much of it influenced by the relative severity of figures like Inigo Jones and Andrea Palladio, prevailed. The country’s ethos—shaped by Calvinism and the sixteenth-century fight for independence from Catholic Spain—meant that the seventeenth century was not a great age in Dutch history for the construction of churches. As a rule, Dutch Protestants merely took over Catholic churches from the later Middle Ages, often whitewashing over the structure’s murals and removing their sculptures. As population increased in the country’s cities during the seventeenth century, new churches, often built in a style known today as “Dutch Palladianism,” were constructed, but Calvinism, with its radical distaste for religious art and decoration, assured that many of these structures had only simple interiors. Dutch artists of the time like Vermeer and Saenredam documented the severe interiors that were common in the country’s churches. Cleansed of their “idolatrous” religious art, these structures presented a severe face, with simple white walls and austere but massive spaces as their defining characteristics. Often the only ornamental elements that survived in these churches were their Gothic vaulting or their more modern carved and handsome pulpits, this later feature suggesting the primary importance given to the scriptures, the Word of God, in the new reformed faith.

Domestic Architecture

By contrast, the Dutch displayed a more decorative taste in their civic buildings and houses, drawing on a repertory of Palladian decorating elements on the handsome exteriors of these structures. In the seventeenth century most Dutch houses were built from brick, rather than stone, although stone façades tended to increase as Dutch prosperity climbed during the century. Unlike Italy, where merchant princes had long built great urban palaces, Dutch houses were considerably more modest. Large tenement buildings that housed several families were also uncommon. Instead, the Dutch house was a place in which a single family or extended family lived. Most were quite small and were built in a way similar to modern “row houses.” In Amsterdam and other cities near the water, they faced onto a canal, the main arteries for commercial deliveries at the time. They were usually about 25 to 30 feet wide and four to six stories high with decorated gables that faced toward the street or canal. This design allowed the maximum number of merchants access to a city’s thoroughfares, but it also shaped and limited the domestic spaces inside. Most houses were only one or two rooms wide, although they were considerably deeper, stretching back from the street or canal. The Dutch house of the time was often used for both business and domestic pursuits, with cellars and attics functioning as commercial storehouses. Great families sometimes joined two or more of these smaller houses into a single space. Grand mansions built over several city lots were not as common in the Netherlands as they later became, although Amsterdam did acquire quite a number of these structures in the later seventeenth century.

City Planning

Between 1600 and 1700, Amsterdam’s population increased fourfold. Although its growth was the most dramatic in the region, rapid increase was the rule in most parts of the country. The Dutch’s success in their sixteenth-century war of independence against the Habsburgs had left the country free to develop as a commercial center. To the south in Flanders and France, and to the east in Central Europe, religious repression continued to be the rule through most of the seventeenth century. In the Netherlands, by contrast, relative tolerance became the rule. Although the law officially prohibited Catholicism and some other religions, in practice Dutch local officials permitted a considerable degree of religious freedom. As a result, Jewish settlers from throughout Europe streamed into the country, as did Mennonites, Anabaptists, French Huguenots, Catholics from Flanders, Germany, and France, and even Orthodox Christians from Greece and the Near East. The Netherlands had long been a country that was exceptional by European standards; much of its land was low-lying, large parts of it were even below sea level, and for centuries, the country had been claiming territory from the water through the skillful draining of marshes and the construction of dikes. This tradition of public engineering continued in the seventeenth century, yet at the same time a new method of urban planning was taking shape in the country’s cities. To accommodate the influx of new settlers in Amsterdam, the town council devised the Three Canals Plan in 1612 to increase the city’s size and manage its growth. In essence, the plan expanded the town walls to enclose four times more space than they had previously, and called for three new canals to provide merchants and artisans with an outlet to the sea. Tough new restrictions drew a distinction between areas where “noisy” industries and crafts might be pursued and other parts of the town intended for residences and quieter commercial transactions. They divided the undeveloped land with mathematical precision into lots that were each 25 feet wide, and carved the new water thoroughfares with geometric regularity so that all roads led inexorably to the town’s center. Handsome townhouses soon appeared in the new quarters, with prominent families streaming into these districts to take advantage of the relative peace and quiet. They decorated the new town walls with impressive gates at the major entrances and exits to the city, and along this string of walls, massive new fortifications protected the city from attack. Thus, in comparison to the relatively piecemeal plans for urban development then in use in London and Paris at the time, the Dutch model of urban planning was notable for its thoroughness and rationality.

Public Architecture

During the Baroque period, Dutch burghers, that is city dwellers, continued to build imposing town halls, a tradition that stretched back through the Renaissance to the later Middle Ages. Of the many civic projects undertaken during the Netherlands’ seventeenth-century Golden Age, the greatest was the construction of a new town hall in Amsterdam to replace an older medieval building that had served this purpose. When the burghers of the city began this project in 1648, they had merely desired to expand their pre-existing civic offices. In the initial phases of remodeling, however, the medieval structure at the site burnt down. Thus Jacob van Campen, the new building’s architect, had a blank slate with which to work. The structure that he created survives today as an imposing testimony to the wealth of the time. The hall covered an entire city block, almost 300 feet wide and more than 230 feet deep. Above a ground floor, Campen designed two high-ceilinged stories, so that the entire structure, minus its enormous cupola, soared to a height of more than 100 feet. The central portion of this building projected outward towards the surrounding square and culminated in a pediment. Inside, an enormous Great Hall made use of the full potential of the building’s grand height. Like Inigo Jones’ Banqueting Hall in early seventeenth-century London, this hall was a single monumental block of space, one of the largest public halls built during the Baroque. While it employed more restraint in its decoration than the exuberant ostentation typical of Italian buildings at the time, the massive scale of the structure makes it a building of undeniable grandeur.

Hidden Churches

Another feature of seventeenth-century Dutch life presents a curious adaptation to the continuing religious controversies of the period. While the Netherlands was an island of relative religious toleration in the seventeenth-century world, the law still officially forbade the practice of Catholicism. As a result, large numbers of “private” churches sprang up in the country’s cities, usually accommodated in the attics of townhouses. The degree of toleration granted to these institutions fluctuated over time and from place to place, although in most places bribes and even a system of fines meant that Catholics enjoyed relative freedom to practice in these private churches. Many of Holland’s secret churches spanned the attics of several houses, and their artistic decoration was often quite flamboyant. The nobles, wealthy merchants, and foreign Catholic traders who patronized these institutions saw to it that these private chapels had elaborate murals, frescoes, and gilt ornament similar to the ostentation common in the continent’s leading Baroque churches. In spite of their status as a subculture within the predominantly Calvinist cities of the region, the number of these secret churches was often considerable. Amsterdam had about twenty, Leiden eight. The potency of the Baroque interiors that survive from this period demonstrate the appeal that this style had for Catholics who existed in a state of relative isolation from the broader world of Roman religion.

The Baroque in Central Europe

Warfare and External Threats

In comparison to the relative peace and stability of the Netherlands, the seventeenth century in Central and Eastern Europe was a time of great tribulation. Religious disputes marred the first half of the century, as the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) raged in much of Central Europe. This great conflict involved almost every major European power, although Germany and parts of Bohemia were its primary battlegrounds. The Thirty Years’ War produced widespread poverty, famine, and disease, and resulted in the depopulation of large areas of the countryside. As internal religious strife receded in Germany, the region began a slow process of recovery. To the east, however, in the Habsburg lands of Austria and Hungary, a renewed threat to security arose in the later seventeenth century. During the 1660s, the Ottoman Empire reinforced its positions in Hungary and renewed its drive up the Danube into Austria, laying siege to Vienna in 1683. Eventually, the Habsburgs succeeded in expelling Ottoman forces from their homelands, but not without expending considerable financial and military resources. As a result of these protracted religious crises and external threats, fewer great architectural projects were undertaken in the region than in Italy or Western Europe during the seventeenth century. As stability returned, though, the way was paved for an enormous building boom throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

The Beginnings of Revival

While the warfare that had afflicted much of Germany and Central Europe left the economies of many areas depressed, devastation also brought new opportunities for renewal and rebuilding. In 1622, for example, the town of Mannheim in southwestern Germany had been destroyed as a result of the conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War. It was soon rebuilt, although French forces destroyed it yet again in 1689. As the local prince prepared to reconstruct his capital, he adopted a comprehensive plan influenced by the ideas of Baroque architects and town planners. His new city included broad avenues, handsome squares, harmonious buildings, and a grid system for its streets that was similar to that which was later to be adopted in New York City. During the Second World War, most of the town was destroyed in bombing raids, only to be rebuilt again largely in a functional modern style. Even now, though, Mannheim’s street system largely continues to adhere to the original Baroque grid pattern laid out in the late seventeenth century. Very few modern observers find the overall effect of the town as it now stands satisfying when compared against the city of handsome squares and palaces that existed for more than two centuries as a monument to the intelligence and sophistication of Baroque planners. At the same time, it is important to note that the ideas of those designers reflected certain notions about power, and Baroque architecture has often rightly been treated as a tool of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rulers anxious to establish greater authority over their subjects. At Mannheim, these intentions produced relatively happy results. Elsewhere in Central Europe the Baroque became a tool for establishing cultural and religious uniformity with mixed results. In the wake of the Thirty Years’ War, the Austrian Habsburgs established hegemony over the Czech citizens of Prague. Since the fifteenth century the inhabitants of the city had provided a safe haven for many reform movements critical of the Roman church. As the Habsburg dynasty moved to establish its authority over the city, they labored as well to re-establish Roman Catholicism as the sole religion in the region. Habsburg church and state authorities remodeled Prague’s churches, transforming the town’s once spare and severe Protestant-styled churches into models of Baroque display and ornamentation. Authorities expelled those townspeople who continued to practice Protestantism and seized their properties, often selling their houses for a fraction of their worth to new German-speaking settlers. This plan of resettlement thus paved the way for large portions of Prague to be rebuilt in the new ornate fashions of the Baroque. Thus in Prague the Baroque became synonymous in the minds of native Czech inhabitants with the establishment of Austrian political hegemony and Catholic religious authority.


Where affections for Roman Catholicism ran deeper in Central and Eastern Europe, they soon gave birth to an unprecedented boom in the construction of new churches and religious institutions. In Italy, the rise of the Baroque had been accompanied by the construction of scores of new religious edifices, testimonies to the renewal of a spirit of self-assurance typical of the Catholic Reformation. In Central Europe, the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War similarly left Catholic rulers and their subjects re-invigorated. As the economy revived and stability returned, numerous church building projects were begun. While the more ornate and imaginative styles pioneered in Rome and Northern Italy had begun to spread in Central Europe quite early, the trials of the Thirty Years’ War had stalled the fashion’s general acceptance. In 1614, for instance, the archbishops of Passau had begun the reconstruction of their Cathedral at Salzburg along plans set down by early Italian Baroque designers. Undertaken to replace a basilica that had been destroyed by fire at the end of the sixteenth century, the town’s new Baroque-styled Cathedral was consecrated in 1628. As warfare worsened in the region, the style of Salzburg’s new Cathedral was not to be immediately imitated. In the second half of the seventeenth century, though, many Catholic patrons, bishops, and monasteries began to rebuild their churches in the grand Baroque style and the Baroque architectural language. At its very core, the elaborate and sumptuous interiors of the Baroque church were a counterattack on Protestant sensibilities, which stressed restraint and a relatively unadorned style as most befitting to Christian worship. As the Baroque spread in Central Europe, it demonstrated considerable variety, although certain constants continued to recur in most of the movement’s churches. As in Italy, a taste for dramatic spaces developed in which all parts of the structure were subordinate to the greater goal of achieving a climactic impression. Rich ornamentation and gilt, curved shapes, broken pediments, and other elements that were not strictly classical in origin prevailed. In place of the relatively restrained vocabulary of decoration that was present in England, the Netherlands, and Protestant Germany, the Italian and native architects who practiced in Central Europe frequently created spaces that were colorful and enlivened by a festive spirit. Their free flowing, dramatic shapes owe a great deal to the innovative designs of figures like Guarini and Borromini, and generally the Baroque architecture of the region derived more inspiration from Italian rather than French examples.

Major Projects

Among the most important church monuments of the early Baroque in Central Europe were the new Cathedral at Passau (begun after a fire destroyed the existing structure in 1662), the Church of the Theatine Order in Munich (begun in 1663), and the Cathedral at Fulda (begun in 1704). Great Baroque churches multiplied even more profusely throughout Central Europe during the first half of the eighteenth century. The numbers of new projects undertaken at the time still manages to astound modern visitors to the region. In the century that followed 1650, almost all of the Catholic parish churches in southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland were either rebuilt or redecorated in the Baroque style. As a result of this architectural renewal, central features of the Catholic Reformation’s teachings—particularly of the Jesuits and other counter-reforming orders—were given architectural expression. Since the mid-sixteenth century these orders had argued that religious worship should take place within sacred spaces that captivated the human imagination and prepared the soul for union with God in the sacraments. Visibly, the Baroque churches of Central Europe attempted to achieve this aim with spaces that merged architecture, painting, and all the visual and decorative arts in ways that inspired the soul to undertake the pursuit of Christian perfection.

Pilgrimage Churches

Another popular feature of the church architecture of the age was the construction of both great and small pilgrimage churches. During the sixteenth century, Protestants had attacked the medieval custom of making pilgrimages to the graves, relics, and religious images long associated with the saints. In the later seventeenth century this custom experienced a renewal in the Catholic regions of Central Europe, eventually becoming an important element of the religious identity of the period. During the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, hundreds of pilgrimage churches were consequently erected or remodeled throughout Central Europe. Many of these places were quite small, but the greatest often had monasteries attached to them, and their pilgrimages became significant sources of income to the surrounding economy. In southern Germany, Vierzehnheiligen, the Wieskirche, and Altötting were among the largest pilgrimage centers. At each, masterpieces of Baroque architecture were created to deepen the piety of the pilgrims who visited these sites. Similar great churches were constructed in Austria in places like Maria Zell and Maria Plain and in Switzerland at Einsiedeln. These pilgrimage churches often provided large interior spaces and imposing central squares at which the faithful might congregate for religious rituals and worship. Notes of charm and whimsy were also present in the hundreds of edifices constructed at the time. In 1716, the Benedictine monks of Weltenburg Abbey, a site located along a narrow, cliff-bound stretch of the Danube River in Bavaria, commissioned the famous architects, Cosmas and Aegidius Asam, to remodel their church in the Baroque style. The Asam brothers created a fantastic interior that presented pilgrims with the illusion of being caught up in the heavens. The visual techniques of the building even extended to the confessional boxes, which were sculpted out of plaster to appear as if they were clouds. This playful note recurred in many places in southern Germany during the Baroque period, and as the stylistic movement endured, architects made use of a great range of decorative sophistication and creativity.

Palaces and Cities

As greater stability returned to the region, numerous country villas and palaces also began to be constructed in the Baroque style throughout Central Europe. If Baroque church architecture was popular primarily in Catholic regions as a counterattack on Protestant sensibilities, both Protestant and Catholic rulers proved to be enthusiastic builders of palaces in the Baroque style. The political realities of Central Europe bred a climate ripe for the construction of innumerable palaces and country retreats. For centuries, the political heart of the region had been the Holy Roman Empire, a multi-lingual, multicultural, but nevertheless weak confederation of about 350 separate principalities, free cities, and territories ruled by officials of the Roman Catholic Church. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, political disintegration had made the empire into ever more of a fictional power, as the largest territories became more like autonomous states and the emperor ever more an honorific figurehead. By the later seventeenth century any pretensions of his power to rule over this unwieldy set of states had largely been destroyed, especially by the specter of the internecine destruction that had raged during the Thirty Years’ War. In the now largely independent territories that made up the Holy Roman Empire, rulers increasingly adopted the trappings of absolutist rule, ignoring or disbanding the representative assemblies that had long served to limit their power. At the same time, these princes became anxious to surround themselves with the kinds of sumptuous displays and ostentation that were common in far wealthier and more powerful states like France. Scores of grand palaces, hunting lodges, and country villas thus sprang up on the landscape as an enduring testimony to this political reality. When compared against the standard of late seventeenth-century Versailles, many of these structures were quite modest, although given the large number of territories in the region, Central Europe today is populated with a far larger number of Baroque monuments than other continental regions. What is equally remarkable about the Baroque style here is the ambitious plans it inspired to remake many of the region’s cities. As imposing country palaces and urban residences for the nobility grew in popularity, however, other minor noble families and wealthy merchants imitated the style, and thus the fashion for imposing Baroque buildings soon spread to influence the appearance of entire towns. Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, and Passau managed largely to preserve much of their Baroque core against the devastation of the Second World War. Other not-so-fortunate cities such as Warsaw, Dresden, and Berlin had to reconstruct many of their monuments. Even the depredations of World War II, which destroyed the majority of the historical centers of these towns, have proven insufficient since then to erase the imprint Baroque designers left on these places. In Warsaw, the Baroque core of the city was lovingly reconstructed over a number of years following its destruction in World War II. In Berlin and Dresden, the campaign to restore the monuments of the Baroque continues even in contemporary times, and the absence of many major buildings from the Baroque era is still felt by many people in these cities as a palpable loss. Perhaps in no place except Rome, then, has the Baroque style’s effects on urban life continued to cast such a long shadow as in Central Europe.

Austrian Architects

The numerous monuments produced in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Poland resulted from a talented group of designers who came on the scene rather quickly after 1700. While Italian and French architects were imported to design some of these structures, native designers produced most of them. In Austria the most important architects included Johann Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723), Jakob Prandtauer (1658-1726), and Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668-1743). Von Erlach even received a minor noble title from the Habsburg emperor for his efforts to beautify Vienna and to create stunning palaces for the royal family and nobility. His major commissions included the massive Karlskirche in Vienna, a structure that was a charming, but rather unusual mixture of architectural design elements that ranged across periods from Antiquity to the Baroque. Another important set of structures Fischer von Erlach created was the complex of buildings at the Belvedere Gardens on the outskirts of Vienna. He undertook these commissions for Prince Eugene of Savoy, a war hero from Austria’s campaigns against the Turks, and the charming summer palaces and garden architecture that von Erlach created there were often imitated in later years. By contrast, the most important works that Jakob Prandtauer undertook were several imperial abbeys built along the Danube River. Among these, the lofty grandeur of Cloister Melk is the most impressive, sitting as it does perched high on a dramatic outcropping of rocks above the river. Prandtauer adapted his plans for Melk—which included a series of ceremonial rooms intended for imperial visits—to other powerful churches and religious institutions in the region. The grandest project of the age, though, proved to be the continual construction and rebuilding of the Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna. A country house had been located at this site since the fourteenth century and had been remodeled in 1548. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the estate came into Habsburg possession and the family began to rebuild it to serve as a retreat and hunting lodge. A grander structure was built at this place, in what are now suburbs of Vienna, in the mid-seventeenth century, although Turkish forces destroyed that structure in the siege of the city that took place in 1683. By 1700, the Habsburgs had reconstructed much of the building on an even more monumental scale, although the extensive plans made for the site by the architect Johann Fischer von Erlach were never undertaken in their entirety because they were too costly. Finally, in 1742, the family decided to extend the palace once more, destroying parts of the von Erlach design in the process. Over the next five years the building expanded at such a rate as to be the equivalent of the Versailles. During the Empress Maria Theresa’s long reign, it eventually became the center of government, an enormous structure whose more than 1,400 rooms rivaled the French palace. While Maria Theresa’s most important residence, it was only one of an impressive collection of palaces, villas, and country retreats that the monarchy used at the time.

German Designers

Similar patterns of profligate ostentation were also the rule among the greatest German princes of the age. Throughout this region an even larger number of Baroque architects practiced their trade. The country’s major Baroque designers included Georg Bähr (1666-1738), Daniel Pöppelmann (1662-1736), Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699-1759), Andreas Schlüter (1659(?)-1759), and Balthasar Neumann (1687-1743). Bähr, Pöppelmann, and von Knobelsdorff were all active in Dresden during the first half of the eighteenth century, where they served the ambitions of the electors of Saxony, who were anxious to transform their capital into a model of Baroque elegance. It was during this period that Dresden began its rise to prominence as an artistic center that eventually earned the town the reputation for being the “Florence on the Elbe.” One of the most unusual projects begun during this time was the building of the Frauenkirche, or the Church of Our Lady, a massive domed structure that once stood at the center of the city, and which is presently being rebuilt with a painstaking attention to detail. Although Dresden was Lutheran, and Lutheran church architecture usually avoided sumptuous display, Georg Bähr created an enormous structure with a grand interior. By contrast, most of the monuments that Daniel Pöppelmann left behind were of a secular nature. For many years he reigned as the chief architect in and around the city, where he produced such famous landmarks as the Zwinger Palace, a masterpiece of the high Baroque and Rococo style. As Dresden developed into a town of incomparable Baroque elegance, the designers Andreas Schlüter and Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff transformed the Hohenzollern capital Berlin and its surrounding countryside with the design of similar monumental creations. Von Knobelsdorff is chiefly responsible for the Hohenzollern dynasty’s masterpiece, the Palace of Sansouci, a pleasure villa constructed at Potsdam, Berlin’s suburban counterpart to Versailles and Schönbrunn. To construct this and other monuments in and around Potsdam, an entire population of stoneworkers and artisans had to be settled in the town. The enormous façade of the Palace of Sansouci, a pleasure structure more than 300 meters long, recalled the Grand Trianon in the gardens of Versailles, although by the time of its construction its confectionary of decorative details and greater plasticity of line and form had departed far from the relative restraint of the French example. Numerous Baroque buildings were also under construction in the city of Berlin at the time, and those that survived the Second World War suggest the elegance of the Baroque city. Major features of Berlin’s cityscape that date from this period included Von Knobelsdorff’s designs for the Opera as well as many of the other impressive monuments that lined the city’s elegant core avenue Unter den Linden. To the south, in Catholic Bavaria, the Wittelsbach rulers continually remodeled their Munich palace, the Residence, and created broad and handsome squares to beautify the city. Outside the city at Nymphenburg and Schleissheim they created a series of country retreats, some on a smaller scale than Versailles, Sansouci, or Schönbrunn, while others like the New Palace at Schleissheim were said to rival these creations. This brief snapshot of major Baroque palaces cannot begin to suggest the scores of even smaller projects undertaken throughout Germany at the time. While minor nobles might not hope to compete in grandeur with the Wittelsbachs, Habsburgs, and Hohenzollern, most princes equipped with even modest resources tried to surround themselves with the elegant and ornate trappings of Baroque structures. Perhaps the greatest architectural figure of the German Baroque was Johann Balthasar Neumann, a designer who worked for many years in southern Germany, primarily in the diocesan capital of Würzburg. There he built a number of structures, including his masterpiece, the Residence, an urban palace for the town’s prince bishops, which contained the largest and most sumptuous staircase ever built during the period. Although the palace itself was not the grandest of Germany’s Baroque creations, the entire complex is, nevertheless, one of the era’s most attractive and completely realized. Its appealing qualities arise from its integration of new French design and decorative elements drawn from the developing Rococo movement with a thorough understanding of the massive and monumental possibilities of the Italian Baroque. Neumann’s career opened up new vistas in the Baroque in Germany, and in his relatively long career he produced many buildings notable for their sinuous, undulating lines and their dramatic uses of light. These spaces seem to breathe, and as a consequence they reflect an appealing organic dynamism. Among his best works was the pilgrimage church of Vierzehnheiligen (constructed between 1743 and 1772), although Neumann created a number of handsome churches throughout southern Germany. He was also notable for his urban planning efforts at Würzburg, efforts that helped to transform the city into one of the more completely harmonious Baroque cities in the empire. As in his buildings, Neumann planned broad and curving streets and squares, and he created a number of ingenious regulations that encouraged building in the ornamented Baroque style. At his behest, for example, the town granted tax exemptions of twelve years to anyone who added a Baroque façade to their house or business. Measures like these also contributed to Neumann’s own trade, and in his years at Würzburg he obliged the town’s burghers with a number of buildings.

Baroque Variety and Unity

As it left Italy, the Baroque style came to be invigorated by national traditions and to be molded to the religious and political demands of the states of Northern Europe. Great variety characterized the national styles of architecture, with England and the Netherlands generally avoiding the sumptuous and ornate decorative dimensions of the movement in favor of a more restrained classical vocabulary. In France, a grander and more ornate form of that same classicism continued to hold sway throughout most of the seventeenth century, particularly in the public buildings constructed in and around Paris. In Central Europe, though, the plastic forms and decorative impulses of the Baroque that had first developed in Italy came to full fruition, producing monuments that astounded their viewers with their complexity, free-flowing lines, and festive spirit. One feature, though, that was shared by architects in all regions of Europe in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was a new attention to details of urban planning, as purpose-built squares, broader avenues, and handsome public buildings came to be prized as expressions of a civic ethos as well as the state’s power to accomplish change on the urban landscape. If Baroque architects and their patrons thus dedicated themselves to the task of making over many European towns and cities, they were also no less determined to create elaborate pleasure palaces and retreats set in idyllic, yet highly formalized gardens on the outskirts of Europe’s growing cities. This tension between ideal visions of rural and urban existence was one of the defining characteristics of the age, and continued to endure long after the Baroque style had faded in favor of new influences.

The Rococo in the Eighteenth Century

French Origins

In the years immediately following the death of King Louis XIV, design in France began to take on an entirely new feeling. On the one hand, public buildings continued to be constructed using the classically influenced designs that French architects and royal patrons had favored since the early seventeenth century. On the other, domestic spaces quickly became more elegant. This style is known in English by the Italian word that described it, “Rococo,” although the French word rocaille had the same meaning. It referred to “rockwork,” or plaster sculpted to appear as if it was stone. Since the sixteenth century, these techniques had been employed to create fanciful grottoes from stucco in the gardens of palaces and country villas. Around 1700, though, rocaille techniques began to move indoors, and French plasterers made extensive use of the techniques in palaces and townhouses. Rocaille now referred to delicate scrolling patterns of stucco in swirls and arabesques, designs that were reproduced over and over again on walls, ceilings, and wood paneling during the first half of the eighteenth century. These patterns first appeared at Versailles and in other royal residences around 1700, and in a decade or two, rocaille became fashionable in the decoration of homes in Paris.

Development of the Rococo

The fashion for plaster decoration sculpted in the new fanciful shapes that rocaille techniques offered was just one of several changes in taste and fashion that occurred in France soon after the death of King Louis XIV in 1715. As one of the movement’s most important decorative devices, the term rocaille summed up the entire decorative impulses of the age. Outside of France, this period in architectural and decorative design has been referred to by its Italian equivalent rococosince the eighteenth century. The rise of the new style reveals a rather sudden shift in aesthetic values, a shift inspired by important changes underway in French elite society. The vast interior spaces of the seventeenth-century Palace of Versailles had favored dark and sonorous colors and the use of paneling crafted from dramatic polychromed marbles. The palette of the Rococo was altogether lighter, favoring white or ivory walls decorated with low-lying reliefs trimmed with gilt. Subtle shades of pastels figured prominently in the paintings that were hung in these rooms, or which were executed as frescoes on the walls. A fashion for mirrors intensified the bright light in these spaces, also. In sum, the feeling of a Rococo interior was considerably gayer and less forbidding than that of seventeenth-century spaces. The scale of these rooms, too, was often smaller, given more to quiet, intimate gatherings than the formal reception areas of the earlier period.


It was in Paris that these new fashions took hold most quickly, and there the new elements of interior design decorated many salons in the mid-eighteenth century. The development of the Rococo came at a time when Paris regained an important status in the early years of Louis XV’s reign. In the years between 1715 and 1722, the young king centered his government, not at Versailles, but in France’s largest city, as the regent, Philippe d’Orléans, preferred the town to the country. This brief re-establishment of government in Paris did much to stimulate a flurry of interior decoration and building, as nobles who had taken up residence in Louis XIV’s seat of power at Versailles returned to the capital to be closer to the court. Instead of the elaborate angular and symmetrical formality of Louis XIV’s age, the Rococo designers of Paris in these years produced rooms that were models of restrained and decorative delicacy. Much of this elegance, though, could not be seen by the general public since the façades of many fine townhouses built at the time continued to use the classical forms that had been popular in Paris since the seventeenth century. The Rococo fashion was an almost exclusively upper-class phenomenon, one that by 1735 had become the reigning style of interior decoration. In that year, Germain Boffrand created two striking rooms in the interior of the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris: the Oval Salon and the Salon of the Princess. These spaces survive today and demonstrate many of the central features of the style as it moved to a high point of development. In place of the angular symmetry that had prevailed during the time of Louis XIV, Boffrand’s rooms feature a creative and curving asymmetry. Delicate, low relief ornament cover the walls, yet these surfaces are not nearly so heavily encrusted with decoration as the Baroque interiors that preceded them. Instead great patches of white show through Boffrand’s scheme of elaborate swirling, gilt patterns. Through the repetition of vertical lines used throughout these spaces the designer called attention to these rooms’ high, decorative ceilings, even as he used windows to catch and refract the light off the many gilt surfaces. The result produced a jewel box effect. While Boffrand’s rooms still rank among the greatest achievements of the fashion, numerous upper-class townhouses in Paris and throughout France were being remodeled as tastes changed. While most of these spaces were not nearly so elaborate as those at the Hôtel de Soubise, typical Rococo rooms came to be paneled with wood painted white or ivory and decorated with the typical patterns of gilded plaster. Elaborate stucco decoration also figured prominently, with many plaster decorative reliefs being used prominently at the boundary between ceilings and walls.

The Rococo Conquers Versailles

Even at Versailles, a palace once filled with imposing and dark interiors, the royal family remodeled many rooms to fit with the changing fashion. In the years after 1722, Louis XV reestablished government in the seventeenth-century palace, although by the 1730s he had grown tired of the forbidding decoration of many of Versailles’ rooms. In 1735, Louis XV decided to redesign his private apartments within the palace. He chose the lighter Rococo fashion to replace the dark decoration that had previously filled these rooms, and he divided his apartments into several smaller cabinets that included a bedchamber, clock room, private office, and bathroom, eschewing the elaborate bedchamber of his great-grandfather, Louis XIV. But once his new accommodations were completed, Louis XV did not return to that uncomfortable bedchamber. He favored instead the smaller scale of his new, more private surroundings. The king thus evidenced the same desire for intimate settings as did the elites of Paris and other French cities.


The rise of the Rococo style of decoration coincided with the development of the salon as an institution of French culture. In the first half of the eighteenth century these cultured meetings of elites and intellectuals became increasingly important in the social life of Paris. While the salon eventually played a key role in the rise of the Enlightenment and later of the French Revolution, it was, at its base, a place where large groups of cultivated individuals who prized wit and speech, the social graces, and connoisseurship of art and music could gather. By 1750, a large city like Paris had about 800 salons that met regularly to discuss issues of civic, philosophical, or artistic importance. The craze for decoration in the Rococo, then, was one consequence of the emergence of these salons, as wealthy families competed against one another to create spaces worthy of the lofty discussions that occurred within their homes. In these new social groups members of the nobility mingled alongside merchants and students in the new private spaces that Rococo architecture offered. Women often presided over the discussions that took place in these salons, a sign of the rising status they acquired at the time as leaders of intellectual discussion as well as arbiters of domestic taste and consumption. The undeniably feminine character of much of the Rococo derived in large part from the new role that wealthy women played as consumers of art and the refined accessories of domestic living. The movement’s designs also embraced a taste for the foreign, even as they made use of motifs that were rustic and surprisingly mundane. For exotic inspiration, designers turned to the Near and Far East, adopting decorative details from elements of Chinese and Arabic design. At other times they reached out to idealize rural life, filling their rooms with scenes of landscapes, hunts, or country life. Fabric printed with these scenes became popular at the time, much of which had still to be imported into France from other countries at mid-century. To avoid squandering the country’s resources, Louis XV chartered a royal factory for producing the popular cloth in 1762 at Jouy-en-Josas, a small village near Versailles. The village name contributed to the modern term “Toile du Jouy” or just merely “toile” to indicate a kind of fabric filled with narrative scenes of daily life.

The Style Spreads

The primarily decorative dimension that the Rococo took in France is undeniable. As a result, architectural historians have long debated whether the Rococo merits any consideration as an “architectural” period at all. Outside France, though, the Rococo developed a more pronounced architectural dimension, particularly in Germany and Austria. By contrast, the style was unpopular in England, where except for a small number of rooms decorated in this fashion, the Rococo’s influence remained limited. In Rome, architects and designers remained impervious to the fashion’s popularity and continued to produce buildings and monuments that used the grand, imposing proportions of the Baroque. Elsewhere in Italy, small pockets of Rococo-influenced architecture were to be found, most notably in the capital of the duchy of Savoy, Turin, and in Naples, Italy’s largest city at the time. Thus of all the places to which the Rococo traveled outside France, it was in Central Europe, particularly in Germany and Austria, where the movement produced its greatest landmarks. In that region, the Rococo developed, not just as an interior fashion, but as an architectural phenomenon as well. A key figure in encouraging the popularity of the style in this region was François de Cuvilliés (1695-1768), a French-speaking designer whose family originally hailed from Flanders. Cuvilliés came to work in the city of Munich through an extraordinary set of circumstances. In 1711, he became a court dwarf in the service of the Bavarian duke Maximilian II Emmanuel while that prince served out a term of exile from his native country. Several years later, Cuvilliés returned with the duke to Munich, where he eventually received an education in the court. By 1720, the duke’s official designer was schooling him in architecture. He soon left for Paris, where he stayed for five years to finish his studies. Thus Cuvilliés was a student in Paris during the early years of Rococo’s rise to popularity among aristocrats and the wealthy. When he returned to Munich in 1725, he attained a position of prominence among the many accomplished designers practicing in southern Germany at the time. During his long career his most celebrated accomplishments included a series of pleasure villas constructed for the Bavarian dukes in the gardens of the Nymphenburg Palace outside Munich, rooms designed in the suburban palace at Schleissheim, and the Residence Theater in Munich. This last structure, carefully rebuilt after its devastation in the Second World War, is known affectionately today in Munich merely as the “Cuvilliés.” The theater is ornate and decorative in the extreme since the architect relied on ornamental features to make obvious the distinctions between the various levels of aristocrats who visited the theater. He massed the greatest decorative details, for instance, on the ducal box and first balcony that surrounded it, which was reserved for the highest levels of society. In the balconies above, these decorations diminished with each level. While his design was highly decorative, Cuvilliés was an astute student of theatrical design and provided a space that was an excellent venue for good drama. It continues even now to serve its original purpose as home to many theatrical productions in Munich.

Cuvilliés’ Influence

As a student, Cuvilliés had acquired a firsthand knowledge of the ways in which Parisian plasterers produced their stunning rocaille effects. In the years that he served as court architect in Munich, his influence ensured that these techniques became a fixture of architecture in Bavaria and southern Germany. By mid-century designers used the new skills to stunning effect in their creation of buildings that appear like sculptural masses constructed out of the fluid shapes that rocaille techniques afforded. At this time, architects in southern Germany also made use of the Rococo’s possibilities for creating churches that were brilliantly filled with light. Thus, the Rococo in the region developed into far more than a fashion for domestic interior design. Throughout Central Europe, many buildings originally begun in the Baroque style, like the Zwinger Palace in Dresden or the Residence in Würzburg, acquired Rococo detailing. The Rococo achieved its most pronounced developments as an independent architectural movement, however, in Bavaria and the German south.

Major Designers

The use of light, the creation of festive interiors, and the predominance of sinuous lines encrusted with ornament were central features of the new style, and these played a particularly dynamic role in the works of Germany’s two most accomplished Rococo designers: Dominikus Zimmermann (1685-1766) and Johann Michael Fischer (1712-1766). Zimmermann’s greatest work is his Church of the Wies (meaning “meadow”), outside of the village of Steingaden in the Bavarian Alps. Begun in 1743 for a nearby monastery, this church housed a miraculous image of the flagellation of Christ, to which a pilgrimage had developed. Zimmermann developed the nave of the church as an elongated oval supported by eight columns that melded into the structure’s ceiling in a riot of encrusted decoration. The Corinthian columns of some of these supports take on the effect of jewelry, sculpted as they are out of plaster and decorated with touches of gilt. Above, in the space where a cornice or entablature might normally separate the walls of the church from the ceiling, Zimmermann created a fluid space decorated with stucco and gilt encrustations so that it is difficult for the eye to tell where the walls end and the ceiling begins. Light floods into the space through the broad and elongated windows. The sinuous treatment of lines continues in the exterior, where the architect used long, flowing detailing to set off the windows. Modest, refined decoration also seems to drip from the building’s pilasters and upper surfaces.


Like Zimmermann, Johann Michael Fischer already had a reputation as an accomplished architect when he began to create spaces using the Rococo style. He had designed a number of Catholic churches in Bavaria and throughout southern Germany since the late 1720s. In his mature work, though, he began to adapt the new style to a series of monastic churches he created during the 1740s. The largest and most famous of these was Ottobeuren in the small town of the same name in the German southwest. Previous architects had already established the monumental size of this structure and they had fixed its shape as a Greek cross. Fischer revolutionized their design by building two huge towers on the church’s exterior and setting a convex central portion between them. These two towers frame the elaborately decorated gable that runs above the central entrance to the church. Columns set on both sides of the entrance further enhance the strongly vertical lines of the exterior. Inside, Fischer made the most of the Greek cross space by setting huge windows in the enormous walls and allowing light to fill the structure. The central piers that support that structure’s main dome are decorated with colored faux marble pilasters so that they appear even larger than they really are. Throughout the interior Fischer left broad patches of walls, spaces later decorated with paintings by Johann and Franz Zeiler and sculptures by Johann Joseph Christian. These decorative elements skillfully enhanced the monumental lines developed by Fischer in the structure. As a result, Ottobeuren stands as one of the premier monuments of the German Rococo, an archetype for what Germans have long called a Gesamtkunstwerk, a masterpiece in which the imaginative fusion of all the arts work toward a single, greater goal.

Implications of the Rococo

Great works of Rococo architecture like the Wies or the monastic church at Ottobeuren seem today to sum up the imaginative possibilities as well as the limitations of Rococo as an architectural and stylistic movement. In these structures, decoration combined with skillful architectural design to create works of incomparable beauty and greatness. In the hands of lesser lights, though, the fashion for encrustation led to many considerably less imaginative spaces. Fashion had sustained the rise of the Rococo since its beginnings in early eighteenth-century Paris. As the second half of the eighteenth century approached, and as Rococo design moved to its final stage of ornate elaboration, fashions just as quickly began to change. In the second half of the eighteenth century Neoclassical spaces, often serene and severe, revolutionized domestic, church, and public architecture throughout Europe just as quickly as the Rococo had changed fashions in the first half of the century.

The Development of Neoclassicism

Reaction against the Rococo

Even as fanciful patterns of Rococo decoration and architectural creation achieved great popularity in many wealthy circles throughout Europe, people began to react negatively toward the style. By 1750, many architects and patrons viewed the movement as corrupt and decadent, and began to embrace a broad, Neoclassical revival in place of the Rococo. The forces that inspired Neoclassicism arose from numerous intellectual, economic, and social sources. By the second half of the eighteenth century, though, a rising fascination with Antiquity is undeniable throughout Europe. One force that helped to create this fascination was the phenomenon of the Grand Tour, a circuit that intellectuals and wealthy cultivated men and women often made through Europe’s main capitals. The Grand Tour was particularly popular among English elites, and during the eighteenth century it became an event that was seen as necessary to complete one’s education. Many people published accounts of their tours, and as later cultural pilgrims imitated the tours of others who had gone before, the Grand Tour became increasingly formalized as a social convention. Of course, elites from throughout Europe had long visited the continent’s major capitals, and since the Renaissance they had been especially anxious to make the journey to Italy. Whereas earlier generations of intellectuals had frequently wanted to witness firsthand the cultural achievements of Renaissance humanists and artists, however, refined society in the eighteenth century desired to see firsthand the power and austere beauty of the ancient ruins in Rome as well as other antique sites. For many, the city of Rome was the high point and often the culmination of the Grand Tour for its wealth of ancient monuments. Literary and historical works that celebrated the achievements of Antiquity had whetted tourists’ appetites for these sights. In the English-speaking world the greatest of these works was Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1788; but, as elsewhere in Europe, Gibbon’s superb statement of eighteenth-century classical history had long been preceded by a number of other works that treated life in the ancient world. At its foundation, this fascination with all things classical arose from a deeply felt desire to imitate the cultural greatness of Rome and Greece.

Study of Antiquity

One important result of this fascination was the rise of archeology as a new discipline at the time. As a result of scholarly attention, the artifacts and buildings of the ancient world were subjected to a new, more detailed examination. A key figure in popularizing the achievements of ancient builders was Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). During a forty-year career spent mostly in Rome, he fostered close contacts with many European architects and patrons who visited the city. Piranesi acquired an unparalleled understanding of ancient architecture through the studies he undertook at archeological digs in Italy, and he spread this knowledge through a series of skilled and undeniably beautiful etchings of ancient monuments. Later in his career he also shaped the course of European architecture by publishing a series of polemical works that advocated an eclectic and practical adoption of ancient designs. Piranesi’s voluminous and archeologically informed knowledge of the ancient world placed him in a uniquely powerful position to influence the Neoclassical revival. In his written works, for instance, he argued that ancient design had been practical, adopting influences and practices from throughout the Mediterranean to fit the changing needs and circumstances of people. Such arguments shifted the terms of the debates that had long raged about ancient architecture. Piranesi rejected longstanding questions about whether the architecture of the Greeks had been superior to that of the Romans. Instead he celebrated the ancient monuments that existed in Italy from the time of the Etruscans as practical and well suited to the needs of each culture’s own time. Implicit within this defense of classical architecture, though, was a criticism of the highly ornamental and decorative styles of building that flourished in many places in Europe at the time. In this way his writings and etchings undermined the popularity of Baroque and Rococo styles of ornamentation. Fascinated by the images he presented of historically accurate ancient buildings, patrons and designers began to emulate the simpler, less adorned styles of Antiquity.

Neoclassicism in France

During the high tide of the Rococo’s popularity in Paris, townhouses and public buildings in the city had continued to be constructed with restrained façades, and many of the elements of these structures had their origins in the classicism of the Renaissance. In the later years of Louis XV’s reign, an increased severity and gravity became the rule in many of the royal projects undertaken in Paris as the new, more historically informed Neoclassicism spread through Europe. The reigning architects of the second half of the eighteenth century were Germain Soufflot (1713-1780) and Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698-1782). Soufflot was originally from Lyons, France’s second largest city, where he designed a number of country houses and public buildings before moving to Paris in the 1750s. In 1755, work began on his designs for the Church of Ste.Geneviéve (now known as the Panthéon), although numerous problems plagued this church’s completion and the structure remained unfinished until 1790. This building commemorated Louis XV’s recovery from an illness after he made a vow to the saint. Constructed on a hill overlooking the Left Bank of the Seine, the church commands the site by virtue of its enormous classical dome. The structure’s classicizing tendencies bear greater resemblance to the architecture of the High Renaissance than they do to the exuberant and more decorative style of the seventeenth-century French Baroque. Throughout the church Soufflot deployed the sophistication he had acquired in classical design while a student in Rome. The exterior and interior surfaces of the church are largely unadorned and its porticos might have appeared on public buildings constructed in the Roman forum. By contrast, Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698-1782) was a French-trained architect who became the palace architect at Versailles. During his tenure he completed many works of reorganization at the château for Louis XV, a monarch obsessed with achieving greater privacy in the mammoth spaces of the palace. While constantly involved in projects of remodeling at Versailles, Fontainebleau, and other royal residences, Gabriel also designed several buildings that were notable for their use of the new, more severe Neoclassicism. In Paris, Gabriel designed two new public buildings that faced the Place Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde), then just west of the Tuileries Palace. While consonant with the façades that had been constructed for the nearby Louvre in the seventeenth century, Gabriel included details more in keeping with ancient than Baroque architecture. His colonnades, for instance, are comprised of rows of single, rather than paired columns, and the culminating pavilions of these buildings are each crowned with a pediment, rather than the elongated and solitary structure that stretched over the east façade of the Louvre.

Petit Trianon

At about the same time Gabriel was completing plans for the buildings of the Place Louis XV, he was also creating his great masterpiece, the Petit Trianon at Versailles. He built this small retreat on the fringes of the garden of the Grand Trianon, the much larger haven that Louis XIV had built to escape Versaille’s formality. This was one of the most notable buildings of the eighteenth century because its scale and layout very much resembled that of modern houses. In this relatively small house, Gabriel improved upon the Rococo’s techniques for providing families with greater privacy. Built as a hideaway for the king and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, the building’s small scale and perfection of decoration made it a fitting tribute to Pompadour, who avidly supported the Neoclassical style’s development in France. With her banishment from court and the death of Louis XV, the property became a favorite retreat of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who found the structure’s informality more attractive than the vast and cold spaces of nearby Versailles. The queen likely admired the structure because its use of space was completely different than most of the royal residences of the time. In his design Gabriel combined all the functions and spaces necessary for a nuclear family to live in relative quiet and seclusion. On the ground floor he located the kitchens and other facilities necessary to support the family, who lived above. On that upper story the bedchambers and bathrooms were segregated to one side, while the more sober drawing and dining rooms were found at the opposite end. All rooms offered attractive vistas into the gardens below. Relying on this logic of seclusion and privacy, a logic that had now intensified even from the time of Rococo interiors, Gabriel created a space that Marie-Antoinette prized because it afforded her the opportunity to control how much access visitors had to her inner sanctum. The house, for instance, was too small to provide accommodations for her ladies-in-waiting, who had to return to their rooms in nearby Versailles at the end of their visits with her.

Neoclassicism in England

While Italian and French contributions to the classical revival were considerable, it was in England that the new style developed most decidedly. During the course of the eighteenth century, England exercised a powerful influence over intellectual life and fashions throughout Europe. The country acquired a role similar to that which France had played in the seventeenth century. In continental Europe the philosophers of the Enlightenment celebrated the genius of English constitutional government, seeing in it a system that provided greater freedom and that consequently fostered human ingenuity and creativity. Under the Hanoverian kings, limited monarchs who came to England from Germany, the country entered an era of undeniable prosperity. London became Europe’s largest city, and England’s trade contacts stretched to the furthest reaches of the globe. Although the groundwork for these transformations had been laid in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rapid growth and change characterized the eighteenth century. The period became known for its many cultural achievements. In art, literature, and architecture, it is often called England’s Augustan Age, a term that calls attention to the undeniable greatness of works produced at this time, but also to their self-conscious emulation of ancient Rome.

Classical Influences

England offered one of Europe’s most receptive climates for the development of Neoclassicism for a variety of reasons. Its Baroque architecture, crafted by figures like Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, had included many important classical elements, while the suave elegance of the Rococo had made few inroads into English palaces and houses. Thus, as English designers tried to recapture an archeologically correct classicism in the second half of the eighteenth century they had less ground to cover than many of their continental counterparts. The country’s economic growth created a ready class of consumers, aristocrats, gentlemen farmers, merchants, and—as the century progressed—new industrialists who were anxious to surround themselves with stylish buildings. The most visible testimonies to England’s economic expansion at the time were in the countryside and in London. In rural England a boom in the construction of country homes hit soon after 1700. As new fortunes multiplied, and as older money became enriched by investment in the new ventures the age offered, England became a land filled with hundreds of country estates. At the same time, London acquired ever more the character of a metropolis. During the early eighteenth century, a characteristic pattern of development emerged in the city, particularly on its western fringes. In Piccadilly, Mayfair, Marylebone, and other once outlying suburbs, handsome new squares filled in with rows of attractive and harmonious Georgian townhouses became a noted feature. In this regard the aristocratic architect Robert Boyle, the third earl of Burlington, did much to impress a Palladian identity on the city in the eighteenth century. Born in 1694, he made his Grand Tour in 1714, returning home with over 870 pieces of luggage filled with Roman antiquities, drawings from the hands of Palladio, and other souvenirs of his journey. While in northern Italy, the grace of Palladian architecture captivated him, and back in London he decided to use the style in the construction of Burlington House in affluent Piccadilly. In the years that followed, he trained himself as an architect, acquiring a following among the country’s aristocracy. He constructed his own country seat at Chiswick House, just outside London, during the 1720s, and made use of Palladio’s own famous plans for the Villa Rotonda, near Vicenza in northern Italy. He crowned the simple, yet cubicle mass with a dome, and the structure did much to popularize Palladian architecture among English aristocrats. Elements of its design were frequently copied in the English-speaking world, most notably by Thomas Jefferson who used the designs of both Villa Rotonda and Chiswick House to inform his Monticello on the American frontier. Burlington’s architecture, like that of James Gibbs and other architects then active on the scene in London, was important in establishing a taste for classicism. Although the buildings produced in this first wave of Palladian classicism were not highly original, they had the great advantage of creating undeniably attractive public thoroughfares and squares. The Palladian Revival of the early eighteenth century also laid the groundwork for the more thoroughly classical architecture that became popular throughout Britain in the second half of the century.

Change in Direction

The significance of the changes in English architecture during the eighteenth century can be gauged by comparing the monuments constructed around 1700 with those built just a few decades later. Blenheim Palace, begun in 1705, was the largest Baroque house ever built in England. This enormous structure at Woodstock just outside Oxford was constructed at great taxpayer expense to honor the Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, for his recent military victories. Blenheim was to be both a country seat for Marlborough and a national monument at the same time that was worthy of the country’s growing international reputation. Unfortunately, the public purse was not able to withstand the weight of Marlborough’s ambition, requiring the duke to underwrite the building’s completion. When Blenheim was finally finished, the building and its courtyards stretched over seven acres and the cost had reached almost £300,000, an astonishing figure at a time when most English families survived on less than £100 per year. Designed by the Baroque architect John Vanbrugh, Blenheim’s exteriors and interiors made use of classical elements, but there is scarcely anything “classical” about the palace’s feel. The massive facade, almost 500 feet wide, can scarcely be taken in in a single view. Its enormous colonnades dwarf the human form, and reveal the typically Baroque tendency to overawe viewers. In scale, Blenheim is similar to the great country palaces of the Habsburgs and the Bavarian Wittelsbachs, but its effect offers little of the charm of those palatial country retreats. It is a monument to ambition, both national and personal, and its Baroque, stage-like settings disregard all thoughts of attractive scale or comfort. Even at the time that Blenheim Palace was being completed in the 1720s, its era was already passing, and the designs seemed to the practicing architects at the time to be passé. Few of Blenheim’s features found imitation in the decades that followed. Instead, the Palladian revival fueled the construction of more modest structures, built on a human scale, that, like their French Rococo counterparts, did much to offer families and their guests intimate spaces for domestic life and entertaining. The interiors of these structures might have seemed severe and unadorned to continental European visitors at the time, yet their undeniable elegance continues to captivate even today. The Palladian style’s quick rise to popularity, too, is evident in the ways in which it was quickly adapted to transform, not only London and the English countryside, but growing towns like Philadelphia, New York, Edinburgh, and Dublin.

Robert Adam

While Palladian-styled homes continued to be popular in England and the colonies, new waves of a more historically accurate Neoclassicism swept through the English-speaking world after 1750. Key figures in establishing the popularity of this style were Robert Adam (1728-1792) and William Chambers (1723-1796), the two greatest British architects of the later eighteenth century. Adam was a Scot who made his Grand Tour in 1754 and on his return set up shop as an architect in London. A cosmopolitanite, he was in touch with the best French and Italian architects of his day, and he applied his firsthand knowledge of the excavations underway in Italy to interiors and exteriors he created in England. When his younger brother James completed his Grand Tour in 1763, he joined his brother’s firm in London, and the two established a successful partnership, catering to aristocratic and wealthy British clients. His remodelings and interior design work undertaken in country houses was particularly noteworthy, and in these he brilliantly used color and a chaste decoration. One of his masterpieces was a series of rooms he remodeled in Syon House, just outside London. The entrance hall he constructed there demonstrated his understanding of how Roman houses might have looked. He set about this space a series of brilliant copies of ancient sculptures. In fact, Adam’s interiors were notable for their great restraint, while those of ancient Rome had been filled with decoration. Yet Adam’s austerity captured the imagination of the age, and it was the vision that many continued to associate with Antiquity, a vision of spare white walls and reserved decoration. Although William Chambers (1723-1796) came from a Scottish family, he grew up in England and completed his Tour in 1749-1750. On that circuit he first undertook studies in Paris before moving on to Rome, where he came in contact with Giovanni Battista Piranesi. For a time he seems even to have lived in the Italian architect’s studio. He set himself up in business in London just a few years before Adam, and soon received commissions from the crown. During the 1760s Chambers and Adam became the sole two architects within the Office of Works, the English body charged with completing commissions for the king. From this vantage point, both Chambers and Adam held an unusual degree of influence over building in England, not only for the government, but for wealthy aristocrats and merchants also. Like Adam, Chambers’s remodeling work and designs for new London town-houses and country villas were widely popular among aristocrats and the wealthy. An important theorist, he edited Vitruvius Brittanicus, a mostly Palladian architectural handbook that had served as a textbook for the first wave of English classical designers of the early century. Chambers set down the plans for Kew Gardens, a pleasure garden popular with Londoners in the late eighteenth century, and for Somerset House, a classically inspired building purposely built to house various public records’ offices. The structure still stands today as a repository and spans a large space between the River Thames and the Strand. Chambers’s structures, like Adam’s, were notable for their great restraint and severity of detailing.

Revivals and Romanticism

Nostalgia and the Fashion for the Exotic

Even as Neoclassicism continued to increase in popularity in England, France, Italy, and other parts of the continent, a new wave of romantic architecture appeared. As a movement, Romanticism arose from sources of sentiment similar to those of Neoclassicism. Its appeal lay, in part, in a longing, even nostalgia, for times that were simpler and more virtuous. Much the same impulse had fueled the revival of classical architecture in England and many parts of continental Europe, as designers, patrons, and intellectuals had sensed that a world of austere and elegant simplicity was to be found in Antiquity. Research into the precise nature of classical art and architecture since the eighteenth century has shown that many of the ideas of these Neoclassicists were incorrect. The pristine white, unadorned spaces present in many eighteenth-century Neoclassical designs were not an accurate reflection of antique tastes. Ancient buildings, in fact, had been decorated with a riot of color and ornament. Yet the affection that many Neoclassicists felt for the world of Antiquity was inspired all the same by a sense of the vigor and simplicity they felt had been present in the ancient world. This same longing to reproduce the visual qualities of past, more virtuous ages fueled a revival of Gothic architecture in Europe from the early 1740s. One of the most notable of the many Gothic houses constructed in England at the time was Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, which he began outside London in Middlesex in 1748. Walpole was the son of Britain’s longest-serving prime minister, a writer, and an amateur authority on numerous subjects, including medieval chivalry. In order to complete this rambling, fanciful structure, he required help from some architects, who supplemented his designs. The craze for Gothic spaces was widespread enough to produce at least one textbook in English that informed readers how they might build their own house in this style. In Germany, too, architectural manuals of the time almost always debated the question of the relative merits of medieval and ancient architecture. Like Neoclassical structures, the taste for the Gothic was not always historically correct, with elements of the era’s churches being freely adapted onto homes whose scale was far grander than those of the Middle Ages.

English Gardens

Another sign of the eighteenth century’s yearning for simplicity can be seen in garden architecture. By the second half of the century the grounds that surrounded many country houses throughout Europe were being remodeled to take account of a new fashion for natural settings. In many places these more relaxed spaces became known as “English gardens.” The primary feature of an English garden was a bucolic, easy flow of brooks, forests, and meadows, rather than the hard edges of clipped hedges and fountains. The taste for gardens constructed in an English style revealed the spread of Enlightenment ideas, which celebrated England’s constitution at the time as the most natural, free, and virtuous in Europe. The English garden, eighteenth-century philosophers told their readers, was a cultural embodiment of the country’s genius, for in its confines nature was not tortured and made to conform to human artifice, but allowed to proceed on its own course. The English Garden in Munich, laid out in 1789 by the American-born physicist Benjamin Thomson, is the largest and most famous of these many landscapes. Thomson’s political views—he supported the Crown during the American Revolution—forced his emigration to Europe, where he practiced a number of professions in the years that followed. At Munich, his plans for the English Garden made use of an enormous space, a block almost one and a half miles square. Into it, he poured streams with rapids, meadows, Chinese pavilions and antique temples to create a pleasurable space on the city’s outskirts. Although not quite the naturalistic setting that philosophers had intended, the garden survives today as one of Munich’s most treasured spaces.

The Picturesque

The English Garden in Munich reveals a great deal of the underlying irony of the late eighteenth century’s attitudes toward nature and design. On the one hand, nature was believed to function best when allowed to follow its own course. Nature was most appealing when it was unadorned, spare, and untouched by human artifice. On the other hand, patrons and designers could not escape the human tendency to embellish. As at Munich, gardens constructed after the new English taste were often decorated with numerous pavilions designed to appear as buildings from other cultures and eras. Carefully placed Greek, Roman, and Gothic ruins gave the landscape the appearance, not of a natural setting, but of having long been settled and tamed by human inhabitants. Chinese and Japanese tearooms, too, were set down in these gardens at places where they might add maximum effect, while streams, rapids, and lakes were carefully sculpted to appear as if they were not the product of the human hand. While seemingly embracing nature as virtuous, then, the eighteenth-century English Garden was one of the most highly artificial of constructions. Sustaining its popularity was a new fashion for spaces that were “picturesque,” a word that was, in fact, coined at the time to describe this phenomenon of carefully constructing gardens in a naturalistic way with vistas that offered a maximum of visual interest. Along a trek laid out by a garden’s designers, the landscape presented to connoisseurs numerous views that appeared as if they might have been painted. During the 1770s and 1780s the French queen Marie-Antoinette created one of the most notable of these gardens around the Petit Trianon at Versailles. The walks that led through the garden included focal points of grottoes, a Belvedere, a Tempe of Love, and eventually a medieval French hamlet. This last addition was begun in 1783 and completed two years later to include a village of twelve farmhouses and outbuildings, carefully constructed to appear as if they were of a venerable age. The artifice of Marie-Antoinette’s Hameau was complete, including as it did real flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, a pond and fishery, and a group of seeming peasants who were imported to live there. The central focal point of this village was the Queen’s cottage, a structure that appeared from the outside as a substantial peasant’s house, but which indoors was decorated with the extreme refinement typical of aristocratic houses of the time. Here Marie-Antoinette fled the cares of court to indulge her taste for a simpler, less artificial life. Ironically, this Hameau was perhaps the eighteenth-century’s most man-made illusion, and the queen had little time to enjoy it. Its completion in 1785 came only several years before the beginning of the French Revolution that eventually toppled the monarchy.


During the eighteenth century new architectural movements swept across Europe as the tastes of architects and patrons began to change. Although late Baroque and Rococo styles continued to survive in some places, new waves of Neoclassicism and other revival styles vied for the attention of designers and their patrons. The Neoclassical revival that began in Europe at mid-century made use of new insights drawn from archeological excavations in Italy. This Neoclassicism developed most vigorously in those countries in which a strongly classical bent to design had been most evident during the Baroque era. In England, for instance, Neoclassicism followed a widespread Palladian revival that had already begun to transform the appearance of London and other British cities in the early eighteenth century. In France, the longstanding taste for classically inspired façades provided a foundation on which the taste for the more thoroughly ancient elements of Soufflot’s and Gabriel’s designs developed. Central Europe proved more resistant to the new stylistic tendencies and the Rococo tended to survive longer there than in the West. In Munich, Berlin, Vienna, and other capitals in the region, new churches, private houses, and public monuments began to appear in the Neoclassical style during the later decades of the century. Neoclassicism expressed the longing of the eighteenth century to escape the confines of contemporary history and to foster a more virtuous society, something to which the great upheavals of the French Revolution aspired as well. The histories and literary works of the age celebrated Rome and Greece for the vigor of their cultural achievements as well as for the austerity and elegant economy of their artistic vision. New revival styles throughout the eighteenth century also made use of similar feelings of nostalgia for bygone eras. A taste for the exotic, an affection that had long been embraced by Baroque and Rococo designers, persisted in the continued popularity of structures that made use of elements of Eastern and Near Eastern design. In both England and the continent, Gothic Revival style appeared at around the same time as Neoclassicism, and its rise demonstrates the importance that Romantic sentiments and longings had on the architectural scene at the end of the eighteenth century. Perhaps nowhere is the influence of this Romanticism more evident than in the gardens of the later century that consisted of Chinese pagodas, ancient temples, and Roman and Gothic ruins set within a landscape that appeared as if it had been untouched by human hands. At the same time a careful progression of “picturesque” views provided a backdrop for the musings of those who made their way through these highly artificial, yet seemingly natural spaces. Thus while the eighteenth century desired to escape its history, and to rewrite its culture in a way that abandoned the Baroque tendency toward elaborate adornment, human artifice returned nevertheless to produce designs that were no less artificial than those of the ages that had come before.