The history of Baroque architecture
---excerpted from Travels in the History of Architecture
It seems fitting that the origins of the word baroque are in dispute. It isn’t entirely at home in any European language and has been derived from widely different sources: a philosophical term for a twist or reversal in Scholastic argument, or a misshapen natural form, the baroque pearl. Both the incompatible sources imply deviation from a straight track, and distorted movement.
The architectural origins of the style in Counter-Reformation Rome are not in doubt. It is Catholic, expansive, absolutist, and Gianlorenzo Bernini was its first, most brilliant exponent, though not so much an architect in the Renaissance sense as the orchestrator of a mixing and blurring of mediums. The ideal Baroque composition storms and overwhelms the senses; one submits almost before one knows what is happening. At least that is how one imagines that Bernini’s improvements at St Peter’s were meant to work.
The order in which a visitor meets them is not the order in which they were built, but they form a connected experience described here as the perceiver encounters them, because the Baroque puts a new emphasis on subjective fervour of response. Bernini’s interventions magnify the scale of St Peter’s by adding a huge outdoor room in front of the church. This consists of two stretches of colonnade – travertine columns planted four deep crowned by a giant entablature with a balustrade, on which parade a whole troop of agitated figures, one per column. Bernini likened this shifting expansive effect to a maternal embrace, on a scale that would terrify the heretic and astonish the infidel. The colonnades form a porous oval, open at a point directly opposite the fa.ade of the basilica and enterable at many others from surrounding streets.