A visit to Italy is never complete without seeing some of the most breathtaking pieces of Baroque Art. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, Michelangelo Merisi, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and many others are all highlights of this time period in Italian art history. If you’re not sure what to look for in the country’s art museums, read this article to learn more about the works of these famous artists.
Table of Contents
The sculptors of the Baroque period were renowned for incorporating extra-sculptural elements into their works. Incorporating hidden lighting and water fountains, they seamlessly fused sculpture with architecture. Drawing inspiration from ancient Greek sculpture, Baroque artists made works of art in various styles. Their fervor portrayed the most fleeting states of mind. It achieved its apogee in Bernini’s Altieri Chapel in San Francesco a Ripa and the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria Della Vittoria.
While Bernini and his contemporaries’ art was necessary, the work of more restrained contemporaries received more approval from art theorists. Fleming artists, such as Francois Duquesnoy, were also favored by the art theorists. One of the most notable works of this time is St. Susanna in Santa Maria di Loreto, which is sculpted to direct the observer’s attention to the altar.
A number of sculptures in Italy depict the life and times of a famous Italian artist. Baroque art features swirling spirals and upward diagonals, as well as tenebrism. This sculptural style was developed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and is characterized by high contrasts of light and dark. In addition to sculpture, this art style also included paintings and architectural designs that emphasized the drama of the subject and the spectacle it created.
The Roman Catholic Church became obsessed with extravagance and display. Its goal was to overwhelm viewers and attract their attention. It did this by combining visual space with ceremony and music. The larger the church, the more people could be expected to attend the mass. Detailed stairway designs and complex geometric forms offered viewers a sense of motion and mystery. This style is particularly striking in the interiors of Italian churches.
Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro is considered one of the most influential techniques of the Baroque era. A study of Baroque painting’s use of chiaroscuro by the acclaimed Caravaggio has revealed its unique characteristics. Caravaggio’s paintings have an intensely dramatic quality using a unique blend of light and dark to convey emotional nuances.
Early Renaissance artists, including Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio, used the technique to render realistic figures and three-dimensional space. Early Renaissance works, such as Masaccio’s The Tribute Money (1420), showcased chiaroscuro techniques, including a single light source outside the pictorial plane. This technique was later fully developed by Leonardo da Vinci in his renowned paintings like The Adoration of the Magi (1481) and The Virgin of the Rocks (1483). Through his chiaroscuro technique, he created portraits that were alive with light.
The use of chiaroscuro in Caravaggio’s allegorical portraits proved popular with viewers. The stark contrast between light and dark is used to create dramatic effects and model volumes. Several artists began to mimic Caravaggio’s technique. After him, these artists referred to as “Caravaggisti,” began to mimic Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro technique.
Achieving a dramatic contrast between light and shade is called chiaroscuro. A young man wearing a less-than-white garment is surprised by a lizard hiding in the background. His reaction is uncanny. Artists in the Baroque era used this technique in their paintings to tell stories and convey a sense of depth.
Michaelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, was an important Italian Baroque painter. He was active in Italy between 1593 and 1610 and is typically considered to be the first great representative of this school. Although Caravaggio was born in a small farming town, he became notorious for his drinking, gambling, and brawling habits.
Caravaggio’s father, Fermo Merisi, was an architect and household administrator. In 1576, the family moved to Caravaggio after fleeing from the plague in Milan. His father died a few years later. During his early childhood, Caravaggio demonstrated an interest in art. At a young age, he studied under Simone Peterzano, a follower of Titian.
Carracci also studied Michelangelo’s works. He learned about the Sistine Chapel frescoes and used these techniques to create a stunning ceiling for the church. His ceiling, called a quadro riportato, resembles an easel painting set in fictive architecture. He also painted standing Atlas figures as if they were made of real stone.
The artist had to leave Naples in order to paint his famous works. He had to take a boat to Rome and deliver three paintings to Cardinal Scipione. The Pope granted him pardon for the works he had delivered. However, his work was quickly forgotten and only appreciated in the 1920s. While many people appreciated this Italian artist, not everyone was convinced. A few people enjoyed his technique and admired his work, but this was not the case for Caravaggio.
Caravaggio’s work was a triumph of intense realism. Rather than staging the distant sacred past as an ideal, he preferred to depict the subjects as they appeared to the human eye. His use of naturalistic spontaneity is also notable for his participation in the return to nature movement. Caravaggio’s work was praised and admired by many, including Vincenzo Giustiniani.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The 17th century is known as the age of Baroque, which was the dominant European style in the visual arts. Baroque’s works focused on the human figure to communicate meaning and emotion to the viewer. Its use of colors and textures appealed to the viewer’s senses. Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, designed for the Cornaro Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria in Rome, shows the meeting of heaven and earth. Bernini endowed the figure with emotion, utilizing gesture, pose, and drapery to captivate the viewer.
His works in the Vatican are legendary. The colossal statue of St. Peter is perhaps the most famous Bernini piece. The obelisk, a monumental baldachin over the basilica’s high altar, is also one of his most famous works. His work in the Vatican is exhibited in major museums and palaces throughout Rome and Florence. This is a great way to learn about Italy’s history of art and culture.
The bust of David, a famous lover of the artist, is a masterpiece in its own right. The famous figure also appears in several other works, including David, the legendary Greek hero. His David is a striking and resolute figure with a passionate inner struggle. The harp, presumably representing his vocation as a poet, is at the foot of the statue.
The work of the Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini is particularly impressive and demonstrates the depth of his talent and his mastery of the medium. His Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale in Rome demonstrates his ability as an architect. His use of hidden lighting is particularly notable. It is one of the most spectacular examples of Baroque art in Italy.
Francisco de Zurbaran
While Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro is considered the pinnacle of Italian Baroque art, Zurbaran’s use of color and chiaroscuro were influenced by the earlier Italian master.
His paintings include:
- St. Francis in Prayer (dated 1606 and the largest oil painting in the world).
- A still-life painting of the Virgin Mary.
- A series of religious subjects.
The early works of Zurbaran are infused with a profound spirituality. The sculptural vignettes, such as the slender figures of the Virgin Mary and St. Jerome, were particularly popular with the monastic orders of Seville. The monastery of Guadalupe in Spain has an altarpiece painted by Zurbaran. The Spanish enchantment with his art led him to take commissions from the royal court of Madrid. The artist’s style changed significantly when he married Leonor de Jordera in 1658.
While he was a master of portraiture and still life, his real vocation was in the realm of religion. His approach to the somber, monastic Spanish Baroque elevated his paintings to a higher level than most of his contemporaries. His depictions of saints and friars were often more austere and evocative, contrasting brightly-lit areas with shadows.
The most famous painting in the work of Francisco de Zurbaran is his portrait of the crown princess Margarita in her studio. She is accompanied by her favorite dwarfs, a large dog, and two ladies-in-waiting. A male attendant offers her a glass of water. The middle ground is filled with a woman dressed in widow’s clothes and a male attendant. A chamberlain stands in the doorway.