Baroque & Rococo architecture (1630–1800)

Plans for San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1638), Baroque & Rococo architecture (1630–1800), Italy, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
Plans for San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1638)

From the riot of curves and decoration of the baroque to the opulence of rococo

More than any other movement, the Baroque aimed toward a seamless meshing of architecture and art.

The stuccoes, sculptures, and paintings were all carefully designed to complement each other—and the space itself—to create a unified whole.

This whole was both aesthetic and narrative, the various art forms all working together to tell a single Biblical story (or, often, to subtly relate the deeds of the commissioning patron to great historic or Biblical events).

Rococo is the Baroque gone awry into the grotesque, excessively complex and dripping with decorative tidbits. 

The Baroque flourished across Italy, but some of the best examples include Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome (1640s) with it's interplay of concave and convex ovals, interlocking truncated triangles, and an elliptical ramp-like dome that looks like nothing so much as soft-serve ice cream (as scooped by a mathematician).

Though relatively sedate, Carlo Maderno's facade and Bernini's sweeping elliptical colonnade for St. Peter's in Rome make on of Italy's most famous Baroque assemblages.

One of the quirkiest and most felicitous Baroque styles flourished in the churches of the Apulian city Lecce. When an earthquake decimated the Sicilian town of Noto near Siracusa, it was rebuilt from scratch on a complete Baroque city plan, it streets and squares made as viewing platforms for the theatrical backdrops of its churches and palaces.

For the Rococo—more a decorative than architectural movement—look no further than two of Rome's most famous monuments: De Sancticis’ Spanish Steps (1726), and Salvi’s Trevi Fountain (1762).

Identifiable features of Baroque architecture

  • Classical architecture rewritten with curves. The Baroque is like a Renaissance where many of the crisp angles and ruler-straight lines are exchanged for curves of complex geometry and an interplay of concave and convex. The overall effect is to lighten the appearance of structures and add movement of line and vibrancy to the static look of the classical Renaissance.
  • Complex decoration. Unlike the sometimes severe and austere designs of the Renaissance, the Baroque was playful. Architects festooned structures and encrusted interiors with an excess of decorations intended to liven things up—lots of ornate stuccowork, pouty cherubs, airy frescoes, heavy gilding, twisting columns, multicolored marbles, and general frippery.
  • Multiplying forms. The Baroque asked why make do with one column when you can stack a half dozen partial columns on top of each other, slightly offset, until the effect is like looking at a single column though a fractured kaleidoscope? The Baroque loved to pile up its forms and elements to create a rich, busy effect, breaking a pediment curve into segments so each would protrude further out than the last, or building up an architectural feature by stacking short sections of concave walls, each one curving to a different arc.
Photo gallery
  • Plans for San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1638), Baroque & Rococo architecture (1630–1800), Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The facade of the Oratorio dei Filippini in Rome by baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1637-50), Baroque & Rococo architecture (1630–1800), Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • A cutaway drawing for Sant
  • The rococo Trevi Fountain (1732–62) in Rome by Nicola Salvi and Giuseppe Pannini, drawing by Piranesi, Baroque & Rococo architecture (1630–1800), Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • A cutaway of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1638), Baroque & Rococo architecture (1630–1800), Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Santa Maria della Salute by baroque architect Baldassare Longhena (1681) in Venice, Baroque & Rococo architecture (1630–1800), Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • A plan for Sant

Where to find Baroque & Rococo architecture in Italy

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The Sala Verde (Green Room) in the Appartamenti Reali of the Pitti Palace, Florence (Photo by Jean Louis Mazieres)

The elaborately decorated Royal Apartments and state rooms of the Medici and Lorraine Grand Dukes in the princely Renaissance Pitti Palace

 
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The Spanish Steps (Photo by Martin Furtschegger)
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Spanish Steps
Rome: Tridente

The Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti—by whatever name you call it, this is one of Rome's prime outdoor living rooms, an elegant gathering place for locals and tourists alike

 
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The Baldacchino over the altar of St. Peter's (Photo by Jorge Royan)
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St. Peter's
Rome: Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) in Rome: Motherchurch of Christendom

 
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Belvedere rose garden (Photo by Damian Entwistle)

The Giardini di Boboli offer a rare park in busy Florence—and the birthplace of opera—in terraces of greenery behind the princely Renaissance Pitti Palace

 
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Piazza Navona at sunrise (Photo by Giuseppe Moscato)
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Piazza Navona
Rome: Tiber Bend

Bernini fountains, caffés, street performers, artists, and a carnival of life crowd Rome's famous Piazza Navona

 
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Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours, featuring the figures of "Day" and "Night" (1524–34) (Photo by Avia)
Medici Chapels
Florence: San Lorenzo / San Marco

The Michelangelo-adorned tombs of the Medici in the Sagrestia Nuova and the ornate Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes) of San Lorenzo

 
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The crowds at the Trevi (Photo by Oleg Brovko)
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Trevi Fountain
Rome: Tridente

The Fontana di Trevi just may be the world's most famous wishing well—certainly one of the most lucrative, what with every tourist tossing "three coins in a fountain"

 
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The Grand Canal facade (Photo by Alice Barigelli)
Ca' Rezzonico
Venice: Dorsoduro

This Grand Canal palazzo houses the Museo del '700 Veneziano, or Museum of 18th-Century Venice

 
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The Cerasi Chapel, with paintings by Annibale Carracci (center) and Caravaggio (left and right) (Photo by Frederick Fenyvessy)
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Rome's church of Santa Maria del Popolo is like a primer on the development of art and architecture from the early Renaissance through the baroque

 
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 (Photo by Murray Foubister)
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Santa Maria della Salute
Venice: Dorsoduro

The Church of the Virgin Mary of Good Health

 
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The interior (Photo Public Domain)
Teatro San Carlo
Naples: Centro Storico

One of the world's top opera houses is in Naples

 
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Sala XV (Photo by Mentnafunangann)
Palazzo Reale
Naples: Port

The Royal Palace in Naples

 
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The Grand Staircase (Photo by Anna & Michal)

The Palazzo Reale, or Reggia, at Caserta is Italy's answer to Versailles

 
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Narcissus (1594–96) by Caravaggio (Photo Public Domain)
Palazzo Barberini
Rome: Via Veneto & Villa Borghese

Rome's Palazzo Barberini serves as half of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, a collection of Old Masters from Raphael to Caravaggio

 
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The frescoes (Photo by Berthold Werner)
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Sedile Dominova
Downtown Sorrento

The eternal card game under the frescoed Sedile Dominova of Sorrento

 
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The distinctively Gothic nave (Photo by Saint Joseph)
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Sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini, the bodies of Fra' Angelico and St. Catherine, and the tombs of two Medici popes—so why isn't this church right behind the Pantheon more famous?

 
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Saint Peter's Square as seen from the base of the dome atop the Basilica San Pietro (Photo by Leinad-Z)
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Piazza San Pietro
Rome: Vatican

Bernini's elliptical colonnade and its fountains form the gorgeous front porch for St. Peter's

 
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The courtyard and facade (Photo by Mstyslav Chernov)
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Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza
Rome: Tiber Bend

The swirling, curling lanterns atop the dome of this baroque church plays peek-a-boo with pedestrians on the surrounding streets—good thing, as the church itself is hidden in a courtyard

 
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A baroque face hides masterworks by the two great native artists: Correggio (Renaissance) and Parmigianino (Mannerist)

 
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Immacolata obelisk (Photo by Mstyslav Chernov)
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Guglia dell'Immacolata
Naples: Centro Storico

A nearly 100-foot spire of baroque statues and reliefs

 
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Grazie talismans—all legs (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
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Sant'Antonino
Downtown Sorrento

The Saint & the Sea Monster: The odd history of Sorrento's baroque church of S. Antonino and its quirky titular saint

 
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The Cornaro Chapel, with its Bernini sculptures (Photo by Livioandronico2013)
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Santa Maria della Vittoria
Rome: Termini train station

A baroque church with the bodacious Bernini set-piece of St. Theresa in Ecstasy marrying architecture and sculpture

 
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The main doorway (Photo by Sonse)
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Palazzo Zuccari
Rome: Tridente

The monstrous details decorating Palazzo Zuccari

 
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Borromini's St. Agnes in Agone Church (Photo by Bgabel)
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Sant'Agnese in Agone
Rome: Tiber Bend

A stylish baroque Piazza Navona church with free concerts and a sobering saintly history

 
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The nave (Photo by David Bramhall)
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Sant'Agostino
Rome: Tiber Bend

The church has works by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Sansovino—and lies just off Piazza Navona—yet sadly sees few visitors

 
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The nave and Pozzo's frescoes (Photo by sarahtarno)
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Sant'Ignazio di Loyola
Rome: Tiber Bend

The "dome" in this church is a masterpiece of trompe-l'oeil

 
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The nave (Photo by Laruse Junior)
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Sant'Andrea della Valle
Rome: Tiber Bend

This Roman church is as famous for its role in as a major setting in the Puccini opera Tosca as it is for its baroque art and architecture

 
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The facade (Photo by Martin Falbisoner)
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Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Rome: Termini train station

The grand basilica of St. Mary Major is a wonderland of mosaics in a crummy neighborhood