Classicism and Baroque - HA504

Location Term Level Credits (ECTS) Current Convenor 2017-18 2018-19
(version 2)
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6 30 (15) DR BDH Thomas







The organising principle of this course is derived from Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s Vite de’ Pittori et Architetti Moderni (1672). In selecting a small group of twelve exemplary artists for his history, Bellori was employing artistic biography to expound his theory of art based on the Idea. This charted a middle way between naturalism and mannerism, through which the imitation of nature informed by the principles of antique art produced works which surpassed nature. Among the artists included in Bellori’s corpus are Annibale and Agostino Carracci, Michelangelo da Caravaggio, and the non-Italian artists Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, and Anthony Van Dyck. Several of the leading artists of the period were excluded from the canon, notably Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona. Bellori presumably had these artists in mind when he condemned his contemporaries who “juggle madly with corners, gaps and twirling lines, discompose bases, capitals and columns with stucco nonsense, trivial ornament and disproportions”. The aesthetic and theoretical judgements which informed Bellori’s exclusion of artists from his book can be glimpsed in this quote. In the art historical literature on this period such critical judgements are explained in terms of the dichotomy between “classicism” and “the baroque” (although these were not terms used in the period). Following Riegl and Wölfflin the baroque has been defined in opposition to classic art, as an art of becoming rather than of being, addressing the emotions, rather than the intellect, through a tactile evocation of appearances. Often the theoretical writing of the period has been characterised as reacting against, or irrelevant to, what was truly innovative about the work of baroque artists like Bernini and Borromini. These generalisations will be tested through close study of the works of the artists named above, and also by exploring how they might relate to contemporary artistic debates, such as those at the French Académie Royale about the relative merits of Poussin and Rubens, or between Andrea Sacchi and Pietro da Cortona in Rome over the number of figures which should be included in a narrative painting. In addition to exploring the acute interest in stylistic criticism during the seventeenth century, the study of individual artists will also involve consideration of the role played by their patrons, especially their ideological, religious and antiquarian concerns. Although the course will progress by studying individual artists in roughly chronological order, the treatment will be thematic rather than monographic. Lectures at the beginning and end of the course will introduce and summarise the more general historiographical themes; the remaining lectures will be on artists including Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Bernini, Borromini, Pietro da Cortona, Poussin, Rubens and Van Dyck.


This module appears in:

Contact hours

10 two-hour lectures, 10 two-hour seminars, at least one organised trip to London to view baroque art in national collections (e.g. the British Museum print room), typically involving 4 contact hours.
The remaining hours of study necessary for the 30 credits will consist of private study towards directed learning tasks.
Total study hours: 300.

Method of assessment

100% coursework: Critical diary (10%), Group Presentation (40%) and a 3000-word essay (50%).

Preliminary reading

E. Cropper, The Domenichino Affair (New Haven and London, 2005).
F. E. Cropper & C. Dempsey, Nicolas Poussin. Friendship and the Love of Painting (Princeton, 1996).
Haskell, Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque (London, 1963).
L. Marin, To Destroy Painting (Chicago and London, 1995).
R. Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 (3rd edition, London, 1973).

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

See the library reading list for this module (Medway)

Learning outcomes

Upon completing this module, students will have:

1. Analysed through the study of key artists (such as Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Bernini, Borromini, Guercino, Claude, Pietro da Cortona, Poussin, Rubens, and Van Dyck), why artistic style was invested with such importance in seventeenth-century Europe, and how this phenomenon was informed by an historical knowledge of the different styles of Renaissance artists (such as Raphael and Titian), and of the art of antiquity.
2. In association with the analysis of style, examined the iconographical content of key works of art, and compared treatments of biblical and mythological subjects by different artists.
3. Explored the contexts in which, and the functions for which, important seventeenth-century works were made; for example, the theatrical celebration of power in the works of Bernini and Rubens, or, alternatively, works made to serve the private antiquarian interests of patrons like Cassiano dal Pozzo.
4. Analysed the formal and stylistic properties of seventeenth-century works of art, in particular the oeuvres of the artists discussed in lectures, informed by a knowledge of artistic techniques and working practices, and by direct contact with works of art in British collections (i.e. national collections accessible to people with mobility disabilities).
5. Conceptual understanding of a critical survey of seventeenth-century literature on the visual arts, in particular Italian biographers and theorists (e.g. Bellori), and the criticism associated with the French Académie Royale (e.g. Félibien, De Piles).

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