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Baroque: Not just for Dictators and Autocrats

Posted June 18th, 2012 at 07:57 PM by jttwong

Recently, I was discussing the European architecture with a few friends over a few drinks when one of them claimed that “The Baroque style of design and planning is always utilized by authoritative governmental regimes when there is a need to convey a sense of power.” (none of us remember the exact wording so I might have paraphrased him ever so slightly) My response was somewhere along the lines “I don’t know think so bro.” However, the beers were getting the better of me and I could not respond accurately to why not. Now that I am sober, I think I can address this issue once and for all. European architecture was one of subjects I have studied in at a Master’s level and I have incorporated some of my research from that time.

Hopefully, no one else would walk up to me and claim that “the Baroque style of design and planning is always utilized by authoritative governmental regimes when there is a need to convey a sense of power” for the statement is no longer valid in the contemporary world.


Baroque architecture undoubtedly had been an expression of power utilized by most rulers who coveted an opportunity to manifest their autocratic and/or monarchial power ever since the revival of Classicism. Initially, Baroque architecture was only used in Europe principally by the imperial authoritarian powers to design their capitals to purposefully emphasize their dominance within their country but also as a standing testament to their capabilities. Yet as time progressed, Baroque was transfigured and then manipulated to illustrate the significance of other abstractions during the City Beautiful movement.

In accordance to this architectural metamorphosis, it becomes perceptible that the statement “Baroque style of design and planning is always utilized by authoritative governmental regimes when there is a need to convey a sense of power” is controvertible. It is potentially fallacious because it was primarily capitalized upon only by Europe’s authoritative regimes during the epoch of the original Baroque era for the aforementioned rationale. Furthermore, the subsequent City Beautiful movement revolved around analogous or contradictory concepts such as national strength or democracy respectively.

While the preponderance of autocratic countries after the City Beautiful movement had employed certain aspects of the Baroque, supplementary additions had also been applied. Instead of using the untainted version of Baroque, an adulterated paraphrase of it with reduced sumptuousness was endeavored in order to contrive an illusion of national supremacy. With that being said, I believe the statement should be revised as “Baroque styles of design and planning, though originally only used to express power, have been altered in many later examples to the point that only the aspect of Baroque philosophy present is the use of architecture to create a sense of power.”
European Baroque

Although Baroque was simply one of the numerous branches of styles that developed from the Italian neo-Classical movement of the Renaissance, it became exceedingly popular and widespread implementation rivaled that of its revivalist predecessor. Its practicality in all the major cities, and particularly the capital cites, during this period in which it was applied in was apparent – to evoke a sense of authority and power through superlative construction and design patterns in collaboration with dramatic, even melodramatic effects. This aggrandized effect frequently featured in Baroque architecture was in absolute contrast to the aesthetically constructed yet often harmonious and systematical construction approach of the Renaissance era. In order to fashion an impression of magnificence this thespian and exuberant construction approach ran rampant during the 17th and 18th century and could be seen in cities ranging from monarchial Copenhagen to tsarist Saint Petersburg but was preeminently personified by the extravagance of the Chateau de Versailles.

Versailles exemplified the initial Baroque philosophy as it revolved around Louis XIV and his infatuation with the tradition of comparison between the French king and Apollo, the sun god along with le roi soliel, the sun king. The architecture reflected and reinforced his image as the solar deity and this was predominantly true for the fountains as they were scriptural metaphors portraying Apollo with Louis XIV himself. Of the many fountains, the Fountain of Apollo prevailingly strengthened this vision as it was set in the central axis where it shows Apollo driving his chariot with different animals and demigods clearing his path. Yet, this was not the only section of Versailles that illustrated Louis XIV’s personality cult as there were scriptures such as Apollo Bathed by the Nymphs of Thetis in which Apollo being tended to by Thetis and her nymphs served as a metonymy for his nightly retirement.

Besides simply satisfying Louis XIV’s egomaniacal personality with the comparison between himself and Apollo, the Chateau de Versailles was also an expression of the prosperity and European preeminence of France. As France was the single greatest power in Europe during this time which was dreaded by the other European countries and Versailles, as her new unofficial capital, was meant to accentuate upon this apprehension and invigorate its effects to greater heights. With the financial reins of the country held with the sole hands of the tyrannical dictatorial Ancien Régime of Louis XIV and his selected assembly of privileged nobles, he was able to construct without restrain but yet, the lavishness of Versailles was beyond than a demonstration of supremacy towards external powers. Instead, it was a perfect representation of the absolutism of Baroque architectural and the political implications behind it as it was also meant to keep his potential internal enemies near him thus rendering them powerless to rebel.

However, influence of Baroque expanded far beyond one solitary palace within the hinterlands of Paris as it continued its dissemination throughout the entirety of Europe. Another city that adapted Baroque architecture to express imperial power was Vienna, heartland of the Hapsburg Empire, where the ‘Empire Style’ Reichsstil – the Austrian form of Baroque – was established. The development of this architectural style originated from the maturity of national pride due to military superiority over the Turks at Saint Gotthard and the relieving Viennese fears of annihilation. This nationalism was disparate from that of the post-WWI that led to self-determination but instead was created due to the ruling elites’ aspiration to forge a renovated capital that showed the imperial might of the Austrian Empire. This was extraordinarily fundamental for Austria as her triumph over the Turks was short-lived and national esteem disintegrated after the lost of western imperial territories to the impertinent Bourbon French nearing the close of the 17th century. This was viewed as an insult to the pride of the Austria and Baroque, with its emphasis upon autocratic authority, was utilized to show imperial capabilities to propagandize the strength of the Empire once again to the other European powers.

The aforementioned causes for Austrian Baroque showed that there both similarities and differences in the intent behind the construction of such buildings in Versailles in contrast to Vienna. Firstly, it would be noteworthy to recognize that when Versailles was chosen for development as the new headquarters of the new French monarchial government complete with a new chateau for Louis XIV, France was the strongest power in Europe. This was not the case for the renovations in Baroque style done in Vienna including buildings of different functional purpose ranging from religious to political was to enhance the image of imperial strength instead of needing to recreate the illusion of Austria ascendancy. Yet, despite the differences, the fundamental statements made by the Baroque attributes remain unaltered – demonstrate power through scale of an autocratic nation. With the examples of two European cities of great significance, the influence of Baroque and its totalitarian applications are obvious within Europe during the 17th century and certain aspects remained up till the beginning of the 20th century in the form of the City Beautiful movement which would be elaborated upon later.

With that said, there were also other examples of other famous cities that were constructed in a Baroque method but for a different purpose thus demonstrating that even pure Baroque architecture does not necessarily reflect autocratic power unlike that of Versailles and Vienna. Instead, an attempt to promulgate the religious dominance of the Roman Catholic Church was the true pioneer of the Baroque movement and the technique became of using voluminous proportions to instill a sense of strength became imitated by other European cities.

Similar to the conditions that led to the employment of Baroque in Vienna, the Roman context shared a similarity as both popularized due to the necessity of having to contravene certain trends. The exorbitant Baroque style was used to counteract the humanist scientific movement that became exceedingly prominent during the Renaissance as a focus upon the sciences could undermine the Church’s authority. In order to generate the sense of strength and allowing immense masses to see the pope personally bestowing his blessings, large-scale architecture was utilized most dramatically in St. Peters Square. These grand designs were focused around aspects of Baroque architecture such axial planning and spatial focal points of Baroque architecture which was inaugurated when Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) surrounded the square with a façade and centralized the emphasis upon the obelisk. In order to establish the Eternal City’s supremacy and its triumph over paganism and science while also revitalizing the sense of the Roman Classicism of Christianity at its birth, the Hellenistic styles were used with the combination of Renaissance and Baroque styles.

The significance of this example rests in the fact that Baroque, in contradiction to conventional assumptions, was not initially centered upon autocratic power but instead actually had its architectural commencement due to the Church. This meant that religious influence made the greatest contribution for the formation of a style that is now used to epitomize totalitarianism which, in reality, was already a distorted usage of Baroque as it was meant for appraising the holiness of Catholicism within the Vatican instead.

Evolution from the Baroque: City Beautiful

While the City Beautiful movement did not completely replicate the architectural values of Baroque, they did possess conspicuous visual resemblance to its anteceding counterpart. Both had a capacious focus upon the grandeur portions of Classical along with Neo-Classical architecture and aimed at establishing social control through both the aforementioned splendor but also with beautification. The City Beautiful movement, with its seeds sowed at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was initially used in metropolitan United States to construct civil buildings. By looking at the City Beautiful movement in a Lefebvreian approach, the purpose behind its construction could be perfectly understood as he states that the urban constructed environment could contribute greatly to establishing control over its inhabitants. By looking at the City Beautiful in this sense and its connections to Baroque architecture, this once again demonstrated that autarchies are not the sole facilitator in the usage of Baroque styles and designs as an expression of power. Instead, non-autocracies such as the United States may also utilize Baroque characteristics for the same effect the European monarchies attempted to accomplish centuries earlier.

However, it would be imprudent to overlook the unambiguous distinction between Baroque and City Beautiful beyond the time passed in between the two unique but corresponding building styles. Architecturally speaking, Baroque shared the analogy of the emphasis upon the discipline, of buildings and open spaces, to the extent of looking like a procession, but despite the magnificence of the City Beautiful movement, it never matched the extravagance of the Baroque. The most noteworthy differentiation between the two extends far beyond the construction methods but also the constructing purpose as Baroque was for the revelation of dictatorial authority while the City Beautiful movement had meanings that were in contrast to this. Many of the cities built following the pattern of the City Beautiful movement was based in North America where no monarchial or imperial power existed. Aside from the United States, another North American country with large amounts of cities constructed with the City Beautiful movement was Canada. Although the confederation of Canada as a Dominion was disputed at first as some were in favor of establishing a British kingdom instead, a parliamentary constitutional monarchial system was chosen in the end with democracy as the paramount focus. Nevertheless, this focus upon democracy did not stop the construction of many of her most important cities to be built with City Beautiful characteristics including its capital Ottawa and provincial capital Victoria thus illustrated that this Baroque-esque construction method could also evoke feelings of democratic power.

However, the City Beautiful movement’s purpose was more than reflecting democratic power and it was also used by the United States overseas to establish an image of imperial city after acquiring the formerly Spanish territories in Southeast Asia. In Manila, the American government needed to instill a sense of calmness but also increase public domination of the Filipinos after the brutally fought Philippine-American War. In order to do so, a design with a City Beautiful and its Neo-Classical characteristics would be perfect as it utilizes hallmarks were discipline, harmony, uniformity, and symmetry for this effect.

The Application of Baroque in Contemporary Autocracies

As Baroque architecture characterized the power of a governmental authority, it was used by many totalitarian regimes besides the European imperial powers. Examples of this could be seen primarily in the communist country where autocracies tended to be the governing approach and they utilized specific features of Baroque architecture within their cities. However, since the cities were isolated examples and not truly actually constructed in pure Baroque forms but simply copied basic characteristics and philosophy, their importance did not rival that of the City Beautiful movement.

The best example of this were the seven sisters, or Stalinskie Vysotki (Stalin’s tall buildings), of the Soviet capital Moscow which were skyscrapers constructed with a large contribution from the Baroque architectural attributed with certain gothic features added on. They were constructed after the Soviet victory of the Second World War due to nonexistence of skyscrapers in Moscow which were deemed indispensable to express the might of the Soviet Union.

Their neoclassical Baroque style allowed them to capture the attention of the visitors in Baroque and impressing them with structures that were comparable to the American skyscrapers and consequently, Stalin’s plan to demonstrate the strength of his country was triumphant. In this sense, contemporary Baroque architecture had been used to demonstrate the power of autocracies and this exist well outside of this single example.


Generally speaking, Baroque architecture had been employed in autocracies in innumerable diverse regions in the world. Throughout Baroque’s history, it had been used extensively in Europe during the 17th and 18th century to demonstrate imperial or monarchial totalitarian power. This was the greatest imperative of the Baroque era as it delineated the defining characteristics and was also the only period of time that employed Baroque in its purest embodiment and therefore I believe to be of the greatest significance of all construction in this style.

Unlike the fully Baroque construction before it, the City Beautiful movement only replicated certain architectural aspects but was lacking in the sense of expressing authoritarian power but instead reflected imperial power in accordance to the American application. The Stalinist constructions in Moscow succeeding the City Beautiful movement was even less Baroque than this preceding movement as it was centered around a limited quantity of buildings. Both the City Beautiful movement and the even more recent Baroque construction shows that classical or neoclassical buildings were rarely used to build momentous environments in countries as they do not fulfill the current requirement to house ever expanding amounts of people in an inadequate quantity of space.

In this sense, Baroque architecture must evolve to remain felicitous for the contemporary world and its application must be in the philosophy alone thus without its Classical characteristics due to the ever-increasing population. In the future, Baroque architecture could become defined only by its enclosed space, axial planning and broad boulevards and devoid of the grandiosity along with its aesthetical attributes that were obvious in the original upbringing; therefore, the authenticity of the statement can be interpreted in two separate ways. The Baroque style of design and planning without Classicism could always be utilized by authoritative governmental regimes when they need to convey a sense of power but Baroque in its full extravagant glory as seen during the European era would probably never appear again.


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