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Saturday, December 13th, 2003



by Giovanni Careri

A review by Georgie Lewis

In the film La Dolce Vita, Anita Ekberg's character wades into the Trevi fountain in Rome: a decadent act performed by a voluptuous star in a particularly Baroque setting. The Trevi fountain (1732-1751, Rome, Italy) appears too large for the relatively small square in which it sits. It resembles a theatre stage backed by Corinthian-columned arches, the central niche housing Neptune, whose horse-driven chariot is being guided through the water by tritons. Water rushes around the two horses (the Italians refer to them each as "placid" and "agitated") and tritons emerge from behind and under an organic rock setting, overseen by the majestic Neptune, god of the sea. The fountain is spectacle: a combination of sculpture and architecture, and a superb example of the excesses and beauty of the Baroque.

The term Baroque, coined in eighteenth-century France, has been weighted ever since with the negative connotations of overindulgence, folly and exaggeration. What Giovanni Careri, Professor of History and Art Theory of Art at Ecole de Beaux Artes, Lyon, is at pains to express in this marvelous book is that the Baroque period is an important turning point for art and culture. A time which Bernini, one of the leading lights of the Baroque and original designer of the Trevi fountain insisted proudly was the "first attempt to unite architecture, sculpture and painting in such a manner that they make a beautiful whole (un bel composto)."

Following the elevated and serene refinement of High Renaissance art, the art of the Baroque represents a virtually inevitable period of excess, most markedly in the style made famous by the reign of Louis XIV. But to dismiss the period as fickle and affected, and therefore frivolous, is to miss what is most gorgeous about the work. The art of this period is sumptuous, reliant on drama and interested in human emotion and human reaction. Baroque painters such as Caravaggio and Velasquez manipulated techniques that had been refined during the Renaissance, such as perspective and chiaroscuro (light and dark), for dramatic effect. Tonal values became more important, and light took on an added function of expressing spiritual transcendence.

The Baroque is drama: angels swoop, saints swoon and warriors writhe, and no period can lay claim to so many ecstasies! Careri's fascinating and informative text explains that the work of the Baroque is "simultaneously utterly carnal and possessed by divine grace, eternally torn between matter and spirit, rise and fall." And while Careri convinces us with his words, it is the stunning photographs by Ferrante Ferranti that really win the reader over. This book is so lushly put together, the photographs so breathtaking in their scope and quality, that one cannot help but become mesmerized by the Baroque vision.

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