Baroque art and architecture flourished during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries like a splendid hothouse hybrid - as a blend of Classical form and precision and Gothic vigour and technique. But it withered quickly without fruitful progeny, and was soon regarded as an ugly episode in history, falling between the poise of the Italian Renaissance and austere discipline of French Neo-Classicism. After the eighteenth century, connoisseurs of perfection considered Baroque style incompatible with the natural purity of antique architecture and dismissed it, like Gothic, as a deviant disruption in the normative tradition of European Classicism.
The precise origins of the term Baroque are uncertain. As Robert Harbison reminds us in Reflections on Baroque, the Portuguese associated it with misshapen pearls, and the Italians with far-fetched rhetoric - and 'excessive', 'eccentric'and 'extreme'have become frequent abusive descriptors.Whatever its origins, the Baroque label has stuck, and the number of historians willing to challenge our preconceptions - perhaps our misconceptions - about it are surprisingly few.
Characterising Baroque beyond its obvious formal or stylistic characteristics of undulating walls, spatial complexity and dematerialising illusions is certainly difficult. This is because Bernini and Borromini, the most notable exponents of the Baroque in Rome from the first half of the seventeenth century, did not record their intellectual aims as a written theory.There are no Baroque equivalents of the treatises that Alberti, Serlio and Palladio wrote for would-be practitioners of Renaissance architecture. For the most part, then, historians have had to rely directly on the tangible, physical manifestations of Baroque art and architecture, and trust their own powers of observation and description when commentating on the sensuous forms produced.
The task is demanding, but it is perfect territory for Harbison, who uses his profound understanding of the arts to write with considerable flair and insight on Baroque tendencies: from its beginnings in Italy and Rome, to its flamboyant progress across central Europe and the Americas.
It received muted acknowledgement in Britain. Indeed, historians even dispute whether it is useful to call the architecture of Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor Baroque. It is certainly a moderated version of German and Latin Baroque - and was not encouraged by the Anglican Church, having been identified as a corrupt, foreign art form, emanating from the political and religious fervour of the Counter Reformation.
Harbison's approach to his subject is suitably catholic. He reflects eloquently on parallels between art, architecture, music and literature; and across a considerable time frame, from the early seventeenth century to the late twentieth.By the last two chapters he has primed his readers sufficiently to redefine his subject and to conclude that Baroque is 'most at home in the visual arts'.There is nothing original in that assertion, though by interweaving carefully selected accounts of the extraordinary and the unrepeatable into a lively text, Harbison certainly gives his subject a breadth and vitality that is new.
Of all the visual arts, he demonstrates that architecture is the most potent medium of Baroque, and in the final chapter he brings his subject up to date. He teases out a thread running through the modern era that culminates - in his book - with Gehry and Miralles. Harbison argues that theirs is a modern Baroque, 'a kind of rewriting, or collaging of references to previous forms. . . Watching them at work we see the burden of history wrestled with and overcome in a violent rejection which works like a vaccination, introducing poison to provoke vivid resistance.
This is architecture as commentary, which stands to early Modernism as licentious Baroque did to sober Brunelleschi.'
Ultimately, Harbison sees Baroque tendencies in every major artistic period, which surface as an exuberant celebration of technique, and as an expression of individuality at odds with the norm - he cites Gehry's much-feted Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a brilliant recent example.We will have to wait and see whether future commentators choose to define Gehry's architecture as 'excessive', 'eccentric'and 'extreme', and if they do, how they will define the normative architecture of today.
Robert Tavernor is professor of architecture at the University of Bath