The Last Ornament?

The Bavarian Rococo Church: Between Faith and Aestheticism

by Karsten Harries
Yale University Press, 282 pp., $37.50

We all know a piece of rococo when we see it. Paul Morand, nastily but accurately, wrote about a grande dame of his day, “buried in pink pillows and lace, sick with a stalactitic cold,” and complained that “even her colds are rococo.” His readers of the 1920s would have had no difficulty in recognizing the style from the symptoms: soft pillows and pastel shades, lace and stalactites and great ladies—all the expected ingredients appeared in Morand’s gibe, and it was always associated with the Paris of those two great ladies, Pompadour and du Barry.

In their time, the style did not yet have a name. It took a long time before it came to be applied not only to French salons but to the extravagant churches described in Harries’s book. Censorious critics called it either barocco or goût pittoresque, terms that art historians now use for the art of the periods just before or just after the rococo. The word itself was a playful deformation of rocaille (to rhyme with barocco?) and was given literary currency by Stendhal—though with reference to Bernini’s alleged bad taste. This association of rococo and rocaille is much neglected.

Of course, rocaille had been part of garden architecture for centuries, but it had come to a kind of orchestrated climax in the grotto of Thetis at Versailles, the entire surface of which was a whirl of sprays and masques and elaborate patterns made up of shells and bits of rock. It was a moist underground place and its main “presence” was a sculpture group showing Apollo tended by the muses after his day’s drive across the sky. Every visitor knew to read this as a representation of the Grand Monarch’s repose from the rigors of his kingship. Very soon every princely garden in Europe had some imitation of it.

Rococo was thus connected with grottoes—hence its associations with the grotesque and with stalactites. The grotesque had intrigued artists ever since its antique prototypes had been discovered in the ruins of the baths of Titus and Nero’s Golden House on the Aventine slopes. The Romans called the ruins their grotte and the ancient decorations, which mixed giant with miniature and deliberately confused scales of representation, got their name from those magnificently and elaborately patterned walls. Although the Versailles grotto was a toy discarded at the same time as the beautiful Madame de Montespan who inspired it, it still became an example of how the rules of the Grand Monarch’s style could be relaxed.

Louis XIV had centralized power over his aristocracy by a system of snubs and rewards that were mediated through sumptuous ceremonial. This inevitably required a grand architectural background. However grand the architecture of the time, it could no longer rely on the old architectural canons, which seemed to distill natural law through antique precedent, since the canons had declined into man-made rules for willful, corrupt, and unreliable human fancy. When the Grand Monarch was succeeded by his great-grandson, Louis XV, for…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.