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 whom the flippant but astute Duke of Orleans acted as regent, the court ritual came to a stop. Under the Regency, fancy came of age and dispensed with rules altogether: the grotesque came out of the grotto into the light. A new dispensation allowed people to be in direct touch with nature through the shells and rocks into which nature had playfully concentrated itself.

All this concern with raw nature and humid caves was appropriate to a society in which women had a novel and increasingly important part. Society under the Regency and Louis XV turned on salons, each of which depended on a hostess: witty and well-to-do, not necessarily of exalted rank. For them the hôtel particulier took on a new comfort and complexity. Since the regent had neither the time nor the inclination for building, and the king was too young to think of it for much of his reign, the hôtel particulier became the dominant building type. These hôtels were built by financiers and by the old nobility and also by the “Children of France,” the acknowledged but illegitimate children of the old king.

One solid achievement the regent did not wish to forgo, however: Louis XIV had replaced Italian with French as the language of international high culture as well as of diplomacy, and Rome with Paris-Versailles as the center of world fashion. The regent could afford to wink at the drift of fashion from Versailles to Paris where he himself ruled in rather low key from the Palais Royal. His intimate suppers there, which he would sometimes cook himself, were a new kind of high favor.

When he was young, Louis XIV liked to appear as Apollo at balls and masquerades. The regent preferred to dress up as Pan. Venus also took on a new importance in literary and artistic mythology: her pink was everywhere; so were the other pastel shades, blues and yellows, and lacy nets of gold and silver. Marginal, exotic “entertaining” things were sought out: shells, of course, as well as mirrors, porcelain, lacquer, crystals, rich polished woods, silk, and chinoiserie. They all went into the new, brilliant if subdued manner we call rococo. It seems to have emerged in a matter of months around 1715.


What is clear in retrospect is that a great turnabout in the European top crust was caused by the death of Louis XIV and that of Queen Anne of England a few months earlier. She was succeeded by her cousin, the Protestant George, prince-elector of Hanover. At that same time, in April 1715, Max Emanuel, prince-elector of Catholic Bavaria, returned to his capital in Munich after a decade of semi-exile during which the occupying Austrians were bleeding his lands with taxes. He had governed the Spanish Netherlands after a brilliant military career that started when, as a teen-ager, he assisted at the raising of the siege of Vienna in 1683. Max Emanuel brought with him a court dwarf, a young Walloon, Jean-François de Cuvillièes. Court dwarves were no longer considered high fashion, but Jean-François was no ordinary dwarf: within months of his arrival in Munich, his knowledge of geometry and fortifications got him an artillery commission, and he was also appointed court architect with an older, local man who had been trained in Paris.

The elector was too professional a soldier to hand out that sort of commission on caprice. Cuvillièes’s talents must have been impressive, and the elector sent him to Paris to learn the art of the French decorators and designers. The Bavarian court was very Frenchified. Max Emanuel preferred to speak and write French. A contemporary French traveler recommended the Bavarian Wittelsbach court as “the most galante and the most polite in all Germany” and singled out its French-language theater for praise. Max Emanuel was known as “the Blue Elector” and the Wittelsbach coat of arms, a blue and white checkerboard, made the perfect rococo cartouche.

In Cuvillièes, the dwarf artillery-ensign and architect, Max Emanuel had an almost too perfect rococo personage, who brought the manner developed for the Paris salons to the court of the elector whose grandeurs were in any case rather relaxed. Cuvilliès’s first masterpiece was the little palace of Amalienburg for Max Emanuel’s daughter-in-law, Maria Amalia, at Nymphenburg outside Munich; he designed the Munich Residenz a little later. By then the rococo manner had in any case spread throughout Bavaria. Augsburg, just outside its borders, was the great German publishing and printing center, and from it replicas and counterfeits of Paris pattern books flooded the insatiable Bavarian market. Meanwhile in Dresden in neighboring Saxony, Matthaeus Pöppelmann was building, for Augustus the Strong, the ceremonial court called the Zwinger, perhaps the most thoroughly native rococo building in Germany. An alchemist in Augustus’s service had recovered the secret of Chinese porcelain after years of experiment, and Dresden and Meissen ware became a quintessential rococo product. To many people, the name Nymphenburg is also associated with a porcelain factory rather than with the palace.

The truth is that Bavarian electoral patronage of the arts was limited by Max Emanuel’s (and his successor’s) monarchic ambitions. They would have accepted any crown. It was rather galling for them that, while the Wittelsbachs managed only a precarious hold over their hereditary Bavarian lands, some of the other imperial electors were doing far better. Saxony had managed to get Poland, the Hanoverians England, and the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns had just acquired the kingdom of Prussia on their own.

Max Emanuel’s son, Karl Albrecht, achieved his father’s ambition when he was elected emperor at the end of his life, but by then he was broken by the struggle, and held on to his title only for three years; it was not hereditary, of course, and in turn his son, Max II Joseph, “le meilleur et le plus éclairé des princes,” died childless, leaving the acquisition of a crown for Bavaria to a collateral branch of the family.

All these ambitious negotiations cost much money: the Bavarian national debt grew to be a heavy burden, and the fortune of the electors was unstable. But Catholic Bavaria was more a place of monasteries and pilgrimages, Bavaria Sancta, than it was a country of centralized power and military organization. The elector’s patronage was inevitably fitful while that of the abbeys of the old orders, of the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Premonstratensians was continuous and secure. Since the Middle Ages, these orders had offered possibilities of great social mobility in a highly stratified society, and they continued to do so until the Enlightenment. Their abbots had considerable building funds at their disposal, since the monasteries were independent economic units with huge landholdings and reserves of unpaid labor in their lay brothers. Apart from their “earned” wealth, they had income from pilgrimages and individual acts of devotion: when young Karl Albrecht recovered from a serious disease, Max Emanuel presented three select monasteries with life-size votive statues of his kneeling son in solid silver.


There is something very strange in the way the powerful princes of the church (who were sometimes of the lowest birth) picked on the salonnier, delicate, and profane Parisian rococo manner as the proper vehicle of their religiosity, and how this enthusiasm was transmitted down to the humbler secular clergy. The imported rococo was primarily a manner of dealing with interiors. Exteriors, even in the most extravagant Parisian phase, were monochromatic, unrelieved, somewhat old-fashioned, and even clumsy. The energy was all concentrated on the interior invention and elaboration. The same, but on a larger scale, was true of the south German buildings, which makes the paradox of the monastic churches appear even sharper. Only hints—the slight swelling of a front, the breaking of the moldings, the eccentric onioning of spires and domes—prepare the visitor for the extravagance he will find inside.

This is only one aspect of the rococo paradox, however. There is something incongruous about the way monastic building proliferated in Bavaria while in the rest of the Western world religious ardor was cooling and church building was distinctly in decline. The Bavarian monks and country clergy found in the rococo interiors an inspiring visual incarnation of a new piety that was taking increasingly intimist forms. This was, for them, the time of new devotions, to the Sacred Heart or the Immaculate Heart of Mary or to the newly canonized (and later demoted) John Nepomuk, patron of the confessional secret. To John Nepomuk the Asam brothers, the most accomplished decorators of the period, dedicated a small church in Munich, their act of private devotion.

Karsten Harries treats these paradoxes with poise in his book on the Bavarian rococo churches. Harries is best known for a modest but illuminating book on The Meaning of Modern Art, whose rather anodyne title disguises some incisive and sympathetic writing. In that earlier book, he had some reservations about the censorious approach to the art of the twentieth century of the distinguished Austrian historian of the rococo Hans Sedlmayr. In this more recent work, he seems more sympathetic to Sedlmayr’s views, and to support them he draws on the impressive research of Sedlmayr’s disciple, Hermann Bauer, and of another German art historian, Bernhard Rupprecht. Harries reformulates the question implicit in Sedlmayr’s and Bauer’s writings on the rococo: is it just the latest style to deserve the name of style, in the sense of an expression of an epoch, or is it in fact the final style altogether? That may well be the case, Harries implies, because it was the last “authentic” ornamental manner, even though it was not quite serious, because too ironic and self-conscious, too deprecating, almost as if all that rocaille had been derived from a fictitious precedent, if it had not been prompted by nature itself.

After rococo, Western art did in fact make historical precedent its only source of ornament. In any case, later rocaille had twisted so free of architecture that it had taken on an allure all its own—and of course ornament without architecture is almost a contradiction in terms. “What dies with rocaille,” Harries writes, “is not just another ornament, but ornament itself. As ornament emancipates itself from its merely ornamental function and gains aesthetic autonomy it becomes a kind of abstract art; but at the same time it loses its justification.”

At this point the skeptical reader may well remember—as I did—the ahistorical ornament of Art Nouveau or even Art Deco and wonder if Harries would consider both inauthentic because they did not last long enough, or because they did not hold popular imagination, or just because they occurred in industrial post-Enlightenment society and were therefore automatically condemned as “inauthentic.”

Whatever one thinks about Harries’s speculations on such matters, his detailed accounts of the churches as well as his general interpretation of them arrest attention and claim assent. For instance, he spends relatively little space and energy on refining the concept of rococo by discarding marginal examples, a fashionable exercise which on the whole tells one more about the historian than about the works which should concern him. Harries, on the contrary, assumes that style can only be described by its central preoccupations and that these allow him to trace clearly the shift from French urban to German rural rococo, from a salon-centered to a church-centered architecture.

Curiously enough, as he shows, there were French rococo church projects, like the competition designs for St. Sulpice, but they never came near to being built. Meissonnier’s St. Sulpice would probably have had an elaborate ceiling painting. But in fact French ceilings never reached the grandeur and complexity of Italian ones, and the Italian taste for sharply defined ceilings with elaborate perspective had been picked up in Austria and Bavaria before the new French manner had been imported. The introduction of rocaille (as Harries points out) allowed the Bavarian decorators to create a space reconciling the illusion created by the drama of the ceiling with the more tangible articulations of the wall. Already in the Jesuit church in Vienna, the Italian architect Andrea Pozzo had given the spectator a specific viewing-point for the ceiling fresco—which represented an illusionistic dome—near the entrance of the building, while mezzanine galleries in the nave bellied out along the walls, both effects being contrary to the straightforward plan of the church. Bavarian architects developed this double movement, which other late Baroque architects in Vienna (von Hildebrandt in the Piarist Church, Fischer von Erlach in the Karlskirche) had then already incorporated in a new type of church.

The painting in the Bavarian churches, even more than Pozzo’s false perspective, had to strike the visitor at the entrance as a vision of heaven, peopled by sacred figures to whom the church was dedicated. But once he had stepped inside and could look down the nave at his leisure, tactile sensations took over; Bavarian architects used the curves of repeated galleries, the bunching of columns and the overgrowth of rocaille to create a kind of peristaltic movement which carries the surprised visitor into the body of the church. In fact, though the old type of nave-chancel rectangular church was still fairly common, many of the Bavarian churches were often so disassociated inside from their exterior that they became virtually central-plan churches: the most extreme example was the Vierzehnheiligen church in neighboring Franconia. A miniature, the Asam brothers’ private votive church in Munich is all the more striking because of the tiny scale within which the Asams manage not only the peristaltic movement, but the stagy east end which they so much favored.

The ceiling paintings of those churches were almost always skylike, with freely floating figures, and their effect loosened the tight perspective of seventeenth-century vaults and domes. Illusion needed no longer to be tied to a single viewpoint. Rococo conventions, as Harries emphasizes, were explicitly theatrical, and included many forms of religious exercise. There was no effort to deceive in creating the illusion: not even the simplest peasant could have been taken in by any of it. In the seventeenth, and even more in the eighteenth century, theatrical performances were used as powerful homilies: Harries records an occasion when fourteen noblemen asked to join the Munich Jesuits in their religious devotions after the performance of an affecting play.

This leads Harries to the consideration of eighteenth-century Marian devotion. The popular Lorettan (surely not Lauretanian in English?) litany had colorful images: mirror of justice, seat of wisdom, mystic rose, golden house, gate of heaven, as well as others (enclosed garden) drawn from the Song of Songs. The litany often provided the theme of the ceiling paintings, practically always in the nave; the “centralized” space of these churches is always the nave, often a circle or an oval. From these rounded forms, the chancel usually projects, narrower and long, making a rather different volume from the billowing nave. It is as if the two spaces belonged respectively to the Blessed Virgin and to Christ, invoking the analogy that the nave is to the choir as the Blessed Virgin is to Christ.

Per Mariam ad Jesum was a familiar pious sentiment, often taken to signify that Mary was an image of the Church. Marian piety played with the image, architects and patrons invoked it, and it survived the demise of rocaille. The vast abbey of St. Blasien by the French architect Pierre D’Ixnard, which is often “read” as a herald of German neoclassicism, repeats the figure exactly, even if its nave is enclosed by classically detached columns.

St. Blasien was started in 1770. That same year the enlightened Max III Joseph issued an edict against “superfluous stucco-work and other…nonsensical and ridiculous ornament.” Around the same time Johann Esaias Nilson, one of the most popular and prolific of the Augsburg rocaillistes, published a print showing a pensive gentleman looking up at a “classical” urn as he tears the drawing of a rocaille inscribed “Muschelwerk.” Although there had been criticisms of the prevailing ornamental mode (even in Bavaria) much earlier, Germany was still lagging behind the rest of Europe in turning against the rococo. In France, where it had started, the manner had long been discredited, and was out of fashion by 1750; Madame de Pompadour was in fact one of the leaders of the earnest reaction against it. Its demise coincided with the retreat of a rural culture before the rising Enlightenment.

All this Harries sets out perceptively and learnedly, if not always as elegantly as the subject invites. Occasionally he wants to drive a point home too forcefully, which leads him to talk of the visionary French eighteenth-century architect Ledoux as “an abstract artist who casts his forms…into the void,” whatever that may mean. Harries complains about Ledoux that “the pursuit of purity leads the architect to utopian fantasies unlikely ever to be realized.” In fact Ledoux was opposed to rocaille not because it had too many associations, but because it was too abstract. His own forms were intended, on the contrary, to convey elaborate and articulated images, even messages: the architecture parlante of later commentators. Not even Boullée would quite fit Harries’s condemnation. It is true that both Ledoux and Boullée built very much less than they projected, though Ledoux did in fact build a great deal before the Revolution. But I doubt that the line between rocaille, the last “communicating” style of ornament, and all later “abstraction” can be drawn as clearly as Harries would have us draw it. Still, he has written the best book in English about the Bavarian rococo and one of the best I have read in any language. I hope that it will be taken as a valuable contribution to the current debate about the nature and role of architecture.

This Issue

November 24, 1983