Concerto Barocco

Culture of the Baroque: Analysis of a Historical Structure

by José Antonio Maravall, translated by Terry Cochran
University of Minnesota Press, 330 pp., $14.95 (paper)

A style, or an age? We all know (or think we know) a baroque building or painting or sculpture when we see one, but, after that, the difficulties begin. Since Burckhardt and Wölfflin first sought to identify and analyze a distinctive style of the baroque, generations of scholars in pursuit of the baroque have suffered all the frustrations of Bernini’s Apollo in pursuit of Daphne. If, as has been argued in recent times, we are pursuing not merely a style but a “mentality,” the pursuit becomes still more complicated. It presupposes the existence of certain common traits in European civilization over a given span of years, transcending national or religious boundaries. These traits in turn demand explanation, and there has been no lack of attempts at explanation, from the political and religious to the socioeconomic.

For some, baroque has been the art of the Counter-Reformation Church and of absolute monarchy, an art expressive of power and triumph. For others (a diminishing band in recent years), it has been the art of an expanding and creative seventeenth-century Europe, an art of exuberance. For still others, it has been the art of a society in crisis, an art of anxiety and tension. All of these “explanations” have had their critics, and none has proved very persuasive. This is scarcely a cause for surprise. It is hard enough to find common denominators in the infinitely complex and varied Europe of the seventeenth century, and harder still to make convincing connections between the aesthetic and literary sensibility of an age and its political and social organization.

Aside from Carl J. Friedrich’s The Age of the Baroque (1952), where “baroque” serves as little more than a catchall for the political history of Europe between 1610 and 1660, the most influential explanatory effort of modern times has been Victor L. Tapié’s Baroque et classicisme (1957).1 But Tapié’s books is badly flawed. It is unconvincing in its attempt to make the baroque the style of a rural and seigneurial society while identifying the “classical” as preeminently the style of the urban middle classes, and it is limited and arbitrary in its geographical coverage. In particular, it has little to say about the immense Spanish contribution to the development of baroque sensibility. This unfortunate omission makes all the more welcome the appearance in English of a major work of synthesis, first published in 1975, by Spain’s leading cultural historian of the postwar years, José Antonio Maravall.

Maravall, who died last December at the age of seventy-five, was the author of some twenty-five books, and of a vast number of articles. In spite of his great prestige in his native country, where he did much to liberalize intellectual life during the later years of the Franco regime and to prepare a new generation for the restoration of democracy, his work was not widely known in the Anglo-American world, although in recent years a visiting professorship at the University of Minnesota had begun to give him an audience…

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