Shadows of the baroque

In Europe, after the Renaissance triumph of harmony and stability of form, there stirred a new artistic unrest: the style that came to be known as baroque, with its own, unique handling of light.

For the whole of the 16th century, light was understood as something absolutely objective, quantifiable, possessing its own rational and scientific structure, and it was employed by architects accordingly. A new concept of light appeared in the following century, which linked it closely to the idea of space. Artistic focus shifted from the way in which objects were objectively illuminated to the laws that govern the way we see them. Crucial to this shift were the uses to which the new technique of perspective was put. 

Commenting on the successive achievements of those twin masters of the Italian baroque, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini, art historian Giulio Carlo Argan observed:

"Bernini’s concept of perspective drawing (the colonnade at St Peter’s, Santa Maria del Popolo), based on Vitruvius, aims to put the building itself before the designer’s eyes, through the effects of light and shadow. But these concepts were soon to distance themselves from the perspectiva communis [natural perspective] of the ancient world. Borromini reached much further, arriving at the interpretation of form as phenomenon. The application of geometry to projection, and the theory of shadows, became a precise science, rigorously determined by [Italian architect Guarino] Guarini, where the empiricism and visual effect of the perspectiva communis disappears."

This interpretation of form and light is what really connects baroque art with that of the modern world. Architectural renderings of the time give plentiful evidence of this development. Whereas Renaissance drawings aimed for fluency, balance and harmony of line, baroque drawings aimed to represent atmosphere by means of massed light and shadow. Their primary aim was not to depict shape, nor were they mainly concerned with proportion. In some cases, the point of view was reversed altogether, and shadow was considered as what was left when light had done its work.

The brooding drawings of Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi reflected this new way of seeing architecture: they used light in order to excavate a world that has been peopled with darkness and shadows from its beginning, where intense degrees of darkness and tones of shadow stir up and communicate extraordinary sensations of space. In baroque architecture, form is represented in a purely visual capacity; its outlines become unclear and indefinite, in order to express a sense of space directed towards infinity. Sculptor, painter and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti surpassed all his predecessors in using light and shadow to shape his works – such that his sculptures ceased to be static and serene, and acquired unprecedented movement and force.

Architecture was now declared to be not the representation but rather the determining of space. The classical idea of architectural space assumed an ideal structure that provided the pattern for the material building, derived from the laws of the universe. 

This is an abridged extract from ‘Light in Architecture: The Intangible Material' by Elisa Valero Ramos. RIBA Publishing, PB, 192pp, £25
Join Elisa Valero Ramos, Justin Bere, Hugh Pearman and Javier Castañón for a presentation and panel discussion with Q&A to celebrate the publication of Light in Architecture: The Intangible Material on 9 December 2015 at the AA Bookshop