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«Athens Institute for Education and Research ATINER ATINER's Conference Paper Series ARC2013-0456 Tectonic Modalities in Baroque Architecture: An ...»

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Athens Institute for Education and Research


ATINER's Conference Paper Series


Tectonic Modalities in Baroque

Architecture: An Alternative


Gevork Hartoonian

Professor of Architecture

University of Canberra



Athens Institute for Education and Research

8 Valaoritou Street, Kolonaki, 10671 Athens, Greece Tel: + 30 210 3634210 Fax: + 30 210 3634209 Email: info@atiner.gr URL: www.atiner.gr URL Conference Papers Series: www.atiner.gr/papers.htm Printed in Athens, Greece by the Athens Institute for Education and Research.

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ISSN 2241-2891 25/07/2013 ATINER CONFERENCE PAPER SERIES No: ARC2013-0456 An Introduction to ATINER's Conference Paper Series ATINER started to publish this conference papers series in 2012. It includes only the papers submitted for publication after they were presented at one of the conferences organized by our Institute every year. The papers published in the series have not been refereed and are published as they were submitted by the author. The series serves two purposes. First, we want to disseminate the information as fast as possible.

Second, by doing so, the authors can receive comments useful to revise their papers before they are considered for publication in one of ATINER's books, following our standard procedures of a blind review.

Dr. Gregory T. Papanikos President Athens Institute for Education and Research ATINER CONFERENCE PAPER SERIES No: ARC2013-0456

This paper should be cited as follows:

Hartoonian, G. (2013) "Tectonic Modalities in Baroque Architecture: An Alternative Historiography" Athens: ATINER'S Conference Paper Series, No: ARC2013-0456.


Tectonic Modalities in Baroque Architecture:

An Alternative Historiography Gevork Hartoonian Professor of Architecture University of Canberra Australia


Erwin Panofsky’s 1934 essay, entitled “What is Baroque?” provides an opening to discuss the state of the tectonic in Baroque architecture. His text raises a number of issues including: what was missing in the available literature on the art and architecture of Baroque that Panofsky wanted to bring to the reader’s attention? Should Panofsky’s take on Baroque be considered as part of a general problematic that sees Baroque as a unique state of mind and aesthetics, an understanding that has been revisited whenever the culture of Humanism faces its historical limits? To explore the broader theoretical connotations and implications of the questions raised here, this essay will investigate the position of two other major art historians on the subject, Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl. These historians will be discussed in connection to their discursive commonality with Gottfried Semper’s theory of tectonics. I will give particular attention to various interpretations of the tectonic of column and wall, if only to index the possibility of a different reading of Baroque architecture. These readings will make the following historiographic points: I will argue that neither rhetoric nor Jesuit propaganda was tooled enough to deconstruct the tectonic potentialities of a masonry construction system practised within the representational system of Humanism, Baroque architecture included. I will also discuss the singularity of Baroque architecture in its complex rapport with the culture of Humanism; I will consider its deviations from the Humanist ethos, and the possibility of opening a new chapter where the major concerns and principles of Humanism can continue to be relevant in a different historical circumstances. Finally, I will present the historicity of the 1930s, and the emergence of the thematic of critical historiography, as the missing point in most contemporary theorization of Baroque in general, and of Panofsky’s text in particular.


Corresponding Author:

ATINER CONFERENCE PAPER SERIES No: ARC2013-0456 Introduction What Is Not Baroque?

This play on the title of Erwin Panofsky’s 1934 essay “What Is Baroque?” provides an opening to discuss the state of tectonics in baroque architecture. I will give special attention to the analysis of two well-known churches, Francesco Borromini’s S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1638-41), and S. Ivo della Sapienza (1642-50). These readings will make the following historiographic claim: that neither rhetoric (Argan, 1989), nor Jesuit propaganda (Levy, 2004) was tooled enough to deconstruct the tectonic potentialities of a masonry construction system that informed the representational system of the architecture of Humanism. Another facet of the same claim is of a geographic nature. Whereas the origins of baroque art and architecture are identified with Rome (Italy), the tectonic implications of the separation of column from wall, a development central to architecture’s departure from baroque, is associated with the age of Enlightenment, and the French architect Claude Perrault in particular (Harry-Francis Mallgrave, 2011, 26-34).

Panofsky wrote the aforementioned essay after his migration to the United States. Much of the migration of western intelligentsia to the new world was a reaction against atrocities committed under fascism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union. In addition to disseminating their knowledge, most art historians took the new world as an opportunity to see the past afresh. Karen Lang argues that Panofsky consciously avoided considering “the conditions of possibility of style” and that his iconographic method has less to do with his migration to the States than “with the discovery of a method that made his particular theoretical pursuit unnecessary” (Lang: 2006, 36). Needless to say that, through Cassirer’s writing, Panofsky was methodologically well equipped to avoid reading the work of art synchronically across a given culture. He was rather interested to study the work of art diachronically, and in relation to elements of what is called series. For a critical understanding of Panofsky’s position, his text on baroque needs to be historicised with reference to a body of literature that was epoch-making on both sides of the Atlantic. Significantly, works such as André Breton’s “Crisis of the Object’ (1932) and Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), among other texts, address “the question concerning technology,” a subject to be taken up by Martin Heidegger in an essay with the same title written earlier but first presented in 1949. These texts address the key issue of technology, exploring its implications for critical historiography, a subject Panofsky dismissed throughout his oeuvre (Foster, 1993). In the tradition of art history, Panofsky attempted to close the gap between the historicity of the work and the subject (in this case himself). In doing so, he dismissed the historical conditions that were not available to the artists he chose to investigate (Forster, 1972). This shortcoming was in part due to art history’s habitual reinvention of its tropes, primarily themes inherited from Heinrich Wölfflin. It was also due to the fact that a formalistic interpretation of the work of art gained a new ATINER CONFERENCE PAPER SERIES No: ARC2013-0456 momentum during the 1930s surge toward the notion of autonomy (Greenberg, 1939).

At this point it is useful to ask what motivated Panofsky to take up the subject of baroque. What was not already said about the art and architecture of baroque that Panofsky wanted to bring to the reader’s attention? Provisionally, I would like to suggest that baroque represents a unique state of mind and aesthetics that many scholars have turned to whenever the culture of Humanism feels exasperated by the project of Modernity (Broch, 2002). The significance of this proposition is twofold: firstly, it implies that, unlike the Renaissance, baroque did not produce a historical consciousness; indeed none of the mid-seventeenth century artists and architects discussed their own work as a style that broke away from that of the Renaissance. Secondly, the missing point in most contemporary theorization of baroque is a historical consciousness of the concepts of loss and nihilism, both instigated by technology, as discussed by the three authors signalled at the outset of this paper. Their critique of the nihilism of technology was convincing considering the emergence of the modernist idea of image, and its persuasive power as far as the discussion concerns the spectator’s rapport with the work of art. Even though it was a common practice throughout the Renaissance to use paintings that depicted biblical stories to propagate a Christian ethos, what was unique to baroque was its capacity to envision the interior space itself as a persuasive ensemble.

My own take on the subject of spectacle draws from Gottfried Semper’s theory of the tectonics of theatricality. In addition to the famous debate between Alois Riegl and the Semperians, Semper is relevant to this paper on another account. Panofsky acknowledged the traces of formalism in Riegl, and recognized Riegl’s misunderstanding of Semper’s emphasis on textile as the progenitor of artistic work. However, what does connect Riegl to Panofsky is Hegel’s notion of ‘spiritual history,’ a theme they used against the allegedly materialist Semper. As I have discussed elsewhere (Hartoonian, 20012), it is important to make a distinction between the tectonic of theatricality and theatricalization. An examination of this difference and its implications for a critical historiography of baroque architecture is the main contribution of this essay.

Introducing the concept of the ‘painterly Wölfflin’s 1888 text Principles of Art History maps the scope of baroque art and architecture, and highlights the differences between baroque and Renaissance (Wölfflin, 1950). Central to Wölfflin’s discourse is the paradox between tectonics and painterliness. He claimed that, using techniques of persuasion that originally belonged to visual arts, baroque architecture abandoned the characteristic elements of the art of building. On the other hand, addressing issues such as “massiveness,” material, and “movement,” he saw the role of wall in baroque architecture as being independent of both the plan and the tectonic articulation of the corner, the line where the main façade of a building meets the adjacent wall. The presence of atectonic and undulating walls in baroque architecture inspired him to make the


claim that architecture is neither painterly nor sculptural, but essentially the art of shaping space.

Wölfflin also contended that the interrelationship between different arts was theological and motivated by techniques particular to each art. Presenting ‘the painterly’ as a technique shared by baroque artists and architects, he made general conclusions concerning the formal attributes of baroque style. In addition, he conflated the time invested in the production of an artwork with the lived time of the historian. Furthermore, and of particular interest here, is Wölfflin’s characterization of baroque as an autonomous entity (a mental construct), and a transitory period in comparison to the longevity of the Renaissance, which, according to him, lasted until 1520 (Wölfflin, 1964).

Nevertheless, in the background of the nineteenth-century style debate, and the prevailing historical revivalism, Wölfflin’s discourse on baroque provides the clue for a comprehensive understanding of the spirit of modern times, the obsession with temporality and change in particular.

Riegl is important for this essay for two reasons. Firstly, he used the concept of Kunstwollen as an ideal unifying force to challenge those historians who would associate the meaning of the work of art with an artist and/or a place. This strategy conforms to Panofsky’s position that, before embarking on historical inquiry, the historian must be armed with a philosophical principle (Holly, 1984). We should also recall Riegl’s agreement and disagreement with Semper’s interpretation of the tectonic of column and wall in Gothic cathedrals. Secondly, the perceptual dialogue Riegl established between the work, the spectator, and the critic aimed to solidify the historian’s position as an external observer skilled to study the work and the spectator simultaneously.

To discuss these two points further, it is useful to recall Riegl’s manuscript, The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome, first published in Vienna in 1908. I have discussed aspects of this book elsewhere (Hartoonian, 2012). What I want to add here is that, during the first decade of the twentieth century, and because of the emergence of expressionism in German poetry and painting, the phenomenon of artistic feeling was understood in the light of baroque literature and its search for a proper style (Benjamin, 1985). This is also evident from Semper’s work in Vienna, which, according to Alina Payne, had “crossed into the neo-Baroque” (Payne, 2010). Her observation underlines the difference between opulent material embellishments (cladding), itself part of the aesthetic of the tectonic of theatricality, and theatricalization (spectacle) permeating the best of baroque buildings. By theatricality, I mean the aesthetic dimension of an artistic reasoning that Semper considered essential for the tectonic articulation of the duality between the art-form and the core-form of architecture. The theatricalization informing baroque architecture, by contrast, connotes neither the “irrational,” nor the tectonic proper. The aesthetics informing baroque architecture is rather an autonomous phenomenon, a subjective technique of persuasion that can be appropriated in various periods;

this contradicts Panofsky’s Hegelist tendency to present baroque as the synthesis between Mannerism and the Renaissance.


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