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European Art: Baroque  
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The Baroque style predominated in European art, beginning about 1590 and lasting through the first decades of the eighteenth century (surviving variously until 1710 or 1740 in different countries).

Although the art of this period encompasses significant national variations, certain common qualities can be noted in most Baroque works. Seeking to involve viewers both physically and emotionally with the illusory realms which they depicted, Baroque artists utilized diverse means to challenge the "decorum" and restraint of the Renaissance period.

Intensely dramatic expressions and gestures, that seem to demand a response from the viewer; strongly foreshortened objects, which appear to extend beyond the confines of the art work; and sudden shifts of light and dark are among the "hallmark" features of the Baroque.


Caravaggio, who created an extensive body of work with implications, played a major role in formulating the Baroque style. However, because the Baroque era in Europe was a period of growing intolerance of any type of "deviance" (sexual or otherwise), most of the artists who were influenced by Caravaggio's stylistic innovations sought to avoid any overt indication of moral "impropriety" in their works or lifestyles.

The execution of Jérôme Duquesnoy, an internationally prominent Belgian sculptor accused of , exemplifies the brutality that political and religious leaders exhibited as they combated same-sex love and all other manifestations of "deviance."

Unfortunately, for most of the twentieth century, scholars effectively endorsed the goals of European leaders of the Baroque era by insisting that art of this period contained no indications of desire. Only recently have art historians begun to acknowledge the subtle, but effective, means that some artists and patrons utilized to articulate queer identities. Hopefully, future generations of scholars will continue to expand our understanding of this aspect of Baroque culture.

Although the terms gay, lesbian, and queer were not devised until a later period, I have employed them here to denote manifestations of love, desire, and identity that might be described by those terms today.

Caravaggio and the Baroque

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) formulated many of the quintessential features of the Baroque style in a series of bold paintings, infused with homoerotic desire, such as Bacchus (ca 1595) and The Musicians (ca 1596). In these works, Caravaggio appropriated the standard formulae that Renaissance artists employed in erotic images of women for male patrons. Thus, he clad the youths in vaguely classical robes and depicted them with attributes of prominent figures in ancient Roman mythology.

Flaunting the rigorous gender conventions of the era, Caravaggio's muscular youths tilt their heads coyly and allow their draperies to fall seductively off their shoulders. Furthermore, Caravaggio broke with the Renaissance practice of depicting objects of desire in an exalted realm, aloof from the viewer. With large, moist eyes, the youths gaze out at the spectator and stick out their tongues provocatively between their full, sensuous lips. Naturalistically depicted objects with erotic implications (including glasses of wine and musical instruments) also seem to extend into the viewer's space.

Highly distinctive facial features, dirty fingernails, and rumpled hair distinguish the youths in Caravaggio's paintings from the idealized types common in Renaissance art. It is easy to imagine that they are street hustlers, whom Caravaggio is known to have employed as models.

Rivals attempted to discredit Caravaggio by circulating rumors about his involvement with "low life," but, in testimony during a libel suit brought against him by a rival painter (1603), he willingly acknowledged a hustler and petty criminal, named Giovanni Battista, as his sexual partner.

The facial features of some of the youths in the early paintings (including one of the figures in the Musicians) closely correspond with documented portraits of Caravaggio by other artists. However, most art historians have insisted that Caravaggio did not represent his own sexuality in these scenes, and a surprisingly large number of scholars still insist that his paintings provide no indication whatsoever of homoerotic desire. (It is maintained that youths are shown with their tongues sticking out simply to demonstrate what one can do with the grapes and other fruit shown in the paintings.)

Many of Caravaggio's early works were commissioned by discerning, wealthy Roman collectors, including Vincenzo Giustiniani and Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who held lavish parties at which they entertained street youths, dressed in togas (and little else). Because of their strong encouragement of Caravaggio's work, Giustiniani and del Monte deserve acknowledgment as the first major European art patrons of the early modern era to foster in a systematic way the visualization of queer desire.

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Four Baroque paintings (top to bottom):
1) Bacchus by Caravaggio.
2) The Rape of Ganymede by Rembrandt van Rijn.
3) Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni.
4) Mars and Venus by Paolo Veronese, one of many paintings collected by Queen Christina of Sweden.

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