ROCOCO ARCHITECTURE

   The Rococo style of architecture first appeared in the French court in the early years of the 18th century and can be seen in some ways as an outgrowth of the late-17th-century Baroque age. But while Baroque architecture was monumental and propagandistic, Rococo architecture was more intimately aristocratic, more sculptural, organic, and ornate. From France, it quickly spread to Germany, Austria, and then across the rest of Europe. It was a style that mirrored the highly refined culture increasingly cultivated by the aristocratic class to distinguish itself from the growing middle class. It is sometimes thought of as a more playful and less serious reaction to the overly formal classicism that continued during the Baroque age. When the Rococo first appeared, the reign of Louis XIV was drawing to a close.
   This king was credited with the construction of the Baroque Versailles Palace in the 1660s. But at his death in 1715, the Duke of Orleans, who served as regent to the underaged Louis XV, moved the royal court back to Paris. There the Rococo style thrived with the construction of elegant urban palaces. Because these urban homes lacked the sprawling space of the rooms at Versailles, their Rococo interiors were more intimate, with elaborate decoration and furnishings, and often with mirrors that reflected light and gave the illusion of a larger space. Much like Versailles, these homes were used for such aristocratic social gatherings as masked balls and theatrical and musical performances, but also for the newly popular intellectual gatherings called salons, where current literature or philosophical ideas were discussed. The Rococo is sometimes described as a feminine style, given that women of the court often hosted these gatherings and became very important in the patronage of art.
   The Hôtel de Soubise, built in Paris in the 1730s, features a room called the Salon de la Princesse. Designed by Germain Boffrand, it is an excellent example of the Rococo style. In this oval-shaped room, the visitor is greeted by an elaborate display of gilded stucco decoration on the walls and ceiling, with light from the chandeliers reflected off the mirrors that line the walls. No straight lines are evident in the room; instead, organic shapes called arabesques encircle the entire wall space, leaving nothing blank. Rococo paintings by CharlesJoseph Natoire, shaped like curved trapezoids, fit into the spaces between the mirrors and the curved molding of the ceiling. This integration of painting, sculpture, and architecture appeared in the Baroque age but became more popular in domestic rooms during the Rococo era.
   The Rococo style soon spread to Germany, where the French architect François de Cuvilliés refined its exterior design in the small hunting lodge called the Amalienburg. Built in the 1730s in the park of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, it was named after the Electress Maria Amalia of Austria. This single-story building is pink with white trim and curves out from the side wings toward the central entrance. Here the undulating lines used by Baroque architects such as Francesco Borromini are continued in this aristocratic, domestic Rococo format. Johann Balthasar Neumann then expanded its use for the lavish Residenz, built for the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg. The general design of the Imperial Hall is based upon the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, but its curved oval shape and highly sculptural ceiling give the room a more lively sense of movement than its counterpart at Versailles. Neumann employed this same style for his church of Vierzehnheiligen, near Staffelstein, Germany, begun in the 1740s.
   In Austria, the Benedictine Monastery Church at Melk, built above the Danube River by Jakob Prandtauer (beginning in 1702) also reveals a gently curved façade with rounded twin towers. Inside the church nave, the piers undulate inward and outward, creating a rhythmic vista toward the elaborately decorated high altar. The monastic library at Melk similarly displays this ornately curved style. Perhaps the most impressive Rococo complex is Schönbrunn Palace, located in Vienna. This UNESCO World Heritage Site features a palace complex on the scale of that at Versailles, with beautiful gardens in the formal French style. It was begun in 1696 by the architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach for Emperor Leopold I; its massive scale is Baroque, but over the years it was updated in the Rococo style at the request of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Fischer von Erlach, born in Graz, is perhaps the best-known Austrian architect of the Rococo era.
   These royal palace complexes served to confirm authority and to provide cultural centers for the European elite, who traveled from one palace to another not only for entertainment but also to cement political alliances. Many of these palaces were connected in part by the only existing paved rural roads of the time, for they were built with roads that radiated outward toward surrounding courts. Probably because Rococo culture originated in France, the French language became the official language of the court, learned by young aristocrats across Europe to Russia, where the Romanov Dynasty used the French language, European aristocratic cultural traditions, and Rococo architecture to cultivate a political link with the rest of aristocratic Europe. These palaces were therefore designed for an entire courtly culture, and rulers would host artists and performers to showcase their high taste. For example, Mozart's stay at the Rococo Palace of Schwetzingen outside Heidelberg has had a lasting influence even today, since the complex hosts an annual festival in his honor.
   Finally, Rococo architecture spread to more modest regions of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where it began to appear in civic buildings, local churches, and smaller palaces. The town of Lecce in southern Italy epitomizes the exuberance of the Rococo in the farthest reaches of its European influence, and in Spain its regional variant, sometimes called the Churrigueresque, or the Late Baroque, style, is seen in Pedro de Ribera's Portal of the Hospicio de San Fernando, built in Madrid in the 1720s. It is this Spanish version of the Baroque and Rococo styles that spread to North and South America, where it developed into the Spanish Colonial style.
   See also COLONIAL ARCHITECTURE.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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