A Short History | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera

As part of the Renaissance (literally ‘rebirth’), which began in Italy in around 1450, the Baroque era was a revolution within a revolution. It saw a break from the Medieval view of humanity as innately sinful.

Instead, Renaissance thinking cast individuals as a dynamic force in their own right and gave free rein to human imagination, ingenuity and self-expression. The Protestant movement, which rejected the ethos of the established Catholic Church after 1517, was typical of the often-aggressive individuality of the Renaissance age.

The meaning of the word ‘baroque’, coined by opponents of the new and shocking departure from ascetic Christian tradition, reflected the fundamental change in mindset the Renaissance involved. It derived from the Italian barroco, meaning ‘an obstacle to logic’, or from the Portuguese barroco and Spanish barrueco, meaning ‘an irregularly shaped pearl’. ‘Baroque’ later came to mean anything imperfect, bizarre, contorted or generally contrary to established rules.

The impact was intense and all-pervasive. The flamboyant Baroque style affected all artistic forms, giving a new grandeur to architecture, rich, brilliant colour to painting and a more sensuous and fluid realism to sculpture. In particular, painting and sculpture depicted real, flesh-and-blood humans rather than stiff, insipid figures.

In the theatre, plays plumbed new depths of emotion and explored the dark complexities of love, hate, revenge and despair. The recasting of music was just as startling. Until the Baroque style evolved, music had been dominated by the simpler, restrained sound of sacred works designed to invoke religious devotion and typify the other-worldliness of faith. Baroque composers broadened these horizons by turning musical performances into entertainments that explored emotional depths and rich harmonic textures. Baroque opera introduced interplay between orchestra and performers and an entirely novel feature – the visual attractions of costumed performers and stage scenery.

Key Events

1477 Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales first printed
1485 Henry Tudor becomes Henry VII
1495 Leonardo da Vinci paints Last Supper
1517 Martin Luther launches the Protestant Reformation in Europe
1527 Sack of Rome by imperial forces
1531 Michelangelo begin the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel
1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris
1598 Huguenots granted freedom of worship
1599 Globe Theatre built in London
1603 Death of Elizabeth I; James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England
1610 Galileo observes Jupiter’s moons
1611 Authorized King James Bible is issued
1618 Beginning of the Thirty Years’ War
1630 Tirso de Molina writes El burlador de Sevilla – the first dramatization of the Don Juan legend
1642 English Civil War breaks out
1661 Louis XIV begins absolute rule in France
1666 Great Fire of London destroys many buildings in the city
1675 Christopher Wren rebuilds St Paul’s Cathedral

Introduction | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera
Styles & Forms | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera


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