Castle Howard: Baroque Architecture and the Theatre of Reality

Castle Howard is not actually a castle, but rather a stately home, situated in the Yorkshire countryside. It was designed by the famous Sir John Vanburgh, who is often referred to as the father of the ‘English Baroque’ style. The estate still remains in the possession of the Howard family today and has done so for over 300 years. Work began on building the ‘castle’ in 1699 and it was not to be completed for another 100 years, and in doing so, an entire village was destroyed in the process. This is one element of ‘classic’ architecture that people tend to forget when they complain that we have regressed in our architectural form. It may very well be nice to build your new library in the same way Castle Howard was built, but you’ll have to wait a hundred years, not even to mention the inordinate costs. By the by, when it was completed, the estate contained 13,000 acres of land and had its own railway station to service it, which ran from 1845 to 1950.

The reason I am discussing castle howard is because it is as an example of Baroque architecture, which is the real focus of this article. If you are not quite sure what we mean by Baroque architecture, think of any of the great European cities and those buildings which are most visually impactful. Buildings like St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, or the Palace of Versailles in France, or St. Paul’s Cathedral in England. This is because Baroque buildings are characterised by grandeur and high contrast, they are built to be flamboyant and purposefully designed to impress to such a degree that they can intimidate. The origins of Baroque architecture date back to the counter-reformation within Catholicism in the 16th century, and thus the form is inseparably linked to the church, you will find a great deal of religious imagery within baroque architecture, It seeks to be a visible statement of the power of the church. The first Baroque building was erected in France in 1642, it was the ‘Château de Maisons’. From there it then spread across Europe and adopted different styles with the borders it traversed, a trained eye may very well be able to identify which European country they are in simply by looking at its Baroque architecture.

The grandiose nature of Baroque is very much theatrical, it is attempting to surprise and impress, to generate an emotional reaction from the viewer. But where did this desire for theatrics originate? What is it that gave us these inspiring designs?  It has been put, by historians such as Peter Burke, that the Baroque’s grandiose and theatrical design reflects a 17th century “crisis of representation”. The idea being that the economic, political, social, and spiritual crises of the time are fracturing a previously held world-view, an innocent, and perhaps naive, Christian view of everything having a purpose and being linked by its very nature to everything else. That things are done for a reason. Events such as the thirty years’ war, the great 1620s trade depression, the reformation, and others from this time run counterfactual to that belief.

This is why people may turn to the idea, to predictably quote Shakespeare, that “all the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It: 1623). People feel disconnected from reality, and so present it as theatre.

Author / Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 05th of April 2017

Last Modified: 14th of May 2017 (Grammar Corrections)

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