The Baroque behaved like itself down to its dying breath. A century of rhetorical treatises cannibalizing themselves and quoting the classic quartet of Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, and Quintilian in a closed-loop system led to repetition, exhaustion, ridicule, and eventually repulsion. In the end no national version could even muster the energy to meet a unique demise. Incrusted in Mediterranean culture, they were quickly and violently removed like sapphires from a holy relic during an invasion. My infatuation with this period has led me to study its disappearance in Portugal; it turns out it died just like it did in Italy. That is one of the many insights I got from reading Vernon Hyde Minor’s The Death of the Baroque and the Rhetoric of Good Taste.
I long for a comparative analysis of the Baroque from country to country along the lines of Francisco Bethencourt’s The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478-1834. I want to understand its birth, development and decline in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, England, Holland; differences and similarities; the social forces shaping and keeping it intact; why it went bust in some nations earlier than in others; its detractors’ arguments; and whether what replaced it was better. Vernon Hyde Minor’s book doesn’t cast so wide a net; it’s not a history but a collection of essays focused on Rome’s Arcadian Academy and its members whose influential disapproval of decadent Baroque aesthetics laid out the foundations of what we now call Neoclassicism. However, it does provide some hard to find clarifications.
The historical data is concealed in the essays like recondite finials atop a belfry. I could have done without quotes from Paul de Man, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and other unfortunates. The author’s reliance on critical theory seemed at times like a concession to fashionable academic writing. Aníbal Pinto de Castro’s 1973 Retórica e Teorização Literária em Portugal, a study in a similar vein, has aged gracefully even though he employed the old-fashioned method of close-reading the original sources. Fortunately the falderal is not overwhelming and putting up with a bit of semiotics is regularly rewarded with interesting accounts of Italy’s literary turbulence in the early 1700s. Since Hyde Minor is focusing on Italy, he quotes extensively from some sources Pinto de Castro covered superficially for their being outside his purview; he fills up several lacunae in my knowledge and adds detail to my understanding of the history of the Baroque in Portugal, making it clear like a 17th century marble Pietà.
Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the Baroque died in Portugal because of Italy. The Italians, in turn, chalk it up to the French. After reading this I got the impression that perhaps it’s impossible to reflect on the death of any national Baroque in isolation since the causes that decided their destructions are entangled like an arras. Italian letterati began the Enlightened century knocking the previous one’s lights out. A smear campaign had arrived in Rome from France damning Italian poetry as artificial, latebrous, lucifugous, and shallow. The letterati rallied and ruminated; they took sides; they wrote tracts; they redefined concepts like buon gusto (good taste); they participated in polemics; and… they concluded that the French were on to something. This was one of the most disastrous decisions in the history of literature.
Hyde Minor aims the spotlight at figures relevant to Pinto de Castro’s own book, namely Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni, Gian Gioseffo Orsi, and especially Ludovico Antonio Muratori. Their writings, decades later, would find a receptive audience amongst Portuguese thinkers. Why were these letterati in an uproar? Why did criticism against the Baroque began building up then? In order to answer that, we need to go back to the Renaissance when Rhetoric was rediscovered.
Scholars by the 1470s had published most of the Greco-Latin rhetoricians: Poggio Bracciolini had discovered Quintilian's Institutio oratoria in 1416; Gasparinus of Barziza’s Codex Laudensis of 1419 had made available Cicero’s Orator, De Oratore, De Inventione, and the Rhetorica ad Herennium, wrongly attributed to him at the time. Horace’s epistles, including the Art of Poetry, had been preserved since the 9th century thanks to monks and his ideas had long been part of intellectual discussion. Even now this is pretty much all we have regarding ancient sources on rhetoric. Pseudo-Longinus’ On the Sublime would have to wait a bit more until his comeback. Let’s ignore Aristotle for now. This led to a boom in theory for the next three hundred years. Renaissance scholars, inebriated with Antiquity, turned it into a model of perfection; imitation was what writers should aspire to. But if perfection had a form, surely it was possible to break it down into its components and teach it. Dozens upon dozens of treatises proceeded to do just that, with their chapters and subchapters, dealing with topics neatly if exhaustively organized in divisions and subdivisions, growing thicker and thicker with ever-growing lists of categories, of genres, of ways of reading (literal, anagogical, analogical, allegorical, mystical, historical, tropological, etc.), and of tropes and figures, which were themselves subdivided into figures of syntax and figures of thought, with their own subdivisions (the metaphor reached 8 different types; that’s 4 more since Aristotle’s time), while codifying correct usage for every situation, whether it be sacred oratory or profane poetry. Those were the grand production days of Lodovico Castelvetro, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Girolamo Fracastoro, Juan Luis Vives, Antonio Sebastiano Minturno, Tomé Correia, the Spanish friars Cipriano Soares and Luis de Granada, and countless others.
Horace’s popularity soared because of his dictum that poetry should be dulce et utile (sweet and useful) at the same time, utile gaining the upper hand in a civilization that equated literature with moral instruction. Quintilian also enjoyed his century of popularity because his ars rhetorica did not separate aesthetics from intellectual judgement; the intellect was a tool that controlled the poet’s flights of fancy and grounded him in verisimilitude. The poet should shield himself from fantasy and extravagance since it could lead to heresies. Fantasy, after all, according to Renaissance bestselling author Heinrich Kramer, was the Devil’s work.
Aristotle’s Rhetoric was a strange case-study: translated from Greek into Latin by George of Trebizond in 1445 and published in 1472, it was neglected until the Italians began reading it in the 1500s, and then its importance exploded a century later. I’m giving you the textbook version; I myself don’t understand why Aristotle was singled out as The Rhetorician of the Baroque period. But he was. One need only think of Emanuele Tesauro’s Il Cannocchiale Aristotelico (The Aristotelian Telescope), the most important 17th century treatise after Baltasar Gracían’s Arte de ingenio, tratado de la agudeza. The Rhetoric is not an apology of excess, and Aristotle, with his sharp mind, pithy style, and propensity for thinking in clearheaded concepts, would have been horrified at the abuses his name empowered. The metaphor, the lynchpin of Baroque rhetoric, is defined by him as something that “especially has clarity and sweetness and strangeness.” Somehow a creative reading of him minimized the “clarity” part.
Aristotle was the victim of a shift in taste. In the last decades of the Renaissance, the scales of docere and delectare inverted once again: instructing was out; delighting was in. The blind worship of Antiquity had led literature in general into a tedious, repetitive, lifeless dead-end. The reaction changed the emphasis from imitation into caprice. As the Italian poet Marino famously declared, “the poet’s goal is wonder.” (“È del poeta il fin la meraviglia,” from the poem “Fischiata XXXIII,” La Murtoleide, 1626). This may as well be the Baroque’s unofficial motto. To hell with moralizing, to hell with imitating classic forms; freedom meant finding your own forms. Readers and writers were hungry for the new. Novelty, however, was still fettered by the precepts of clarity, naturalness, modesty, and moderation. It’s important to keep in mind that 17th century rhetoricians didn’t begin championing unbridled maximalism overnight. They, like their predecessors, continued to keep reasonable in-built admonitions against obscurity, affectedness, inverisimilitude, and exaggeration. The thing is, poets and preachers began to ignore those advices. The moment strangeness and novelty became virtues, self-restraint began its slow march towards extinction. The decades leading up to the 1600s were full of signs. John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), is more baroque than any Baroque sermon I’ve ever read. Formelessness, immensity, performance, showing off, encyclopedism, were quickly enshrined as the new values.
The Cuban novelist Severo Sarduy, in Barroco (1974), put forth the Copernican Revolution as explanation for this shift in taste. The world wrenched out of its cosmic orderliness, its place lost in the center of the universe; how could it be a model of moderation for the arts? If the cosmos didn’t run as the harmonious system that theologians believed it did, didn’t Aristotelian mimesis decree that the artist imitate this shapelessness and irregularity? Sarduy’s theory makes sense to me, but I’d add the theological and psychological implications of the European nautical discoveries. Imagine the people of the homeostatic Middle Ages suddenly discovering a gigantic landmass and men and women who had never heard about God, something unaccounted for by the Bible. If the Bible, the ultimate authority, didn’t contain everything, how ridiculous to expect a poem to be a complete, self-contained form like an ode or a sonnet. How could you have moderation when the Council of Lima had authorized Jesuit missionaries in 1551 to tell Amerindians that their ancestors’ souls were burning in Hell because they had never received baptism? All those millions of souls. Big numbers and big territories foreshadowed a century obsessed with largeness and excess in music (opera is a Baroque invention), literature, architecture, sculpture. Furthermore, these discoveries whetted people’s appetite for strange, wondrous reports. From their perspective, the factual and the fantastical were the same: the most rigorous account of a travel to Japan would be as bizarre as a chivalric romance to a European learning about Japan for the first time. Engelbert Kaempfer knew what readers wanted when he wrote about his travels in Iran: “I have not included anything based on my fantasy, nothing that smacks of the writing desk and reeks of the study lamp. I only limit myself to writing about those things that are either new or have not been thoroughly and fully described by others.” The world, in all its sensuous detail, cracked open like an oyster shell to reveal its riches. Baroque poetry tried to keep up with this exponential growth of knowledge; that’s why it can go from one extreme to another, from the pious and grandiloquent to the mundane and licentiousness. It was written by nuns and monks in seclusion, by courtiers, by soldiers, by noblemen, by teachers, it didn’t have a format. A poem could be nacred with neologisms or be a treasure trove for future compilers of slang and idiomatic expressions. Whatever the reasons, men and women became more in tune with earthly pleasure and self-enjoyment than before; life became less lax, fun less sinful.
Rhetorical theory started to divorce itself from the practice in the pulpit. Frivolity tainted even the worldly preacher who desired applause for his wit. The century was fraught with complaints against priests more interested in captivating and entertaining their audience than explaining doctrine. Furious priests left behind letters decrying the theatricalities their brothers indulged in when they got onto the pulpit, with their gestures and whispers and shouts. A Portuguese preacher, Friar António das Chagas, once showed up with a skull like a stand-up comedian with a prop for his act. English Puritanism developed in part against these shenanigans. These religious men, brought up on treatises, some of them written inside their holy orders for internal use at seminars, were in a bind. As the century moved on, those treatises progressively began encouraging orators to give more importance to delighting audiences. The preacher stopped speaking truth to power, as he often had in the past, and began speaking smoothly to power. Sure, treatises also advised to stay in the path of clarity, but by then the audience itself had grown accustomed to delighting in ambiguity: churchgoers sat through the sermon for a good wordplay, a pinch of paronomasias, a daring interpretation of a psalm, a volley of unexpected similes, the orator doing accents. Theology was just a pretext. Eventually, rhetoricians caught up with the public and even they gave up paying lip service to clarity, exempting authors from any self-control. This degeneration, if you will, is at the heart of the distinction Helmut Hatzfeld made in Estudios sobre el Barroco (1973) between ‘Barroco’ and ‘Barroquismo’. Barroquismo is late, decadent Baroque spiraling out of control. It was against this obstreperous form that the French and Italian took dead aim on the 17th century. This late degeneracy took place around the early 1700s, and that’s more or less when Vernon Hyde Minor starts his book.
The Baroque died at different rates across Europe; its demise was as diverse as its birth. No single background explains it: it happened in Catholic and Protestant countries; it happened inside and outside the clutch of the Counter-Reformation; it happened in countries that fanatically enforced the Council of Trent’s resolutions, and in those that abided by it in parcels. The English Puritans in the early 1600s and French Jesuits in the 1660s declared war on it for similar reasons: both wanted to go back to a supposed simplicity congruent with the time of the Church Fathers; Italy followed suit half a century later, out of nationalistic brio; and in Portugal and Spain they had to wait until the 1750s for it to be dead and buried.
Nobody was yet railing against the Baroque because the word didn’t even exist in everyday usage. “Baroque” entered the lexicon after its death was a done deal, and it took some time for it be applied to the arts. In the 19th century it was a term in Art History; only in the 20th century did scholars extend it to literary studies. Actually they were railing against “barbarians” or, even more telling, “goths”. In the 18th century it was common to decry 17th century art as gothic. “Gothic” is a derogative term invented by Giorgio Vasari in his 1550 book Lives of the Artists to describe the medieval architecture that was superseded by Renaissance architecture built in imitation of the supposedly superior models of the then recently rediscovered Greco-Latin ruins. “All beauty was summed up, in architecture, in the Parthenon, and in sculpture, in the Venus de Milo,” wrote Regine Pernoud in Those Terrible Middle Ages about the Renaissance’s slavish imitation of Antiquity. The Baroque was a rebellion against this impoverished imagination. Few realize it, but the 17th century is when they originally decided to make it new again. The Enlightenment, however, with its prodigious contempt for the imagination, as William Blake had so tenaciously tried to warn the world, would have none of it, and so it was back to square one. Johann Georg Sulzer reused the term “gothic” in this negative meaning in his 1771 General Theory of the Fine Arts. For Montesquieu even Egyptian art was Gothic, meaning not that awesome; Voltaire could survey the work of the great Cathedral builders and declare that they had “only added defective ornamentation to a base even more defective.” The Neoclassicist period was so derivative it copied even insults. For thinkers at the time the loathed, bloated 17th century was no less tasteless than the Middle Ages. Throughout the 18th century, each nation found its spokesperson to condemn the entire preceding century. Muratori blamed Marino and his emulators for ruining Italy’s former prestige in the world of arts. Samuel Johnson was no less pigheaded in dismissing the whole of the ‘Metaphysical poets’, an unflattering moniker before T. S. Eliot rehabilitated it. Frey Gerundio de Campazas, a 1758 comical novel by Francisco de la Isla, parodied Spanish preachers. In Portugal, Luís António Verney, hot in the heels of Muratori and his polemics with the French, also judged the previous century as a mediocre one. As such, the most common insult was indeed seicentista, Italian for something or someone related to the 17th century, as if the mere connection to it were demeaning.
The English Puritans, although Protestants, didn’t keep their problems private. The Protestant believer engages with Holy Scripture without mediation of the sermon. Protestantism is aimed at silent, solitary reading, not at communal experiences; protrepsis, that is, the practice of preaching to convert a heathen, should be needless since God has already a script with those saved and those stuck in Hell with Satan. But the Puritans loved preaching and William Perkins, their founder, invented a style coherent with their beliefs, a style that “must be plain, perspicuous, and evident…” Perkins and his followers wanted a purified, bare bones church, and as such they had good doctrinal reasons to scorn the sorry spectacle that preaching had become in the mainland. The erudite style diverted the listener’s attention from the words to the preacher, which was vanity since it put him above God.
In the Mediterranean, where vernacular Bibles were forbidden by Trent, the clergy was still a class tasked with interpreting, explaining, God’s words. Catholic priests had their own reasons for wanting to return to the simplicity of the Church Fathers, when they saw the liberties with doctrine preachers took in behalf of novelty. The turning point happened with a trio of texts: Father Dominique Bouhours’ Les Entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugène (1671), and La Manière de bien penser sur les ouvrages d'esprit (1687), and Nicolas Boileau’s L'Art poétique (1674). They launched an attack, not just against their countrymen to reform the letters, but against Marino and marinismo and the Italian language itself. The dimension of the revolutions sparked by these three texts across Europe is hardly shown in Hyde Minor’s book.
I don’t adhere without reservations to the author’s choice to frame this history as a battle between proto-Enlightened thinkers and backward Catholics. He proposes to do that by welding this history to the Jansenist/Jesuit debate. He gives the impression that Jansenists were precursors of men of science when they were rather members of a sect interpreted at the time as a form of Calvinism (it was invented by a Dutchman). Their persecution had less to do with standing up for the scientific method than with matters of doctrine like free will and predestination. The Jesuits opposed Jansenism because they were obliged to defend doctrine, not because they were against science; in fact they were amongst their time’s most learned men, and their schools educated several of the figures that would go on to create the Enlightenment. Hyde Minor seems to make this association for no reason other than that Blaise Pascal loaned his reputation as a rationalist to their cause. That doesn’t mean the Jansenists were men of reason; it just reminds us that intelligent people like Pascal have defended superstition throughout history. Just because Newton dabbled in the occult in his final years, it doesn’t redeem mumbo-jumbo. Pascal himself was a conflicted, tormented mystic who used logic – the famous Pascal’s wager – to prove why it was more rational to believe in God than not. Rationalism was very relative a thing in the 17th century.
Hyde Minor tries to make something out of the fact that Pascal’s Provincial Letters (1656) contained attacks on Jesuitism; and he goes so far as to claim that this book was the loci of the anti-Jesuit movement. The historian José Eduardo Franco would have a few things to say about that. As his book, O Mito dos Jesuítas, explains, anti-Jesuitism is as old as the order itself. For instance, the Monita Secreta is a document forged by a disgruntled former Jesuit that showed up in Poland in 1614, before Pascal’s birth, and that circulated widely in Europe and was even used by the less scrupulous defenders of Jansenism against the Jesuits. The Monita Secreta is like the Jesuit version of The Protocols of the Elders of Sion, a magnificent confabulation that allegedly exposes the order’s plans for world domination. The Jesuits were a mistrusted order within Christendom, for all the reasons the Jews were: because they were smarter, richer, more dynamic, and adapted faster to change than other Christian orders. Pascal didn’t so much start a backlash as he grew up in an environment seething with resentment against them.
Jansenism is also a problematic explanation for the downfall of Baroque because, in Portugal’s case, and I suppose in Spain’s too, there was no way for a heretical doctrine to escape the Inquisition’s suppression. As Cândido dos Santos has shown in Jansenismo e Antijansenismo em Portugal, Jansenist ideas were not free to circulate in Portugal until after 1759, by which point the nation’s prime-minister, the all-powerful Marquis of Pombal, had expelled the Jesuits and coarcted the Inquisition’s autonomy by subordinating it to the State. Jansenism, then, can’t fully explain why Boileau’s and Bouhours’ ideas on rhetoric and good taste held tremendous appeal in Portugal.
Furthermore, it’s incoherent to set up Jesuits as the bulwark of Baroque aesthetics when they themselves were often at the forefront of the war on it. For anyone familiar with the fact that the Jesuits were responsible for a good deal of the educational system in Europe at the time, it won’t be a shock to learn that many of the thinkers involved in this matter were somehow connected to them: Bouhours was a Jesuit; his Les Entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugène was translated into Italian by the Jesuit Domenico Jannò; Camillo Ettori, one of Bouhours’s Italian detractors, was a Jesuit; Muratori received a Jesuit education; Descartes, whose pared-down writing style became a model for Muratori, studied under Jesuits; Crescimbeni, before his death, asked to be admitted into the Society of Jesus; the aforementioned Francisco de la Isla was a Jesuit; and Verney, the man most responsible for crushing the Baroque in Portugal, studied in a Jesuit school too. What I’m trying to get at is that we can’t work with simplistic dichotomies here: Baroque/Jesuits versus Neoclassicism/Enlightened thinkers is misleading. Lots of Jesuits objected to Baroque aesthetics and fought it hard. It was only during the 18th century that Jesuits were equated with the Baroque, as if it had sprung fully formed solely from their seminars, and this idea that has been dismissed by current historiography. So I can’t agree with the author when he affirms that “it seems clear in retrospect that the Arcadians and others who hated the Baroque were also taking close aim at Jesuit poetics.” Need I point out that the Popish Jesuits never set foot on the islands that gave us John Donne and John Milton?
Several individuals on the anti-Baroque bloc weren’t yet men of sciences or Enlightened thinkers, but Catholics who wanted the Church to go back to the Church Fathers’ practice of sermo humilis et simplex, sermons in a humble and simple style. Perhaps some more advanced Catholics were indeed standing up for a smoother literature conversant with the precepts of Newton’s system for a harmonious Universe; but the less advanced had Saint Thomas Aquinas’ own harmonious cosmic system for reference. The Church had its own tradition of lucid, clear parenetics, and it was aghast at the nonsense going on in the pulpits where preachers acting like mummers in a playhouse when they should be steering souls towards salvation. With science coming close to proving that the God was just a figment of the imagination, the last thing the Vatican needed was preachers behaving as if that were the case. The Baroque preacher, according to contemporary records, was a conceited, arrogant showman who put his glory above God’s. The Jesuit António Vieira reprehended his peers in a most original way. His meta-sermon “Sermão da Sexagésima” (1655) is simultaneously a critique of pulpit antics and an ars rhetorica that laid out a plan on how to deliver sacred oratory in accordance to doctrine.
Different nations also toiled under different constraints. Hyde Minor is knowledgeable about the Council of Trent’s resolutions, but doesn’t seem to give importance to French preacher’s exemption from having to quote from the Latin Vulgate in their sermons. In Trent’s Session IV it was determined that the Bible could not be translated into vernacular tongues, in order to safeguard the words’ true meaning from corruptions. This was reinforced by the Iberian indexes of forbidden books that forbid translations of Bibles into vernacular. Whereas France ignored this tridentine imposition, it was stubbornly followed in Portugal and Spain, to the point that it became customary to start a sermon with a Latin sentence. This may account for why France developed sooner a simpler, clearer method of preaching and why it became a model for other Christian nations in the 18th century. It may explain also why Hyde Minor unearthed a chauvinistic subtext in Bouhours and Boileau’s attacks against Marino. The French, aware of their national difference, converted it into a sense of superiority, an improvement to impose upon others. As the author shows, they weren’t so much reforming rhetoric as presenting the French language and literature as a universal model of emulation. This is something I was unaware of from Pinto de Castro’s book and is welcome context.
The Frenchmen’s self-promotion required diminishing other talents; Marino was singled out as a peddler of bad taste, the personification of everything wrong with poetry. When their chauvinistic judgments reached Italy, “there was a Franco-Italian war in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, one that raged in the salons; among the eruditi and savants; in the republic of letters; in the writing of sacred history; in the attack and defense of language, literature, and the visual arts; and in the very souls of those two languages, cultures and traditions.” One of the most important weapons in this war was buon gusto. Whoever controlled its definition, emerged triumphant.
Buon gusto entered aesthetic discussion with Baltasar Gracían’s El Heróe (1637). Gracían, one of the many Jesuits in this story, would play a major role with his Arte de ingenio, tratado de la agudeza (1642) in shaping Baroque taste for almost a century. Gracían, according to Hyde Minor, defined good taste as a feature of elite members, a quality only a few can acquire. It requires time, study, sensibility to do so, and most people aren’t up to it. Good taste was the courtier’s compass to navigate the complex waters of the Spanish court with its complex social relationships; it was a sort of sixth sense that taught him how to behave in society. Believing as I do that the Baroque is the bedrock on which Modernism is built, I can’t help seeing Gracían’s buen gusto as something similar to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s definition of culture as “high culture”, that is, as something only a few had the inclination to cultivate. As Roger Scruton explains in Modern Culture, from Humboldt it passed on to Matthew Arnold and from him to Modernist poets and critics, which ended up informing the elitist hermetism at the heart of Modernism. (It’s a curious coincidence that Eliot redeemed the Metaphysical Poets at the same time Gerardo Diego rescued Góngora from the oblivion the 18th and 19th centuries had holed him in.)
Bon goût also became a hot topic in France, but there it took a populist turn. Molière, La Fontaine, and La Rochefoucauld theorized about it. However, it was Bouhours who turned good taste into the antithesis of conceptismo, one of variants of literary Baroque. Baroque scholars nowadays tend to distinguish conceptismo from its sibling culteranismo in terms of content versus form, but for our interests that’s irrelevant; both would be equally nauseous to preceptors obsessed with sobriety and propriety. Bouhours saw conceptismo and its reliance in multiple metaphors as the disease of Baroque preaching. The metaphor is a horrible thing because it’s always deviating from reality; it’s always saying that one thing is some other thing; instability lives at its core. Conceptismo comes from concepto, conceit, which Gracían described as a “harmonious correlation between two or three cognoscible extremes, expressed by an act of understanding.” The concepto is a form of agudeza (sometimes translated as wit), a correlation between two objects at a mental level; once it’s rendered into an action or a sentence, it becomes a concepto. Agudeza is achieved by ingenio (resourcefulness, inventiveness), an intellectual faculty that can be trained, cultivated, like good taste.
Whereas Gracían made the concepto the essence of good taste, Bouhours rethought it as its absence. The Frenchmen, then, were also spitting on the Spaniards. A new fact for me is that according to Hyde Minor Bouhours didn’t just want to return to the Church Fathers’ simplicity or Renaissance models; he “intended nothing less than a stepping away from tropes, topoi, figuration, allegory, metaphor, conceit – in short, the entire tradition of rhetoric from Isocrates to his present day.” The Italian and Castilian idioms, to Bouhours, were depraved, barbaric, uncouth; only French had the qualities to renovate literature. Boileau, his countryman, thought the same, as we can see from his narrative poem L'Art poétique, translated herte by John Dryden into English:
Most writers mounted on a resty muse,
Extravagant and senseless objects choose;
They think they err, if in their verse they fall
On any thought that’s plain or natural.
Fly this excess; and let Italians be
Vain authors of false glittering poetry.
All ought to aim at sense; but most in vain
Strive the hard pass and slippery path to gain;
You down, if to the right or let you stray;
Reason to go has often but one way.
Hyde Minor also explains that Boileau redefined good taste in terms of popularity. If Gracían’s definition was for an elitist but shrinking aristocratic society, his good taste was in step with the social aspirations of the blossoming bourgeoisie. We had come a long way from the cultivated courtier who rose above the ignorance of the uneducated as arbiter of taste. Tastefulness henceforth was whatever lots of tacky bourgeois said it was. It’s worth noticing that his contemporary, Molière, echoed this idea in La Critique de L’École des femmes: “I wonder if the golden rule is not to give pleasure and if a successful play is not on the right track.” How different than Góngora’s attitude in his famous letter to Lope de Vega in September 30, 1613: “What an honor I received in making myself obscure to the ignorant, for that’s what distinguishes learned men, to speak in a manner that to them seems Greek, for one will not give precious stones to bristly animals.” But by Molière’s time dumbing down the reader was being institutionalized. One of Boileau’s amazing sleights of hand was insinuating that Baroque authors were obscure and elitist. Góngora wouldn’t disagree, but these authors were in fact popular, not in spite of their density and complexity, but because those features found receptive audiences. Churches filled with listeners from all social classes to marvel at convoluted syntax breaking under the weight of glittering similes. Boileau claimed for himself the defense of a readership that had not requested any defense, but then again aren’t we familiar with the crapulous critic who condemns difficulty in the name of the “reader” when it’s in the name of his own shortcomings that he acts? One needs only to walk inside a bookstore nowadays to see how Boileau’s idea panned out. In England Dr. Johnson oversaw a similar process. When he wrote in his Life of Gray that "by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtility and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours," he was already annoucing the democratization of taste. One of the many pleasures of reading this book is understanding how much of what was going on in the 17th century has modern relevance.
The Italians, wounded in their national pride, struck back. This reaction began at the Arcadian Academy, which at the time was also teeming with members from the nascent bourgeois class. The Arcadians weren’t necessarily unsympathetic to the Frenchmen’s views. But circumstances forced them to adopt a different stance. Orsi, the first to reply to them, realized that Bouhours’ boycott on rhetorical tradition would harm Italy’s prestige due to its role in reclaiming it in the Renaissance with Italian humanists. If rhetoric was in such a mess, it was because they had helped rediscover the classics and written loads of commentaries on them. The solution was to choose a past mentor above any contention who could act as a beacon for a new literature cleansed of excess and artificiality; Orsi singled out Petrarch with his pastoralism. By using Petrarch’s reputation, he hoped to stand against Bouhours’ soviet designs upon the past. If I’ve understood Hyde Minor’s point, 18th century neoclassicism wasn’t so much a reaction against the Baroque as against an ill-suited final solution for it. Neoclassicism was an Italian compromise against French extreme iconoclasm.
Petrarch’s pastoralism provided healthy role models above suspicion. Imitation was preferable to the reckless pursuit of novelty. As Bernardo Trevisan, Orsi’s Arcadian cohort, put it, the Baroque authors’ submission to novelty had led to their celebrating perversion. At times his words seem to be foreshadowing Eliot’s warning that the error of “eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express: and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse.” Complaints like Trevisan’s were not out of hand because Baroque poetry did write itself into a bedlam; in its final phase it was vexingly bad. But Trevisan’s solution wasn’t appetizing either. “He valued order, consistency, discernment, discrimination, differentiation, clear disposition, coherence, hierarchy, and sublimation. He feared confusion and disorder, heterogeneity, complexity, variegation, imbroglio, and discord,” writes Hyde Minor. What weary poetry this would lead to.
Muratori also objected to Bouhours’ bid to ban rhetoric; however, he himself condemned Marino and his imitators. He pledged that Italy, guided by the Arcadians, would play a major role in modernizing language and literature. “We intend by good taste the understanding and the power to judge that which is defective, imperfect, or mediocre in the sciences and the arts.” Muratori, writes Hyde Minor, although Marino’s admirer, sacrificed him in order to save Italy’s face. Marino was that embarrassing uncle you hide from the public. The pastoral became the preferred type for its pleasantness and simplicity. Neoclassicism, argues Hyde Minor, stemmed from a nostalgia for a Golden Age; I don’t disagree, but let me add a nuance. Eugenio d’Ors stated in his classic Lo Barroco (1944) that the “baroque is secretly animated by the nostalgia of the Lost Paradise” too. Scholars since then have interpreted this as an attempt to return to the totality of being, to a world that made full sense. At the same time the artists knew that desire it couldn’t be fulfilled. Their attempt at containing everything is a mockery of that possibility. The Baroque universe burst with meaning; the pastoral provided small landscapes and settings of idyllic bliss. The Baroque man was intimate with immensity; the Arcadian shepherd, like the Enlightened scientist, pined after control and stability. The excess of cataloguing was a way of showing that the world was endless; the pastoral poet created small scenes he could take in at a glance, the same way scientists were reducing nature to its isolated components to better understand them. The Baroque was obscure; the Pastoral heralded the light palette of the Enlightenment.
Hyde Minor’s chapter on the history of the Roman Arcadia is the book’s best part. I was amused to learn that the Portuguese king D. João V provided the funds to build the Arcadians’ permanent meeting place, a garden in Rome called the Parrhasian Grove, still open nowadays. His reasons had less to do with philanthropy and more with wooing the Pope, who was a member. The Arcadia did much to direct the destiny of Portuguese literature in the 18th century. Francisco Leitão Ferreira, who acquired membership, quoted Muratori substantially and approvingly in his 1718 treatise Nova Arte de Conceitos; so did Verney, whose Verdadeiro Método de Estudar was written in Rome; he also corresponded with Muratori. No less important was the Portuguese Arcadia, a 1756 gathering of poets who patterned themselves after their Roman namesakes. Its Latin motto was Inutilia truncat (Cut out the useless) which is somewhat similar to a sentence attributed by Hyde Minor to Crescimbeni: Esterminare il cattivo gusto! Exterminate bad taste! Its members had pseudonyms, dressed up as shepherds, composed bucolic poetry, reused classic poet genres and favored everyday language. Hyde Minor’s description of the Roman Arcadia’s inner workings has made me get a better understanding of what a shameless rip-off the Portuguese version was!
Leitão Ferreira, a man with a wide culture and artistic sensibility, wanted to reform the Baroque style from within, to smooth out its excrescences without outright rejecting it. It was, perhaps, past any salvation by then; it had become a Behemoth that heeded no command. Verney, clergyman and also member of the Roman Arcadia, was something else: his artistic temperament was nil and his love for poetry was almost non-existing. He was an estrangeirado (literally “someone foreigned”) a term at the time for a Portuguese living abroad whose exposure to foreign nations makes him suffer from inferiority after comparing his homeland to them, a suffering he can only alleviate by introducing Portugal to the modern world. Verney thought Portugal was a superstitious cesspool shut out from Europe, barely participating in the import and export of art, culture, sciences, or Enlightened ideals, its only lights the fires burning at autos-de-fé. When he arrived in Rome, its relative advancements put in perspective the poor shape Portugal was in. His massive book, published anonymous, laid out a project for the complete modernization of Portuguese teaching, from Grammar to Medicine to Physics to Philosophy. You’d think he’d lay the blame for Portugal’s sorry state at the Inquisition’s feet (which was a punishable offense). Instead he went after the Jesuits who, although not as open-minded as their French counterparts, were still the only institution that provided free education in a kingdom where education was despised by the nobility. If Hyde Minor wants someone who truly conflated Baroque aesthetics with Jesuit backwardness, he ought to spend some time reading up on Verney. Verney was a cold rationalist whose hatred of Jesuits bordered on the irrational. Armed with the most truculent anti-Baroque authors, including Boileau and Muratori, he managed to overhaul bom gosto in Portugal and enshrine clarté française as the epitome of refinement.
Because Hyde Minor opted not to write history, his book doesn’t deal with outcomes, consequences, conclusions. As such the reader’s left wondering whether neoclassicism was a good deal for literature. In Portugal the neoclassical period was a tedious affair that has not stood the test of time; its poets aren’t even in print anymore. According to Pinto de Castro, so insipid did oratory and poetry become that a couple of years after the triumph of Verney’s ideas several thinkers were trying to inject a bit of salt into them by attempting to fuse neoclassical and baroque features. Although Hyde Minor doesn’t get into this, he drops some hints here and there that Italian neoclassical poetry was just as meretricious. And English poetry from the Augustan period, from my experience of it, is hardly a cause for celebration.
Although neoclassical poetry was short-lived, its effects last on. The twilight of tropes and topoi continues to take its toll on modern fiction. The 18th century sacralized Puritanical plainness; experience was the opposite of falseness, and as Boileau taught, there was nothing more beautiful than truth. Art should imitate nature since only nature was truly perceptible to telescopes and microscopes, the toys of the new age, and so art went on imitating nature down to the dullness of dead matter under a lens. Outside the rendition of nature was fantasy, which was still wicked even though Kramer had stopped being a bestseller. A strange cognitive inability impeded these doctrinaires from realizing that the languages of art and science did not have to align themselves. No: art should be useful for so was science; poetry should use blank verse for rhyme was an artificial constraint. Didn’t preachers hide hollow hogwash behind hyperbatons? Didn’t they shunt sense to the far-end of synchesis-sinuous sentences? Then let’s geometrize everything. Henceforth the sentence will flow like a stream in springtime and be as dry as one during a drought. It was around this time that the epigram became a popular genre, as practiced by La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims and Pascal in Pensées, to say nothing of Alexander Pope’s heroic couplets. It was around this time that role models showed up. As Virginia Woolf wrote in the essay "Addison," it is due to him "that prose is now prosaic - the medium which makes it possible for people of ordinary intelligence to communicate their ideas to the world." Which is a plus in the essay, the genre Joseph Addison dominated, but is that only what we want from prose fiction? The real triumph of this mentality is found in the novel. No literary genre is so indebted to the spirit of the 18th century as the modern novel, so it’s not surprising that this anti-rhetorical bias penetrated its matrix. When Balzac said, idiotically, that the novel should compete with the Civil Registry, he was not far from the neoclassicists’ ambition to make literary language behave like a scientific article.
The Baroque never got its popularity back after so much mud-slinging; even now dictionary definitions are still biased against it. Sarduy was spot on when the wrote that “Experts have exhausted the history of the baroque, but they’ve seldom denounced the prevailing prejudice, kept by the obscurantism of dictionaries, which identifies the baroque with what is bizarre, eccentric or even cheap, not forgetting its most recent avatars: the camp and the kitsch.” The Baroque period was the last time artificial, demanding, convoluted, formalist art walked side by side with a receptive audience. The Baroque, because it’s a psychic phenomenon that speaks to a human need, resurfaces from time to time, be it called Symbolist poetry, Modernism or the post-modernist novel. However, those later iterations have never met the popular acceptance poets and preachers did 400 years ago. Since then persistent marketing has convinced the public that art should be easy and accessible, it has led readers to expect novels composed in jornalese, without figurative language, without digressions, and to be as narrowly concerned with reality as Linnaean taxonomy. Audacity is pretentiousness; fantasy is puerility; simplicity is democratic. Style, and its appreciation, were the great casualties of the war for good taste. The victors decided that rhetoric doesn’t matter. But they’re wrong. Rhetoric matters, it’s the soul of the sentence; its desecration leads only to a desiccated counterfeit, and it’s hardly a coincidence that so many of the “great” novelists of the last 200 years have been the faithful keepers of those counterfeits, as will be tomorrow’s MA graduates. Boileau had the last laugh.
As a fiction writer, I’m sympathetic to the Baroque; my own style has been described as baroque, except I don’t take that as an opprobrium. But I understand why it had to go when it did. It had become a mockery of itself. One thing’s Góngora’s Soledades and Marino’s Adone; or a sermon by Vieira and Jeremy Taylor; but the abominations that followed! No sentence was too preposterous if you could put a pun in it. Jorge Luis Borges, in A Universal History of Infamy, defined baroque as “that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody.” Borges, who had little love for Góngora, was sadly accurate. In the end the Baroque was betraying itself: born from the will to throw off the shackles of imitation, eventually it became as repetitive and normative as Renaissance poetry. This phase had exhausted its vitality; it was better to scrape it and take it back to the drawing board. I believe that Baroque literature worked better in theory than in practice. I’m also convinced that the Baroque didn’t fulfil its potential until it moved away from poetry to prose fiction. The best Baroque literature ever has been written only in the last 100 years and is found in novels. Its tragedy was coming to life after readers were convinced they shouldn’t make the effort to enjoy it.
Vernon Hyde Minor’s The Death of the Baroque and the Rhetoric of Good Taste is a good book. It’s a thrilling voyage to the origins of when challenging art became a taboo subject. It introduces us to its enemies, their understandable reasons, their familiar arguments, and their uninspired alternatives. It’s a solid work of literary criticism and the reader of serious fiction will feel better for having a dog-eared, snake-underlined, marginalia-heavy copy on her shelf.