Period Style: the Bust of Marsyas and its Baroque Influence
Balthasar Permoser (1651-1732) sculpted his Bust of Marsyas between 1680 and 1685 in either Rome or Florence. (1) This was in the middle of the Baroque period, which approximately lasted from 1600 to 1750, and in one of the epicenters of the style, as both cities were home to many Baroque artists. (2) The Baroque style came about as part of the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation, which was a response to the Protestant Reformation, and an attempt to re-energize and reform Catholicism. As Europe descended into the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church became a more prominent sponsor of art, and helped finance the spread of the Baroque style. (3) Baroque art is supposed to elicit an “intense emotional response” through dramatic, vibrant scenes that take the medium to its maximum. (4) Baroque artists often incorporated several mediums into their art to create an overwhelming, energetic piece that communicated the awesome power of the Catholic Church and God. (5) Artists imbued the same energy and emotion into secular art as well, as artists now portrayed Classical themes in the Baroque style. Artists used lighting to add another dimension to the overall effect of the piece: the interaction among sunlight, shadows, and fine details gave Baroque art nuance and dynamism. (6) Baroque art sought to create an emotional connection with its audience and communicate the might of its sponsors, whether secular or religious.
Permoser’s Bust of Marsyas and its Baroque Influence
Balthasar Permoser’s Bust of Marsyas, sculpted during the middle of the Baroque period, exhibits many of the characteristics of Baroque art as well as influence from earlier Baroque artists, particularly Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Permoser employed exaggerated movement, heightened emotion, and shadow to portray the Classical narrative of Apollo Flaying Marsyas; these are all representative characteristics of Baroque art.
An influential Baroque sculptor whose impact is apparent in Permoser’s bust is Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The contiguity between Bernini’s 1619 Damned Soul and Permoser’s 1680-85 work is apparent: both portray tortured male faces caught in the middle of their agony. Both artists used carefully sculpted hair which lends itself to shadows, furthering the detail and giving the works dynamism should the light source, such as a candle, flicker. Both busts have lined faces with contorted mouths and eyes that communicate the energy of the subjects. The near life-size scale and overall composition of the busts give them a realism and believability that makes these works emotionally compelling.
Baroque artists and their patrons intended their art to have an emotional impact on its audience: highly emotive subjects and either grand or intimate scale created this effect. The scale of the Bust of Marsyas aids in this endeavor, as the life-size work is approachable and realistic. An empathetic viewer could imagine Marsyas, or a real person, experiencing such pain, and have an emotional response. The movement, lines, and shadows of the bust combine to create a poignant piece that communicates a feeling of agony.
Implied movement is a technique through which Baroque artists communicated energy, and the Bust of Marsyas is no exception. Marsyas’ face, contorted in pain, and open lips convey his agony at its peak as he cries out. Both Jusepe de Ribera’s 1637 Apollo Flaying Marsyas and Bernini’s 1617 Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children utilize this Baroque technique of exaggerated movement. The former shows Marsyas screaming in pain and flailing his limbs while Apollo peels away his skin; the latter captures in sculpture children in the midst of teasing a faun. Ribera's work, however, includes multiple figures, whose strong diagonals imply movement. All three works convey emotion and energy through motion.
Emotion and movement, two defining aspects of Baroque art that are much more subdued in an example of preceding Renaissance sculpture, Tullio Lombardo’s 1490-1495 Adam. Lombardo’s Adam has a downplayed facial expression and the Renaissance interpretation of the Classical contrapposto. Adam’s relatively smooth, sedate face contrasts sharply with Marsyas’ lined, screaming and violent expression. Both works have intricately detailed hair, but Adam’s seems almost separate from his head and static while Marsyas’ shoots out from his skull. The overall composition of Adam conveys a sense of calm introspection, whereas the Bust of Marsyas emanates violent energy.
Whether Classically or religiously inspired, Baroque art has an emotional energy and vitality not present in the more staid, static Renaissance art that preceded it. Baroque art's use of huge scale to awe its viewer, or a more intimate scale to personally touch its audience both achieved its goal: form an emotional connection with its audience. Permoser’s Bust of Marsyas, with its dynamism stemming from the exaggerated expression and movement coupled with the effects of the lined face and detailed hair is an example of this Baroque goal put into action.
1. Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Marsyas.” metmuseum.org. http://metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/211486?=&imgno=0&tabname=label
2. Web Gallery of Art. “Glossary.” wga.hu. http://www.wga.hu/database/glossary/glossary.html#b
3. Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael Watt Cothren. Art: A Brief History. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 368.
4. Ibid., 368.
5. Ibid., 368.
6. Ibid., 369.
Web Gallery of Art. “Glossary.” wga.hu. http://www.wga.hu/database/glossary/glossary.html#b (accessed 17 November 2015)
Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael Watt Cothren. Art: A Brief History. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Marsyas.” metmuseum.org. http://metmuseum.org/collection/the- collection-online/search/211486?=&imgno=0&tabname=label (accessed 17 November 2015)