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Baroque in Rome

Rome, Italy

After a quick look at the Spanish Steps and Campo de’ Fiori’s market, we go for Baroque. The sculptor Bernini was a master of this dramatic, emotionally charged art. We see his masterpieces at a church and at the Borghese Gallery.

Complete Video Script

As the rhythm of daily life hits its stride, the famous Spanish Steps — today adorned with azaleas — fill with people. For over 200 years romantics have gathered here to enjoy a little dolce vita with their sightseeing. And it remains a popular place to savor the joy of simply being in Rome.

Another colorful Roman gathering place is the Campo de' Fiori. Literally the "field of flowers," this has long been a fragrant and vibrant market. The market thrives in the morning. What's seasonal during your visit will be a favored by local chefs and featured on their daily menus. We're here in May — and it's punterelle, asparagus, and artichokes.

Whether you come for the produce or just for a stroll, Campo de' Fiori is one of Rome's beloved public spaces.

While Rome's streets and piazzas are busy with people, its countless churches are busy with art. Pop into just about any church and you hardly know where to look. That's because they're decorated in the Baroque style.

Every inch is slathered with ornamentation — oh-wow spiral columns framing scenes that almost come to life; cupids doing flip flops, and ceilings open into the heavens.

After the intellectual nature of the Renaissance, Baroque, which followed, was emotional. By the year 1500, Renaissance artists had mastered realism. Now, around the year 1600, Baroque artists went beyond realism to wow their viewers with exuberance. Baroque art was propaganda. It served the needs of divine monarchs and the Church. By pulling emotional strings, it convinced people to obey.

Rome is the birthplace of the Baroque style and Gian Lorenzo Bernini — who lived and worked here in the 17th century — is considered its father.

Seemingly insignificant churches like Santa Maria della Vittoria come with lavish interiors. And, if you know where to look, important baroque treasures, hide out. Bernini designed this side chapel like a theater — with members of the family who paid for the art looking on from their box seats.

The master Bernini invigorates reality with emotion. Center stage is The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. Bernini captures the feeling Theresa described when the angel pierced her heart with a heavenly arrow: She said, "The pain was so sharp that I cried aloud. But at the same time I experienced such delight that I wished it would last forever."

Exploring Rome on foot, you alternate between peaceful back lanes and busy arterials. Towering above the traffic stands Il Gesù, the leading church of the Jesuit order. It's another church decorated to the hilt in the Baroque style. Take a moment. Put yourself in the mindset of a 17th-century church-goer. Marvel at the splendor.

Once again, this art carried a message. The Catholic Church — threatened by Luther and the Reformation movement — was striking back. Here, this symbol of virtue beats down Protestants. A determined cherub rips pages from a Protestant book. And the angel struggles with the evil serpent of heresy.

For a breezy escape from the big city noise and intensity, head for the Borghese Gardens, Rome's "Central Park." Romans are proud of their generous green spaces. This sprawling park has long offered people here a place to relax, unwind, and let the kids run wild.

The park's centerpiece is the Borghese Gallery. Once a cardinal's lavish mansion, today it welcomes the public.

As is the case for many of Europe's top sights, admission requires a reservation. Getting one is easy — just a phone call or visit the website and you get an entry time. Good guidebooks have all the details.

The wealthy Borghese family filled their 17th-century villa with art. This was the age when the rich and powerful not only collected beautiful art, but actually employed leading artists to spiff up their homes.

Cardinal Borghese was the pope's nephew and one of the wealthiest people in Rome. With unlimited money, his palace dazzled with both fine art of the past, such as Raphael's exquisite Deposition, and with the best art of the day.

Each room has a masterpiece at its center — like this intriguing look at Napoleon's sister, Pauline, by Canova. The polished marble is lifelike — even sensuous.

Bernini's David is textbook Baroque. Bursting with life, David's body — wound like a spring and lips pursed as he prepares to slay the giant — shows the determination of the age. Bernini was just twenty five when he sculpted this — and the face of David is his.

Caravaggio tackled the same topic on canvas. Grabbing an opportunity to shock his viewers, the artist Caravaggio also sneaks in a self-portrait — this time, as the head of Goliath.

In keeping with the Baroque age, Bernini's Rape of Persephone packs an emotional punch. Persephone's entire body seems to scream for help as Pluto drags his catch into the underworld. His three-headed dog howls triumphantly.

Bernini's Apollo Chasing Daphne is a highlight. Apollo — happily wounded by Cupid's arrow — chases Daphne who's saved by turning into a tree. In typical Baroque style, Bernini captures the instant when, just as Apollo's about to catch Daphne, her fingers turn to leaves, her toes sprout roots… and Apollo's in for one rude surprise.

The statue — as much air as stone — makes a supernatural event seem real. This classical scene — while plenty fleshy — comes with a church-pleasing moral: chasing earthly pleasures leads only to frustration. The place to contemplate that thought is at the Vatican.