The term baroque (misshapen pearl) was applied, at first contemptuously but later respectfully, to a style of architecture that originated in Rome in the early 17th c. and showed an audacious departure from the traditions of the Renaissance. Asymmetry of design, luxuriance of ornament, strange or broken curves or
lines, and polychromatic richness were its main features. The word was later extended to the other visual arts of the baroque period, which is generally regarded as having lasted to the middle of the 18th c. The best known early exponents are Borromini in architectire, Bernini in sculpture, and Rubens in painting.
Rococo (rock-work) is sometimes treated as synonymous with baroque, but is more properly confined to a later development of it, especially in France, lighter and more fanciful, and with ornament even less related to architecture. The characteristice of baroque are grandeur, pomposity, and weight; Those of rococo are
inconsequence, grace, and lightness. Baroque aims at astounding, rococo at amusing.
It has become fashionable to apply the word baroque to literature and music also. What it is intended to mean when so used has been the subject of much argument and little agreement, except, it seems, that the poetry of Crashaw and the music of Vivaldi are typically baroque. Such definitions of baroque poetry as have been attempted, as for instance that its marks are ‘instability, mobility, metamorphosis, and the dominance of decor’, are unlikely to give the ordinary reader confidence that he will recognize it with certainty. The application of the term to music is even more recent. It started in Germany, and its propriety is not universally accepted. ‘It is clear that a word professing to embrace such various products as the later madrigals and Handel’s operas, Peri’s melodrama and Bach’s Art of the Fugue, has no justification beyond mere convenience’ (Grove’s Dictionary of Music, 1954 ed.).
This quest for the meaning of baroque when applied to the non-visual arts is the more difficult because those so using the word do not always make it clear, even, one suspects, to themselves, whether to them it is a chronological term, meaning any work produced during the baroque period, or a descriptive one, meaning a work with baroque characteristics, whenever produced, or a mixture of the two, meaning a work
with baroque characteristics, produced during the baroque period. The Muse of History seems now to have been infected by her sisters of Poetry and Music. From an
important historical work recently published a reviewer quotes b. absolutism, b. raison d’etat, and an adventure in b. power politics, and he adds, ‘There is a strong case for persuading historians to use the epithet baroque with restraint, for it is fast becoming as devoid of meaning as feudal’.
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage