Rick Steves' Art of the Baroque Age

In the 1600s and 1700s, the art of "divine" kings and popes — and of revolutionaries and Reformers — tells the story of a Europe in transition. In the Catholic south, Baroque bubbled over with fanciful decoration and exuberant emotion. In the Protestant north, art was more sober and austere. And in France, the excesses of godlike kings gave way to revolution, Napoleon, and cerebral Neoclassicism.

Find names and locations for works of art listed in the Script.


[1A, Fountain of the Four Rivers, Bernini, Piazza Navona, Rome] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, here with a fascinating chapter in the long and inspirational story of Europe's art. In this hour, we're venturing into the age of divine kings, fancy fountains, Revolution, and a splash of Napoleon. This is the art of Baroque and Neoclassical Europe. Thanks for joining us.

[3A] For two centuries — roughly 1600 to 1800 — Europe's rulers held onto the old medieval order, while new ideas bubbled beneath the surface. These tensions — conservative versus progressive — would produce astonishing art: from deeply religious to boldly secular…from patriotic to playful…from Baroque to Neoclassical.

[4 Montage] For some historic background, we'll start with the religious struggles that eventually split Europe into two camps, each with its own distinct culture: the exuberant art of Catholic elites… and the sober art of Protestant merchants. We'll see how France with its divine-right kings and their art emerged as the center of European culture. And how excessive royal decadence led to violent Revolution…and finally, how a dashing general would set Europe on a bold course toward the future.

[5, St. Steven's Cathedral, Vienna] The roots of Baroque go back to the 1500s, to the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation. People were questioning Europe's most powerful institution — the Roman Catholic Church. This was big news and art, the media of the day, told the story.

[6] When a German monk named Martin Luther hammered 95 points for debate on this door, he opened a Pandora's Box of issues — from Church corruption to the role of art in religion to the legitimacy of the pope — unleashing long-pent-up frustrations.

[7] Soon, the protesters — called "Protestants" — were breaking away from the traditional Catholic Church. This religious revolution, called the "Reformation," plunged Europe into a century-long series of wars. Each side expressed its intense passion through its art.

[8, Religion Overthrowing Heresy and Hatred statue, Gesù Church, Rome] Here, a Catholic nun wails on a bunch of sinful Protestants while a determined cherub rips pages from a Protestant book and an angel wrestles with the "serpent of heresy."

[9, pipe organ in Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands] For their part, Protestants took over Catholic churches and purged them of Catholic iconography. These "iconoclasts" destroyed statues of saints and whitewashed all they disdained. Churches were converted to fit Protestant values: preaching from a prominent pulpit, and music with thunderous pipe organs.

[10, Four Apostles, 1526, Dürer, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] People had to choose: "am I Protestant or Catholic?" These worried saints — with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other — capture the tension of the times. Art was weaponized. Here, St. Michael, on Team Rome, hurls Lucifer out of Heaven, sending a clear message: Protestants who rise up against the Church shall be crushed.

[11, Amstelkring church, Amsterdam] This non-descript building hid a Catholic church. In Protestant lands, Catholic citizens were forced to worship at low-profile churches like this- — a plain exterior hiding a small yet beautiful church inside complete with the rudiments of Catholic worship in miniature.

[12] This religious divide turned political. In England, King Henry VIII broke with the pope, confiscated Catholic lands, and destroyed monasteries. Violence flared. In Catholic Spain, the Church Inquisition arrested, tortured, and executed countless Protestants, Jews, and anyone they considered heretics — burning many at the stake. And in Germany, 6,000 peasants — armed with little more than shovels — were slaughtered in a single battle.

[13] Artists captured the misery and the epic scale. As religious wars spread, nearly a third of all Germans died. War crimes became commonplace, with each side convinced that God was on their side and that they were fighting the Devil himself. Paintings show how most of Europe was at war…swept up by powerful forces…as if the fighting might go on forever.

[14] After decades of war, in 1648, an exhausted Europe reached an uneasy peace that enabled Protestants and Catholics to co-exist. But it left Europe split into two camps: Protestants mainly in the northern countries, Catholics in the south — each with its own culture and style of art. The art of the day was Baroque and it fit Catholic lands perfectly.

[15] The Baroque style — with its bright colors…big canvases…dramatic statues…exuberant architectureand over-the-top ornamentationappealed to the emotions. Put it all together — as Baroque artists loved to do — and the ensemble packed a powerful message.

[16] After all this turmoil, Catholic Europe craved stability, and the Baroque message was pro status quo: obey the pope and the established order…and things'll be okay. It's no wonder Baroque was the favored style of Catholic rulers.

[17] The Baroque style flourished in Rome — especially at the Vatican, the headquarters of the Catholic faith. Art became a tool of the Church. To help reinvigorate the faith and counter the Protestant Reformation, churches were made more welcoming — with bright, spacious interiors and dazzling art. Art that made complicated theology easier to understand.

[18, Saint Peter's Basilica, 1626] The grand church of St. Peter's was decorated in the Baroque style to make a statement. The message: to proclaim the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic faith as the one true faith and the pope as its leader.

[19] The altar radiates these Catholic ideals, with sunlight pouring like the Holy Spirit through its alabaster window — illuminating the symbolic throne of the first pope, St. Peter, and all the popes since. With its sheer size — 600 feet long, big enough for thousands of worshippers…colossal cupids…and massive Baroque canopy, St. Peter's has given centuries of pilgrims and worshippers a glimpse of the heaven that awaited them…if they stayed true to the faith.

[20] Catholic worshippers were comforted by endearing images of the Virgin Mary, or Madonna. This eternally patient and loving figure took many forms: from sweet and motherly to direct and accessible to the protector of the faithful.

[21] Wrapped in warm colors and soft light, this Madonna embodies the Catholic belief that Mary was born completely pure — conceived "immaculately." Art could convey that notion more powerfully than any high falutin' Church declaration.

[22] Baroque artists even helped the faithful experience the miraculous, depicting otherworldly visions in a believable, down-to-earth way — illustrating the intense religious devotion of the age.

[23,  Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges] By the way, you'll notice that European art through the ages is clearly dominated by Christian themes. That's because, back then, life was permeated with religious concerns. But while the Bible stories stayed the same, the art that told them changed through the centuries.

[24, three Annunciations, Fra Angelico (1450), Leonardo (1476), and Rubens (1609)] Take for example the Annunciation — this earlier Gothic style depiction communicates more with symbols while this later Renaissance version is more realistic. And Baroque artists…they'd make their points with more drama and emotion.

[25, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna] The art and architecture of this age was also used as a powerful political tool. The kings and queens of the day claimed they were ordained by God to rule without question. These so-called "divine monarchs" used art as propaganda — to convince their subjects that their authority was legit.

[26, Prince-Bishop's Residenz, Würzburg] This magnificent German palace in Würzburg was home to the so-called "prince-bishop." He was a ruler with both secular and religious power. It was built in the Baroque style and decorated in the even frillier Rococo style that followed. As VIP guests arrived, they'd glide gracefully up the stairway, inspired by a grand fresco as it opened up overhead.

[27, Fresco of Four Continents, Tiepolo, Würzburg] The prince-bishop was the center of the cosmos, honored by the Greek gods, and ruler of the four great continents…including a bare-chested figure of America…seated on an alligator…at a rowdy cannibal barbecue. And Lady Europe points her brush to the center of all culture…the capital of his realm…Würzburg.

[28] Palaces of this age feature grandiose architecture with decoration that abhors a straight line and is full of motion. Artists used mirrors and lavish gilding to enliven interiors. They were masters of three-dimensional illusion, using all the tricks from painting mathematically correct architecture to fake shadows — all to give a believable sense of 3D reality.

[29] Again, art of this period was pure marketing, paid for and serving either the Church or the State, or — in the prince-bishop's case — both. Here, the bishop is being empowered by the imperial scepter, reminding all that he was part of a divinely ordained and secular chain of command.

[30] In Vienna, the powerful Habsburg family — rulers of a vast empire — also impressed the masses with their imposing palaces…while reinforcing their alliance with the Catholic faith with magnificent churches.

[31] St. Charles Church is classic Baroque: grand columns, stately pediment, and an elliptical dome. Ascending into the clouds with cupids and angels, you notice a trick the artist employed: he warped the perspective, understanding that his images would be seen not from straight on but from far below and at an angle.

[32, St. Charles Church, Vienna, with scaffolding to let visitors see dome up close] As always, the art had a purpose: teaching…or advertising — depending on your perspective. Here, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Catholic priests triumph and inspire — while Protestants and their trouble-making books are trashed. At the very top is the dove of the Holy Spirit, surrounded by a cheering squad of sweet-lipped cupids…a grand Baroque vision of how all was right with the world thanks to their enthusiastically Catholic rulers.

[33, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] Big, colorful, and melodramatic, Baroque art was also well-suited to the luxury-loving tastes of aristocrats. Though they were devoted Christians, they also considered themselves enlightened and celebrated the classical — or pre-Christian — world of ancient Greece and Rome.

[34] So, besides religious themes, they enjoyed secular scenes…like epic tales of classical mythology. Baroque art could be surprisingly risqué. There's lots of flesh, violence and rippling motion, intense passion, lots of trauma, and — a sure sign of Baroque — pudgy winged babies.

[35, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1598–1680, self-portrait; Four Rivers fountain on Piazza Navona, Rome] A great pioneer of Baroque was the dynamic Italian named Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Known as the "Michelangelo of Baroque," Bernini could do it all: he was a great sculptor…a painterand a ground-breaking architect — he designed St. Peter's Square.

[36, Ecstasy of St. Theresa, 1652, Bernini, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome] Embracing the theatrical nature of Baroque art, Bernini turned this chapel into a theater. In fact, members of the family who paid for the art got to look on from the VIP box. Using all his artistic tools and 3-D tricks, Bernini invigorates reality with emotion. Center stage, an angel pierces St. Teresa's heart with a heavenly arrow. As the saint famously described her ecstasy: "The pain was so sharp that I cried aloud. But so delightful that I wished it would last forever."

[37, Villa Borghese, Rome] At this elegant Roman mansion, Bernini sculpted several masterpieces for his patron, a wealthy cardinal who invested in great art meant to decorate these very rooms.

[38] Bernini, employing both genius and chisel, masterfully brought marble to life. His Rape of Persephone packs a dramatic punch. Persephone's entire body seems to scream for help as evil Pluto drags his catch into the underworld. His three-headed dog howls triumphantly.

[39, Apollo and Daphne, 1625, Bernini, Borghese Gallery, Rome] Bernini's Apollo and Daphne is quintessential Baroque in how it captures a dramatic moment: Apollo — happily wounded by Cupid's arrow — chases Daphne who's saved by turning into a tree. Bernini captures the instant when, just as Apollo's about to catch Daphne, her fingers turn to leaves, her toes sprout roots…and Apollo is in for one rude surprise. The statue — as much air as stone — makes a supernatural event seem real. This pre-Christian scene — while plenty fleshy — comes with a church-pleasing moral: chasing earthly pleasures leads only to pain and frustration.

[40, David, 1623, Bernini, Borghese Gallery, Rome] By the way, to appreciate the boldness of Bernini's Baroque style, compare his version of David with Michelangelo's Renaissance David from a century earlier. Michelangelo's is poised, balanced, and thoughtful — perfect for the cerebral Renaissance era. Bernini's, on the other hand, is a Baroque action figure — his whole body wound like a spring as he prepares to slay the giant — showing the energy of the age. Bernini was a brash young man of twenty-five when he sculpted this — and the determined face of David is his own.

[41] Bernini inspired a generation of artists whose work is found throughout Rome. In fact, the city of Rome itself is like a Baroque work of art.

[42] Its great churches sport façades with trend-setting Baroque elements: classical columns on a gargantuan scale, showy pediments and arches, and straight lines broken by dips, curls, and decorative medallions.

[43] Interiors, of course, are also decorated to the hilt in the Baroque style. You hardly know where to look. Every inch is slathered with ornamentation — oh-wow spiral columns framing scenes that almost jump to life, cupids doing flip flops, explosive gilded starbursts, and ceilings opening up into the heavens…it's all glorious Baroque.

[44] By the way, here's a tip: for years I saw these lavish Baroque churches through the eyes of an earnest Protestant. But then I learned to check my Lutheran bias at the door and try to see it as a Catholic would…much more enjoyable. Baroque is best appreciated when you put yourself in a 17th-century mindset. In fact, by experiencing the art of any period on its terms in the context of its age, it becomes easier to appreciate.

[45, Fountain of the Turtles, Rome; Church of St. Agnes, Borromini, Piazza Navona, Rome] The exuberance of the Baroque age even spills out into the streets. Piazza Navona, a festival of Roman life, is dominated by this curvaceous façade. Its playful oval domes overlook a fountain by…you guessed it: Bernini. Fountains — so full of energy and effectively harnessing nature — were a favorite with Baroque artists.

[46, Trevi Fountain, 1762, Rome] Nearby, the famed Trevi Fountain is a bubbly Baroque avalanche that seems purpose-built for today's Roman embrace of life. Immersed in history, art, and partying under the stars, people toss a coin over their shoulder to assure their return to this Eternal City. That may sound silly, but with every visit I go through the ritual…and it works!

[47] Also in Rome around the year 1600, a rebellious young artist named Caravaggio was inspiring a new generation of artists with his stark realism. He lived hard and spent much of his life running from the law.

[48, Caravaggio, 1571–1610] While he died young, Caravaggio was hugely influential. With stark lighting, Caravaggio created a film-noir world of harsh glare and deep shadows, throwing an unflattering light on his subjects. Even his sacred scenes looked like rugged Roman street life, with a gritty realism — saints with bald wrinkled foreheads, tattered coats, dirty feet, ordinary, plain-Jane Madonnas — and a restless energy.

[49, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, Caravaggio, Kusthistorisches Museum, Vienna] Caravaggio's David slaying the giant is no noble Renaissance hero but a sassy teenager. The lighting is stark and dramatic…and the details are gruesome. David literally shoves the harsh reality in our face…and Goliath's head? It's none other than Caravaggio himself.

[50] In the same generation, farther north, here in Belgium, the most prolific and influential Baroque painter was Peter Paul Rubens. A favorite of Europe's wealthy, Rubens painted extravagant scenes with a dynamism that has come to define the Baroque style.

[51, Peter Paul Rubens, 1577–1640] Well-traveled, cultured, and confident, Rubens exemplified the exuberance of the age. Running his studio like a factory, he cranked out a steady stream of high-energy canvases.

[52] He'd start with a rough sketch and he'd give that to his assistants in his studio and they would paint the massive canvas. When it was just about done, Rubens would come back in and give it what they called "the fury of the brush" — a little twinkle in the eye…a little glimmer here… a little light there. When he was satisfied, another Rubens masterpiece was shipped off to his wealthy patrons.

[53] Rubens painted anything that would raise your pulse: battles, miracles, hunts and especially, fleshy "Rubenesque" women with rosy cheeks and dimples. Expert at composition, Rubens could arrange a teeming tangle of many figures into a harmonious ensemble.

[54, Diana and her Nymphs Surprised by Satyrs, 1640, Rubens,  Prado Museum, Madrid] In this Greek myth, when lecherous half-human satyrs crash a party of nymphs, the action unfolds as satyrs chase and women flee…it's a horrible crescendo of violence…a cresting wave of flailing limbs and chaotic figures that threatens to crash over the poor nymphs…until the fierce goddess Diana (the huntress) plants her feet and makes a brave stand to save the day.

[55, The Three Graces, 1639, Rubens, Prado Museum, Madrid] In his Baroque take on this classical theme, Rubens amps up the traditional Three Graces to plus-size splendor. Amid a flowery garden, he skillfully captures their glowing skin and rippling curves. With graceful limbs, the women intertwine, creating a rhythmic line, echoed by the meaningful glances they exchange. One Grace is none other than Rubens' own wife, whose sweet face appears in many of his canvases.

[56, The Adoration of the Magi, 1634, Rubens, Kings College Chapel, Cambridge] Rubens was equally adept at religious scenes. When the Magi visited the Christ child, all the adoring gazes — the Wise Men up one way…the angels down the other…are directed to the focus of the scene: a radiant baby Jesus.

[57, Feast of the Bean King, 1645, Jordaens, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] Baroque artists certainly knew how to satisfy their patrons. Whether powering the Church's message both in grand waysor intimate ways…making ancient myths and legends come to life…inflating the egos of the powerful…or just capturing a wild and crazy party, for Baroque artists, life was always filled with drama…

[58, Rick played Invention No. 8 by Bach and Sonata in D Major (K96, Longo 465) by Scarlatti] By the way, the music of this period — Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, they all lived at the same time — is like Bernini for your ears. We've been talking about the visual arts. But I like to remember that all the arts — and that includes music — are in sync. They hold hands as they walk through the ages. In terms of Baroque music, you're likely to hear two melodies dancing together like this Bach invention…[music] And another feature of Baroque is ornamentation. And in music that means trills. Check out this Scarlatti…[music] Boy, if you're gonna play Baroque music…it's good to have ruffles on your sleeves.

[59] The Baroque style dominated much of Europe throughout this age. Whether it was found in the highly ornamented music of the day — its grandiose churches…over-the-top palaces…dramatic statues…or bubbling fountains — Baroque art was designed to have an emotional impact…and it still does.

[60, Bruges] While southern Europe favored traditional Catholic rule and the theatrical Baroque style, the Protestant countries of the North, while still a part of the Baroque age, were forging a different path. Without the lavish patronage of popes and nobles, Protestant art was more secular…reflecting the values of a new market: the no-nonsense merchants who paid for it.

[61] Painters captured an industrious spirit. Northern cities were bustling…with hard-working craftsmen and businessmen, while sea traders headed off to distant lands.

[62] And, along with seascapes, idyllic landscapes of fertile fields — often land reclaimed from the sea using ingenious windmills — celebrated Dutch industriousness. And in the flat Netherlands, a landscape was also a dramatic skyscape.

[63, Grote Kerk, 1674, Berckheyde, Haarlem] The lively market town of Haarlem, near Amsterdam, looks much like it did when it was painted back in Holland's 17th century Golden Age…an age captured vividly on canvas.

[64, The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia Company, 1616, Frans Hals] Its most famous son, Frans Hals, made a nice living painting portraits of a new kind of customer… merchants. He produced ego-boosting portraits of city big shots…the citizens who epitomized the independent and upwardly mobile Dutch of the time. Like these businessmen — closing a deal — they worked hard and were proud of it.

[65] In this woman's portrait, her elegant dress and jewelry are painted with as much care as her face…confidently affirming the materialistic values of the people who made the Golden Age golden.

[66] Amsterdam — a city practically built on water — was one of the busiest seaports in the world. Wealth poured in from overseas, fueling a booming society…and its art.

[67, various still life paintings by Pieter Claesz] The Dutch enjoyed showing off the fruits of their labor in exquisitely detailed still lifes of good food. No preachy church art or Greek myths here, but a canvas reminder that this household ate very well. And this family boasted some fine pewter ware Paintings were intimate, with muted colors and less drama. Virgin Marys and Apollos were out — cheese was in.

[68, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] Perhaps for the first time, art catered to the tastes and budgets of middle-class people, too. Smaller canvases by no-name artists that a regular merchant could afford and hang in his living room.

[69, Jan Steen, 1626–1679; The Topsy-Turvy World, 1663, Steen, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] Jan Steen offered a delightful slice of 17th-century Dutch life. Entertaining, sure…but Steen loved to slip in a dose of folk morality. Here, children teach a cat to dance — mischief on their delighted faces — but their father's upset that they're wasting time.

[70, Merry Family, 1668, Steen, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] And these parents party while the kids copy their irresponsible behavior: the girls learn to drink and the little boy picks up smoking. The note warns, "Parents beware: your children are learning from your bad behavior."

[71, Johannes Vermeer, 1632–1675; Kitchen Maid, c. 1658, Vermeer, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] Here, Johannes Vermeer, the master of tranquility and stillness, shows an intimate street from his hometown of Delft. In his quiet painting of a humble milkmaid, Vermeer creates a scene where we can almost hear the trickle of the pouring milk…capturing the beauty of everyday things.

[72, The Art of Painting (aka Allegory of Painting), 1668, Vermeer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] And here, Vermeer draws the curtain to reveal the artist at work. The floor tiles lead the viewer in to where he's painting a model. The studio is a small world unto itself, filled with beautiful and symbolic details: the map of Holland celebrating its trading power…the golden chandelier — a mark of new wealth…his fine clothing…. Everything is crystal-clear, lit by a soft cool light. The model's caught in a candid pose…while the artist — his back to his audience — is just another hard-working Dutchman plying his craft. 

[73, Rembrandt, 1606–1669] The great Dutch painter, Rembrandt — this is him at age 22 — started out earning a living by painting portraits.

[74, De Staalmeesters (aka "The Dutch Masters"), 1662, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] He brought a relaxed naturalism to the standard group portrait. These businessmen, wearing the power suit of the day, gather to look over the books. Though every face is portrait-perfect, the scene doesn't look posed. It's as if someone just walked in and grabbed their attention — and Rembrandt captures them, candid as a snapshot.

[75, The Night Watch, 1642, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] With The Night Watch, Rembrandt took the group portrait to a whole new level. He portrayed the local bigwigs — a kind of 17th-century National Guard/Rotary Club. But rather than the standard stiff soccer team pose, this canvas bursts with energy. The men tumble out of their hall, weapons drawn, ready to defend their city. Rembrandt added theatrical drama with his distinctive use of light: lots of dark moody shadows contrasted with a bright spotlight that directs your eye to the main characters.

[76, Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, 1634, Rembrandt, Prado Museum, Madrid] Rembrandt could tell the Old Testament story of Judith beheading an enemy general, not with the gory decapitation, but with a few psychologically suspenseful details: the heroine's intelligent face as she plots her plan…her sumptuous clothes to seduce the villain…the wine, to get him drunk…her accomplice like a distant thought…and her maid, who holds the goblet with the bag that will carry the severed head. By letting the viewer connect the dots, Rembrandt delivers a powerful psychological punch.

[77, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] Here's another example of the master's subtle brilliance. Only Rembrandt could show the burning of Jerusalem not with the predictable flames but by throwing his light of truth on the worried brow of Jeremiah, the man who predicted it.

[78] Rembrandt became rich and famous. But as the years passed, his beloved wife died, he went bankrupt, and his life darkened. But all that heartache only added deeper wisdom to his work.

[79, The Jewish Bride, 1669, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] Rembrandt drew from the well of his own life experience for his portraits. This couple is clearly in love — a deep, quiet love. The man gently draws the woman close, while she reaches up to return his touch. Using thick paint, Rembrandt adds character to their faces and a rich texture to their elaborate clothing. The couple forms a powerful pyramid of love, with their touching hands at the center.

[80] Rembrandt's greatest subject was himself. His self-portraits are made with ever-thicker layers of paint, piled on like the hard experiences of life. They show the determination of a stubborn independent artist…a proud man surveying the wreckage of his life…a man who's lived through the ups and downs of the Golden Age and woven those experiences together to create great art.

[81, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris] As Europe's nations grew bigger, many centralized around an old reliable institution — the monarchy. This was the era of Europe's great kings and queens. They claimed their authority came directly from God — by "divine right" — and that their power was "absolute."

[82, Prince Balthasar Carlos on Horseback, 1635, Velàzquez, Prado Museum, Madrid] Through the ages, portraits had been one of the ways royals showed off their power and their divine right to rule. They hired Europe's best artists to paint them in all their glory from the powerful Renaissance royals and rulers of France… Spain…Venice…to England. Baroque artists captured the over-the-top style of the age. By then, Europe was ruled by a handful of powerful families who used such portraits to stay in touch and, like Baroque dating apps, to arrange marriages. And court painters pulled out all the stops: from making young princes look impossibly good on a horse to making a mere mortal look as divine as can be.

[83, Diego Velázquez, 1599–1660] Diego Velázquez was one of the greatest portrait artists. A virtual court photographer, he was the Spanish master of realism. As well as standard portraits of the Spanish king and queen, Velázquez loved to keep it real with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the rest of the court — their cute kids…even the court jester.

[84, Las Meninas, 1656, Velázquez] In this masterpiece, the artist paints himself at work on a portrait as a princess and her servants look on. The unique perspective — notice how they're all looking out — is ambiguous. Perhaps they're looking toward the king and queen as they pose — who'd be standing right where we are as viewers. The royal couple can actually be seen reflected in the mirror at the back of the room. With his mastery of realism, Velázquez created a wonderfully 3-D world where Spain's royal court comes to life — as if you could step right through the canvas and into their lives.

[85] Beyond royal portraits, Velázquez gave life to everything he touched: dramatic bible stories…astonishingly realistic classical scenes...graceful nudes…and great moments in history…all infused with his affinity for the common man.

[86, The Triumph of Bacchus, 1629, Velázquez, Prado Museum, Madrid] With his mastery of unvarnished realism, he could turn a Greek myth into a candid group-selfie in a blue-collar bar. Bacchus, the god of wine, joins a bunch of tipsy Spanish peasants. The radiant god sits on the left, gritty peasants to the right, and uniting the two halves is the kneeling man being crowned by the ultimate hedonist. The center of the composition? The cup of wine, of course.

[87, Palaces: Schönbrunn in Vienna; Royal Palace in Madrid; Drottningholm Palace in Stockholm; Fountainebleau outside of Paris] In the Baroque era, Europe's royals ruled in splendor. Across the continent they built sprawling palaces: from Austria…and Spain…to Sweden and France.

[88, Vaux-le-Vicomte château, 1661, outside Paris] France — for centuries, the richest country in Europe — is strewn with lavish palaces, châteaux, and mansions. After all, until its Revolution, its society was the epitome of that Old Regime notion that some are born to rule and the rest of us…well, just deal with it.

[89] France's capital, Paris, glitters with royal parks…gilded bridges…and, of course, once the biggest palace of all: the Louvre.

[90] And, when those kings and nobles wanted to get out of Paris for some hunting or perhaps an intimate rendezvous, they escaped to their favorite playground: the Loire Valley. Here, they built their get-aways with ever-greater opulence — pleasure palaces like the grandiose Chambord, with over 400 rooms and nearly as many chimneys…the dreamy Azay-le-Rideau which seems fit for a fairy tale…and the romantic Chenonceau — loping gracefully over its river.

[91] Of all the divine-right kings, one was the greatest. And, of all the palaces, one was the grandest. By the 1700s, France was Europe's richest and most populous country…home to Europe's most spectacular palace.

[92, Louis XIV, 1701, Rigaud, Louvre Museum, Paris] And that palace was Versailles, the palace other palaces were modeled after, the one many tried to outdo — but none succeeded. And the palace — a potent mix of art and architecture — is all about this man: the ultimate divine monarch, Louis XIV.

[93] It's said that Louis spent half of France's entire annual GNP to turn his dad's hunting lodge into a palace suitable for Europe's king of kings. It's essentially a long series of lavish rooms, each with its own theme. Louis — portrayed with his capable hand on the rudder of state — was creating Europe's first modern, centralized government.

[94] Throughout Europe, when you said, "the king," you were referring to the French king — Louis XIV. He was symbolized by Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. Here the artist shows Louis with his entire family — all depicted as gods on earth — clearly divinely ordained to rule the masses without question.

[95] Art celebrated how pleasure ruled at Versailles. The main suppers, balls, and receptions were held in this room. The ceiling is like a sunroof opening up to Heaven, filled with action parallel to the action right here in Louis' court. The style is delightfully Baroque — a riot of exuberant figures.

[96] The Venus Room reminded everyone that love ruled at Versailles. Here, couples would cavort, blessed from above by the goddess of love. And, as if to encourage the fun, Venus sends down a flowery garland to ensnare others in delicious amour.

[97] The Hall of Mirrors was the highlight of the palace. No one had ever seen anything like it. Mirrors were a great luxury at the time, and this exquisite ballroom was astounding.

[98] Imagine the scene: lit by countless of candles, filled with elegant guests in fine silks dancing to the orchestra. Under gilded candelabra, servants would glide by with lavish hors d'oeuvres. And whenever you'd look up, you'd see your king doing what he did best…triumphing.

[99] One more way that Louis proved he could rule like a god was by controlling nature. These lavish grounds — elaborately planned, ornamented, and Baroque as can be — showed everyone that their king was in total command.

[100] Only the Sun King could grow orange trees here in chilly northern France. And Louis XIV… he had a thousand.

[101] Fountains were a huge attraction, a marvel of both art and engineering.

[102, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna] By the mid-1700s, Baroque had morphed into a style called "Rococo." If Baroque was controlled exuberance, Rococo was uncontrolled exuberance. As if the divine monarchs and aristocrats needed ever-more over-the-top art to flaunt their privileged status, their art became even fancier — ultimately with the focus more on the decoration than on the subject itself.

[103] Baroque's curved lines became Rococo's even curvier lines. Circles became ovals. Everything glowed with gilding and plenty of mirrors. Rococo was like Baroque that got shrunk in the wash: lighter, frillier, and more delicate.

[104, mostly Würzburg Residenz, Franconia, Germany] In the decor of this royal palace you can see how Rococo is even fancier than fancy Baroque: rooms slathered with enormous wealth, kilos of gold leaf, lots of exotic Asian influence, and eye-popping extravagance.

[105, paintings by Fragonard, Bouchard, and others] The Rococo style was perfect for the new generation of rosy-cheeked aristocrats embracing their carefree lives of leisure as never beforefrolicking amid nature…and indulging in every sensual pleasure. The lives of these elites were much like their art: decoration over substance. Across Europe, aristocrats played in their palaces and picnicked in their bucolic backyards: pleasure gardens that stretched to the horizon…as if their divine-right world would go on forever.

[106, Pantheon, 1790, Paris] Rococo art was a symptom of an excessive decadence among Europe's increasingly out-of-touch elites. But the world was changing. There was a growing belief that science and reason could lead to progress. This led to a new and ultimately revolutionary age, the Age of Enlightenment.

[107] Science was booming as new frontiers — from gravity and electricity to the solar system — were explored. New technology was practically an art form in itself, with jeweled microscopes, intricate time pieces, and finely crafted telescopes. People were fascinated by the wonders of the natural world. And philosophers even floated the radical idea that ordinary people could rule themselves — planting the seeds of modern democracy.

[108, Madame de Pompadour, 1756, Boucher, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] As the 1700s progressed, the aristocracy was going one way, but the rest of society was headed another.

[109] This reaction to the excess of the age led to an enlightened style of art which stripped out the Baroque drama and Rococo frills. As in the Renaissance, it looked back to classical times for inspiration — to ancient Greece and Rome. And because it was a new version, it was called "Neo-classical."

[110, Pantheon, Paris] Architects revived the style of classical temples. Using columns, triangular pediments, and soaring domes, these buildings — with their clean, straight lines — looked ancient but were actually modern, built in the 17 and 1800s. They were Neoclassical.

[111, The Death of Socrates, 1787, David, Louvre Museum, Paris; Oath of the Horatii, 1784, David] Painters celebrated ancient scenes with clear-eyed realism and sharply drawn lines. Greek, Roman, sober and intellectual themes — it's pure Neoclassicism.

[112, Madame Récamier, David, 1800, Louvre Museum, Paris] They painted portraits of contemporary Europeans in classic colors and ancient garb. This young Parisian socialite — reclining on a Roman couch, with a Greek tunic and a Pompeii hairdo — perfectly in vogue.

[113, Pauline Bonaparte as Venus, 1808, Canova, Borghese Gallery, Rome] In sculpture, subjects — like Napoleon's sister for example — were featured pure and calm as Greek gods, with smooth clean lines carved from the same white marble as the ancients.

[114, Cupid and Psyche, 1793, Canova, Louvre, Paris] Greek myths now came without all the Baroque drama. This Cupid flutters down to awaken his lover with a kiss. As their arms intertwine, they form a perfect circle — a circle of love — focusing all the attention on the center of the composition: the charged atmosphere between their anxious lips.

[115C] Soon, this classical style could be found all over Europe — with Greek and Roman inspired façades, stately columns, and logical, grid-planned streets.

[116] Much of London was remade in this style — from palaces to churches to museums. While on the Continent, the art of this period was called Neoclassical, England named the style after its king: "Georgian."

[117] St. Paul's church — though begun earlier — paved the way for the return of classical forms. Its architect was a man of the Enlightenment, a mathematician named Christopher Wren. Its entrance looks like a classical temple. Inside, the décor is minimal: unadorned ceiling…and clear glass, lighting everything as if with the clear-eyed reason of the age.

[118] The church was capped with a soaring dome. A dome-within-a-dome…it was a masterpiece of Enlightenment-era engineering. Christopher Wren spent half his life working on St. Paul's, and at 75, he got to see his son crown his masterpiece with a golden cross.

[119, The Circus and the Royal Crescent, Bath, England] The Neoclassical, or Georgian, style spread across Britain. Towns like Bath enjoyed a Neoclassical make-over. This circular square feels like an ancient coliseum turned inside out, complete with classical columns — Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Nearby, its Royal Crescent, the first Georgian "condos," came with a broad promenade perfect for strutting your high society stuff. With its elegant symmetry and classical ornamentation, progressive residents of Georgian England got to stroll as if the vanguard of an enlightened new age.

[120, Senate Square, Helsinki] And, the Neoclassical style spread to Europe's far north. In Helsinki, in the early 1800s, an entire ensemble of buildings — political, religious, and commercial — was designed in this new artistic style.

[121, Lutheran Cathedral, Helsinki] The cathedral, with its stately dome and statues of twelve apostles, overlooks the city. With that striking centerpiece, this is perhaps the finest and most cohesive Neoclassical square in Europe.

[122, Copenhagen Cathedral, statues by Thorvaldsen, 1834] In Copenhagen, the façade of its cathedral mimics a Greek temple. And John the Baptist stands where you'd expect to see some pagan god. He welcomes worshippers into a world of Neoclassical serenity. With statues of the apostles leading to the altar, the art complements the relative simplicity of Protestant worship. 

[123] With its clean, cool lines and focus on reason, Neoclassicism was more than a period of art — it represented a whole new way of thinking. It stood for Enlightenment, science, progress, and…the future.

[124] While Enlightened thinkers and artists were forging the future, Europe's political order remained dangerously stuck in the past. Kings and nobles clung stubbornly to their power. The world was changing, but the conservative elites were not…in fact, they were digging in. Common people were demanding a voice, and revolution was in the air.

[125] Meanwhile, back at the heart of the Old Regime — Versailles — the royals ignored cries for change. The queen, Marie Antoinette, retreated ever deeper into her fanciful gardens…to this petite peasant hamlet — a charming farm with a dairy, a water mill, and domesticated animals…a fairytale escape of carefree country pleasures.

[126] In spite of rising tensions, artists still captured nobles at play. The queen lived in her wealthy bubble while, all around her, the long-suffering peasants struggled and starved.

[127, The French Revolution, 1789] Finally, in 1789, the common citizens of France rose up and attacked. They over-threw the king and queen and marched them to the guillotine. As the crowd gathered, one managed the blade, one caught the blood, and one raised the head of Marie Antoinette. Vive la révolution!

[128, Oath of the Tennis Court, 1791, David, Louvre Museum, Paris] As the Revolution raged, the fast-moving events were chronicled by artists — effectively the journalists of the day — in the politically correct style for the age…Neoclassical.

[129, Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825] The leading painter, Jacques-Louis David, was a Revolutionary himself. Celebrating patriotism and self-sacrifice, he compared his follow patriots to heroes of antiquity. He painted the Revolution's turning points. When his friend and Revolutionary leader was assassinated — knifed while taking a bath — David portrayed him as a tragic martyr to the cause.

[130] Soon, the reins of the runaway Revolution were in the capable hands of a charismatic young soldier — a leader who kept his eyes on the horizon and a hand in his coat — Napoleon Bonaparte. 

[131, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800, David, Louvre Museum, Paris] As Napoleon rose to power, artists idealized him like a Roman conqueror, as he led France's Revolutionary army across Europe, toppling royal families and instituting reforms.

[132, Coronation of Napoleon, 1807, David] At the peak of his power, Napoleon staged a ceremony to be crowned not king but "Emperor" of a New Rome. This canvas by David, the biggest in the Louvre, is a fine example of how the victor gets to tell the story the way he wants it told. Napoleon's mother was painted in a prime spot — even though she wasn't there at all. The pope himself traveled from Rome to Paris to crown Napoleon. But Napoleon took charge — crowning his wife Josephine, and himself. The pope was painted looking a little neglected. And Napoleon was now the most powerful man in all of Europe.

[133, Fontainebleau, outside Paris] Ironically, Napoleon — the man who'd fought the Old Regime — now moved into the same lavish mansion that housed its kings. He enjoyed the same sweeping staircases, opulent Baroque ballroom, and giddy apartments. The revolutionary hero that once battled pampered tyrants had become one himself.

[134, Napoleon's Tomb, 1861, Les Invalides, Paris] Ultimately, Napoleon's megalomania got the best of him. All of Europe ganged up on France, defeated Napoleon and, again, great art and architecture told the story. Napoleon was later buried in a grand tomb surrounded by art that, to this day, glorifies his reign.

[135, Arc de Triomphe, 1836, Paris] Though the Revolution was eventually over, the revolutionary spirit lived on — celebrated with triumphal arches, stirring reliefs, and heroic statues. Europe had been changed forever, pointing society toward an unknown but exciting future.

[136B, Pantheon, Paris] The art and architecture of this period represents Europe's joys, struggles, and growing pains in its long march forward. Europe was entering the Modern Age, and with that comes lots more exciting art. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves, celebrating the art of Europe.