Understanding the Rococo Style

Any historiography of architecture is inherently implicated and incomplete by definition: implicated because it demonstrates the interpretation and curation of examples by the one who writes it, and incomplete because, in this selection, divergent examples often fall outside the "official" timeline. However, the ability to trace forms, their application, and repetition over historical periods separated by centuries is always a good indication of genealogy. This lineage situates examples and broadens repertoire.

A historiography of architecture can bridge past-century elements and movements considered 'outdated' with contemporary forms and applications, establishing a nexus of relationships that offer conceptual and design insights. By categorizing specific styles, notable features are emphasized, often resonating with present-day scenarios as suggested by bibliographical sources, which holds even for seemingly distant connections, as exemplified by the Rococo.

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The position of Rococo in the historiography of art and architecture itself is not a consensus: it can be understood as a variation of the Baroque or as a movement and style in its own right, emerging in response to the former. Like the Baroque, Rococo is also not universal. General motifs may be categorized, but the region in which it is situated, the particular social context of that region, and the year of construction substantially alter the application of these motifs. All of this makes consensus more challenging and the examples richer - which, ultimately, is a quality of the movement.

If classifications based on dates and functions present few problems, those based on style, on the contrary, suffer from the significant drawback of the diverse meanings that can be attributed to stylistic terms by different historians, in varying eras and countries. [...] It must be acknowledged from the outset that, while useful and even indispensable, stylistic terms are to some extent subjective, demanding greater precision. Debates over categorizing a building as belonging to the Counter-Reformation, Early Baroque, or Mannerist style simply underscore differing interpretations of these terms. [1]

With due consideration in mind, one can enumerate the main characteristics of Rococo and trace the context that allowed for its manifestation. It emerged in the mid-18th century in France. The name derives from the word rocaille, a type of ornamentation featuring shells and rocks, loosely translated as 'rockery' or a glass bead used in necklaces and rosaries. In a way, it represents ornamentation in favor of pure and simple beauty.

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The Triumph of Venus (François Boucher)

Of course, signs (and names) carry meanings and concepts, and Rococo is not merely a matter of ornamentation. If one of the objectives of the Baroque was to reinforce the power of the Catholic Church, Rococo marked the ascent of the aristocracy to power, distancing itself from the religious context. This shift indicates a transition from sacred themes to more 'frivolous' ones: genre scenes, gallant parties, softer and more sensual paintings.

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Hôtel Soubise (Pierre-Alexis Delamair, interiors: Germain Boffrand, Paris, France) © Guilhem Vellut via Wikimedia Commons

If the main emphasis moves away from the dramatic and exaggerated themes associated with salvation, the way ornaments are treated changes. Both Baroque and Rococo styles use dynamism in forms, movement, and opulence, but Rococo tones down the colors and depicted figures. Gestures become more gentle, and ostentation in furniture and decorative objects becomes prominent. While Rococo still displays extreme opulence like the Baroque, it lacks divine symbolism. It is as if beauty is embraced as earthly. Therefore, it is not entirely surprising that Neoclassicism and Enlightenment emerged as subsequent movements.

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Amalienburg (François de Cuvilliés, interiors: Johann Baptist Zimmermann and Joachim Dietrich, Munich, Germany) © Flocci Nivis via Wikimedia Commons

The period also emphasizes highly elaborate interiors. Paintings that mimic marble, ornate decorations, sinuous curves, soft and light colors, and abundant lighting through floor-to-ceiling openings (known as French windows). While the Baroque still relied on a classical base upon which dynamic motifs were drawn, the Rococo moved away from canonical proportions to express pure asymmetry and movement. Additionally, the scale significantly diminishes - after all, it is no longer about representing Paradise - which does not imply small buildings, as it still caters to the European elite.

The wide-ranging nature of the Rococo style does not contribute to its coherence. While its language spread through engravings, it had little influence in England, Spain, or Italy. In contrast, northern Portugal and Germany adopted its characteristics within their local contexts, often associated with the Baroque, particularly in religious contexts. This partly explains why Rococo can be seen as a derivation of the Baroque, where religious themes and lavish ornamentation predominate in soft or pastel tones. Considering the period in which the style flourished and its transmission and influence, it is understandable that Rococo arrived strongly linked to the Baroque in the Americas.

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Church of São Francisco de Assis (Antônio Francisco Lisbon, Ouro Preto - MG) © Marina Ventura via Wikimedia Commons

Baroque was prevalent in Brazil in the 18th century, while French Rococo was already in vogue. For this reason, the works of Antônio Francisco Lisboa (Aleijadinho) are often interpreted as Baroque-Rococo. It is worth noting that the primacy and originality of this builder were so significant that historian John Bury argues for a distinct style dedicated to him, the Aleijadinho Style. This type of assertion underscores the plurality of the style and its numerous interpretations according to its authors, entirely subject to their contexts and interests.

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Detail of the pulpit of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição dos Militares (Antônio Fernandes de Matos, Recife - PE) © Bernardo Teshima via Wikimedia Commons

Whether seen as a variation of Baroque or an autonomous style, Rococo yields to the Neoclassical ideals of classical harmony, symmetry, and solemnity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its joyful and "unrestrained" dynamism becomes discredited as mere caprice and purely decorative, lacking "great underlying values." Despite its short-lived nature, with its rise and fall occurring within a single century, Rococo is evidence of the evolving values of the elite in power. Thanks to this shift, commissioned works ceased to come primarily from the Church, which certainly contributed to a greater exploration of techniques, languages, and themes.

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Interior of the Wieskirche (J. B. and Dominikus Zimmermann) © Cmcmcm1 via Wikimedia Commons

Placing Rococo (and its context) within the historiography of architecture allows for cross-century relationships, albeit still in their infancy. For instance, is it possible to relate soft colors with the more contemporary trend of pastel tones? Could the more generous openings have somehow influenced the large modernist glass panels – no matter how much modernist architects deny it? Maximalist interiors evoke rococo more easily, but how can we not think about the intention of Art Nouveau’s “total work of art”? Architectural historiography enables intuitive connections that, while requiring research and study, remain a source of inspiration for any era. As Bury aptly stated, "Specific characteristics of buildings may receive different degrees of evaluation, depending on the critic analyzing them." [2]


  1. BURY, John. Terms describing architectural styles. In: BURY, John; DE OLIVEIRA, Myriam Andrade Ribeiro (Org.). Arquitetura e arte no Brasil colonial. Brasília: IPHAN / MONUMENTA, 2006, p. 207.
  2. Ibid., p. 207.

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Cite: Tourinho, Helena. "Understanding the Rococo Style" [Ornamento e beleza: entendendo o estilo Rococó] 20 Feb 2024. ArchDaily. (Trans. Simões, Diogo) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/1013322/understanding-the-rococo-style> ISSN 0719-8884

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