Transformation as Movement

A Roman Baroque Church Facade Case Study



Photo of Vytenis Gureckas

Vytenis Gureckas

The Catholic University of America



In 1888 the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin proposed the notion that the primary characteristic of baroque architecture is the illusion of movement. Captivating as this suggestion may be he was not very clear about how movement manifests itself. In the case of buildings utilizing curved forms such as San Carlo alla Quatro Fontane one might surmise that the sweeping lines suggest movement and the bulging exterior is a result of the pressure the oval space inside seems to exert on the facade. But how is movement to be understood in the case of so many baroque buildings that have no curved forms? In this formal analysis of a baroque facade it is asserted that the illusion of movement is achieved through various operations that can be described through a series of transformation diagrams from an initial condition of complete flatness to an end condition that accounts for the full depth of the facade. Using one of the first Baroque examples in Rome as a case study – the facade of Santa Susanna by Carlo Maderno – a set of transformation diagrams is presented here which imply movement in much the same way that consecutive still frames make up a motion picture (Fig. 4.1 – 4.6). This makes explicit what is implied when dynamic words such as ‘stepping’ is used to describe the massing or ‘multiplying’ is used to describe the elements of a facade.


Much of classical architecture involves pilasters, columns, entablatures, pediments, etc. that are integrated with the wall and are not structural. It is a type of ornament that represents a trabeated

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A full enumeration of the characteristics of Baroque architecture is a complex matter and beyond the scope of this paper. Since the focus here is on the illusion of movement

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The methodology employed here does not concern itself with the construction of the façade but rather involves the formal analysis of the front façade of Santa Susanna. The method used

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The first condition is simply a blank wall (Fig. 4.1). It can be designated as the zero datum surface relative to which the other layers of the façade are positioned

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Conclusion and Future Work

The illusion of movement in Baroque architecture is perceivable to the attune observer even without access to the transformation diagrams presented here. Layers that advance or recede imply movement and

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Rights and Permissions

Blunt, Anthony. Guide to Baroque Rome. Philadelphia: Harper & Row, 1982.

Portoghesi, Paolo. Roma Barocca: The History of an Architectonic Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970.

Wölfflin, Heinrich. Translated by Kathrin Simon. Renaissance and Baroque. New York: Cornell University Press, 1964.

Illustration Credits

Facade etching from Rossi, Giovanni Giacomo. Insignium Romae Templorum Prospectus. Roma: 1683.

All other images and diagrams by the author.