Baroque and The Three Musketeers

Monument Dumas (Paris)

Monument Dumas (Paris)

If you are a big fan of The Three Musketeers, whether through various movie adaptations or because you’ve read the works of Alexandre Dumas, then you’ve certainly remarked that unmistakable flair in costume and setting that comes with the novel’s particular genre. The Three Musketeers is an action and adventure story set during the reign of King Louis XIII and set in the middle of the French Period of Baroque art. In short, we revisit the seventeenth century as we dash around a pastoral French countryside sporting royal blue and fighting with crimson red. During this century, art took on a much more lively form, or a style, that brought about a kind of drama and opulence rarely seen in art before.

A good analogy would be to compare art before the Baroque period to a high school choir, and art during the Baroque period to going to your first operatic performance of Wagner in a grand theater. It’s big and it’s showy like a fantastic opera. The Baroque style of art was just beginning in Louis’ father’s final years, around the start of 1600. It’s useful to know that Louis’ father, Henry IV was a protestant in a Catholic country during the Protestant Reformation, and later converted to Catholicism in order to keep his state. The personal tale of a King and his future son threads into the larger story of a Catholic Church which had decreed during the Council of Trent that art should express religious themes with grandeur and more dramatic tension in order to evoke strong emotion. In other words, they wanted people to have the feels.

Parisian architecture was not exempt from this and there are entire books devoted to the subject of Henry IV’s architecture and urbanism before his more iconic son Louis XIII ever took the throne. If you are interested in the rise of Paris architecture during the period just before and at the dawn of the Baroque, a great reference is The Paris of Henri IV, Architecture and Urbanism by Hilary Ballon. This book sets the stage for Louis XIII and the more popular premise of The Three Musketeers, a tale that exemplifies the spirit of France when it was just becoming a nation for the first time.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

What would have compelled the aristocracy to adopt this style of art? It’s impressive! It showed a level of opulence that just oozed the words, ‘look what we can do.’ The main goal of any aristocrat is to keep power, and Baroque architecture was a great visual cue of that power for the commoner walking by a palace, plaza or monument. A good example of impressive Baroque architecture is a building set up to visually echo opulence, showing grand scale staircases, followed by immense and looming chambers, and followed again by courts that exude a sense of ultimate control. One might even feel that they are divinely blessed while standing among all the splendor.

This style of Baroque art was very appealing during Louis XIII’s reign even though later in the same century, Louis XIV began to diminish the opulence into something a little more stern and solemn. Dutch and Flemish schools of art were popular during the time of our Three Musketeers. We might almost imagine a debate between Porthos and Aramis over the sensuality of Rubens and the classical control and rationality of Poussin. And of course, everywhere you would find artists employed in the nationalistic duty of painting a portrait of none other than Cardinal Richelieu.

Often the cinematographers of the movie adaptations will return to the spirit of those Dutch and Flemish paintings when they depict the commoners in a Three Musketeers movie. They will often contrast this with the feeling of towering architecture when we enter the headquarters of the Musketeers or when we visit the palace or the rooms of the Cardinal. You’ll notice that no one has a simple sword; the hilts of a Musketeer sword are always either golden or ornate. In the narrative of The Three Musketeers, Porthos is revealed to have only half a belt of gold. And now that we’ve studied the Baroque period of art, we can see why having a small scandal revealed by d’Artagnan would be such a blow to the mighty character of Porthos. When one is wishing others to see them as opulent and powerful, one cannot afford to have someone peeking beneath their cloak to reveal it’s all just a facade. Given the context of the period in which they lived, it makes the moment in the story more humorous even in our day and age.

The next time you’re looking for literature on a rainy day, or when you happen across an old or new adaptation of The Three Musketeers, look for these signs of the Baroque Period that dot the landscape of your chosen pastime.