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Teaching the Global Baroque during the Pandemic: Backward Design as a Tool

Christa Irwin
Marywood University

On the first day of the spring 2020 semester, I asked students in my Global Baroque Art History class to reflect on terms, ideas, and artists that they associated with the word Baroque. Students shared names such as Caravaggio (1571–1610) and Artemisia Gentilleschi (1593–1656), and words like drama, emotion, gold; one particularly enthusiastic student called out chiaroscuro. In the weeks that followed, the class discussed whether those qualifiers were adequate to describe what we were seeing in the seventeenth century and most students began to question whether that style definition they had learned in their survey class really had any meaning. These discussions continued throughout the semester, even with the disruption that came in March, when my approach to conveying this important idea necessitated a teaching transformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced our class online as the world struggled to come to terms with devastating loss of life, serious illness, and economic repercussions. Experts also considered the long-term effects of the crisis on modern globalization. Over the spring and summer months, nations, states, and cities created barriers to keep people, and disease, out. In this context, issues of international interaction and dialogue during the seventeenth century seemed particularly timely in the midst of shut-downs and travel bans in our own time. The challenge would be what to cover and how. Given such atypical circumstances and the switch to online learning, I focused on two goals: to examine the global nature of art and culture during the seventeenth century, and to consider the idea that style and period terms are often anachronistically imposed and can be limiting and exclusive.

I designed this Baroque course as part of the consistent goal in my teaching and research to more completely consider the early modern period from a global perspective. My intent was to offer a survey of art produced and artists working in the seventeenth century, with a critical eye to the impacts of exploration and colonization. With such a broad topic at hand, the course included a combination of intensive case studies of individual artists, such as Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), as well as surveys of relevant themes and genres of art, including Counter-Reformation painting, Dutch landscape and still life, and colonial Latin American art. In March, when my university announced that all instruction would be moved online, my initial plan to offer a wide and sweeping, but also intensive and critical approach to the seventeenth century required some rethinking.

As I set out to revise and adapt the course schedule, I relied on the concept of backward course design to help motivate my decisions.1 The philosophy of backward design is that the instructor considers course-learning outcomes first, and second, chooses and organizes content around those outcomes. Streamlining content seems an impossible endeavor for an art historian, who has so much wonderful content at her fingertips. In the end, I found it to be a rewarding and successful approach, one which I have implemented in the past, but found particularly helpful in this situation, where focus and organization were paramount. I reviewed the learning outcomes and decided to focus on several important goals. Among those outlined in my syllabus were critical thinking, visual analysis, and synthesizing concepts; these skills remained important, but given the current conversations about global repercussions of the pandemic, international dialogue in the seventeenth century became the course’s most important focus. Accordingly, for this second half of the semester, much of our attention went to the Spanish colonies in Mexico and South America, where the impact of global travel is particularly evident. The situation necessitated that I eliminate some of the content I had planned, in order to make the workload manageable for my students, but with these goals in mind, the course became more focused and more successful.

For the final week of the course, we covered sacred architecture in colonial Latin America. The global nature of the seventeenth century is exceedingly evident in the “Baroque” churches commissioned across the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, built in the form of European structures, but inherently global in materials, artists, and style. The format for each week of the online component of this course consisted of readings, short video lectures, forum posts by students, and virtual meet-ups on Fridays. It was important to first give students a sense for how the Baroque has traditionally been defined and identified in architecture; students read two chapters about seventeenth-century architecture, and I recorded a brief video lecture, voicing over a PowerPoint, to discuss two iconic examples from Italy, by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) and Francesco Borromini (1599–1667). In order to assess students’ comprehension of these concepts, I asked them to post in the class forum, an explanation of one characteristic of the Baroque they had learned from the resources provided, with an example of a relevant structure. They responded to at least one classmate’s post with a different example of Baroque architecture that in some way was similar in its style. The exercise was intended to allow students to apply what they had learned from the readings and videos to the visual analysis of particular works of architecture, thereby also synthesizing some of the key ideas of the week’s lessons, by applying them to examples.

When the class met virtually on Friday, I shared my screen to show a PowerPoint with images that helped direct our discussion. Students had reviewed Francesco Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (1642–60) in the video lecture I posted, so I opened our virtual class with images of his San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1638–46), and asked students to reflect on qualities of Baroque architecture that they recognized, in an effort to review what they had learned. Students noted elements such as the dynamism created by the undulating facade and the effect of verticality created by the columns. I then paired an image of San Carlo’s facade with Caravaggio’s Entombment, from 1603, and students reflected on whether they recognized any of the more general qualities of the Baroque that were often touted in the resources and examples we studied over the course of the semester. I showed this slide, with the question posed, included above the images, and asked students to write down ideas/responses/questions for five minutes as a reflection exercise. Upon asking students to share some of their observations, they noted characteristics such as the contrast of light and shadow and movement in the forms.

I transitioned to Latin America by first showing an image of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, in Piazza Navona, Rome, which is the slide I showed on the first day of our class in January to introduce the global nature of this period. I asked them to summarize what they remembered about the fountain, and they were able to recall the personifications of rivers, and, perhaps most importantly, the fountain’s context, as Europe sought in the seventeenth century to more completely know, and control, the wider world.

Then, we turned our attention fully to examples of sacred architecture in colonial Mexico and Peru, where I began with the Church of Santo Domingo, in Cuzco.2 I offered my own detailed visual analysis in order to model the kinds of observations I would ask them to make moving forward. The church was initially built in the seventeenth century atop the structure that had been the Qorikancha, the Inca temple to the sun. I pointed out that the original walls contrast strikingly with the European structure on top, the iconic Inca masonry clearly visible. Students were able to identify the classical European elements including round arches and columns in the Catholic church on top. As the discussion continued, students astutely noted the clear message of conquest and domination intended by this structure, which allowed me to remind them that the forms we know of as Baroque were not merely meant for style, but also stood for western Christianity and European culture at the time.

With this first example analyzed, I showed students several additional churches, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption, better known as Mexico City Cathedral, and the Church of San Francisco, in Quito, Ecuador.3 I explained to students that like the Cuzco church, Mexico City’s cathedral was built atop the ruins of some of Tenochtitlan’s Aztec temples. I showed slides of the church’s plan, alongside plans of European structures, and asked students to identify the aspects that were alike from one to the next in order to demonstrate that the Mexico church was designed to be basilican in plan. As a class, we examined the facades at Mexico City and Quito and discussed the decoration of both with many classical, European architectural tropes. This exercise further allowed students to implement the visual-analysis skills we had practiced all semester and apply those abilities to the recognition of architectural forms with which they had become familiar.

I then offered some details about these examples in order to enrich and complicate our discussion and specifically to help students see and understand that, despite the European elements of these structures, they differ not only in their context, but also in materials and style, due to their location outside of Europe. For example, Mexico City Cathedral was built to sustain the frequent earthquakes common to the region, with a low, wide shape and the use of volcanic rock as one building material. At Quito, I showed students images of the church’s interior, which is a basilican structure topped with a mudéjar ceiling, an intricate wood design inspired by the hybrid Gothic and Islamic style prevalent in Spain for several centuries. My goal was for students to recognize that, though there is clear evidence that the style of seventeenth-century Europe migrated to Latin America, these churches were not mere copies of so-called Old World examples.

Through the examination of these objects, the class discussed how colonization in the seventeenth century resulted in the mixing of cultures, beliefs, and ideas, often by force, in the case of Latin America, and how that global dialogue could result in works of art that did not quite fit the definition of the Baroque the students had initially encountered. Using critical thinking to question the standard way the seventeenth century has often been characterized and visual analysis to do this through the study of objects, we concluded the semester with a realization that, partly due to globalization, words like “diversity” and “creativity” are perhaps best suited to characterize art in the seventeenth century, rather than a few descriptive terms and ideas about style and subject matter.

Christa Irwin is Associate Professor of Art History at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on Italian artists working in colonial Peru in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In addition to introductory level global surveys, she teaches upper level courses on Latin America, the Renaissance, and the Baroque.

1See Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005) for the most common reference text related to backwards design pedagogy. I also found the following articles informative: Nancy A. Michael and Julie C. Libarkin, “Understanding by Design: Mentored Implementation of Backward Design Methodology at the University Level,” Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching 42, no. 2 (Dec. 2016): 44–52; and Heather L. Reynolds and Katherine Dowell Kearns, “A Planning Tool for Implementing Backward Design, Active Learning, and Authentic Assessment in the College Classroom,” College Teaching, 65, no. 1 (2017): 17–27.

2 See Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art of Colonial Latin America (London: Phaidon, 2005), 35–36, for images and discussion of this structure; and Rebecca Stone Miller, Art of the Andes from Chavin to Inca (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), 181–218, for a succinct discussion of Inca art and architecture.

3 Mexico City Cathedral was originally begun in 1562, and construction continued intermittently until the early nineteenth century; for more information on both churches, see Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521–1821 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 103–5, 114–15.

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