These images all reveal elements of the Baroque city that emerged in the late Renaissance period as a counterpoint to the secular and humanist ideals of the Renaissance itself. Instead of serving as expressions of wonder at mankind’s own abilities, Baroque architecture and Baroque cities served as a method of reinforcing the power of absolute rulers and of God. The Baroque city projected an image of absolute stability and power over the masses through the use of a set of specific architectural elements. At the time, many European leaders added Baroque elements to their cities to show off their wealth and power to their rivals and to impose fear upon citizens who might consider rebelling. Paris and Rome both have many examples of Baroque elements.
In Paris, one encounters a plethora of polyvia – nearly every street leads to a plaza with many other streets branching off of it. The polyvium is one of the most basic examples of a Baroque element within a city. When one stands at the middle of the plaza, it is possible to see for long distances down each street. These sight lines often allow the viewing of monuments from a great distance. From the Arc de Triomphe, for example, one can see down twelve different streets. Looking down the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe, one could see the Luxor Obelisk at the next major plaza (Google maps). Additionally in Paris, the Eiffel Tower serves as another reminder of power with both its massive height and exposed metal structure.
In Rome, Baroque elements are also highly visible. The Piazza del Popolo is a polyvium, with one street leading off of it to the Spanish Steps, and another street leads to the Altare della Patria (or as I heard it called in Rome, the “wedding cake”) at Piazza Venezia. St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City also encompasses the ideals of the Baroque city. The massive colonnade surrounding the square undoubtedly conveys a sense of the enormous power of the Roman Catholic Church on Earth. The dome on St. Peter’s Basilica at one end of the square reflects the Catholic Church’s power in the spiritual world.
Not to be outdone by the Europeans they had been so eager to split from, the Americans utilized Baroque elements in the plan that Pierre L’Enfant created for Washington, DC. Like Paris and Rome, Washington features many polyvia with sight lines to important monuments, like the White House, the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, etc. The National Mall further enhances the Baroque idea of sight lines by ensuring a view free of obstructions to both the buildings that are most important to the U.S. government and memorials to the most important presidents. While it may seem ironic that the American capital city embraces the same Baroque ideas that European autocrats utilized, early Americans wanted to ensure popular confidence in their government after the Revolution. The Baroque style of Washington DC projected an image of stability and power – exactly the kind of image a newborn country wants to portray.