Worried about the grotesque gap between rich and poor? Concerned about the excesses of consumer society? Then the V&A’s new exhibition, Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence, should give you an almighty reality check. Conspicuous consumption? The most bonusswollen banker has nothing on your average 17th or 18th-century monarch. Let me introduce you to King John V.
The Portuguese king decided that he wanted a royal chapel. He bought the best Roman artists imperial money and autocracy could buy, got them to fit it out, had it blessed by the Pope, then shipped it in its entirety to Lisbon. Step through the door of the chapel of St John the Baptist in São Roque and the eyes are assaulted by gold and jewels. Everywhere. Every inch. Incredibly, King John used up most of his country’s New World fortune on this one exercise in excess. Partly reassembled at the V&A are its encrusted chalices, cruets, bells, censers, crosses and candlesticks, tapestries and costumes woven almost solid with gold thread, and everything with as many knobs, bells and whistles as space will allow. Stand in front of it and you are bathed, as King John intended, in the light of Heaven.
This is an utterly inappropriate time – or a grotesquely prescient one – for a blockbuster show on Baroque, the latest in the V&A’s exemplary series recreating the world view behind global styles. Never have so many golden curlicues, tassles and twiddles been assembled in one place. That is part of the problem. British eyes have been tutored by puritanism towards the plain and the practical. What do we do when confronted by an objet made from a gold and jewel-studded ostrich egg, complete with porcelain neck and legs? Two hours here is like gorging on Black Forest gateau and Wall’s Viennetta, followed by tiramisu, rum baba and a side order of trifle.