Step Into the Age of Excess at the Victoria & Albert Museum

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Ahead of the rest: This marble bust of Charles II (1684) by Honoré Pelle conveys the richness and drama of Baroque art, with the English King surrounded by billowing drapery and curls

Baroque was the first global art style. From France and Italy it spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. Sculptors, designers and painters of the day took the art of Greece and Rome and made it their own: bigger, better and more vulgar. "Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence," at London's Victoria & Albert Museum until July 19, seeks to unravel Baroque's complexities while celebrating its influence across the globe. The show captures the opulence of the era by presenting key decorative objects — from silver furniture to theater costumes — alongside images of cathedrals, and reconstructions of performances and modern-day religious processions.

In Baroque — the name derives from a word meaning imperfect pearl — theater was not limited to the stage; cathedrals, too, filled with drama and lighting effects. An ornate altarpiece, glittering Roman altar furniture, and Rubens' harrowing Descent from the Cross (1611) all demonstrate the church's use of overwhelming ornament to tug at emotions. (See 10 things to do in London.)

Many items simply flashed their owners' wealth and influence. An over-the-top sleigh from Düsseldorf (circa 1710) was the must-have vehicle of the day: its design consists almost wholly of mythological figures. An ornate cabinet from Versailles gives a hint of the French King's power, and exquisite cups and vases made of rare materials (obsidian, ostrich egg) would have displayed a collector's refined taste.

Artists had their skill to display, and they did so with gusto: combining many figures for maximum drama — see the Florentine Ewer with the Triumph of Neptune (circa 1721) — or freeze-framing a body falling into ecstasy or death, as in a small Bernini clay sketch for Tomb of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (circa 1761-74). Baroque went way over the top and beyond, and this exhibition is the perfect way to revel in it.

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