SAN DIEGO — THE Age of the Baroque in Portugal'' is a show of blockbuster appeal on a number of levels. This exhibition has that eye-popping glitz that amazes the lay viewer and art scholar alike. As a window into the history of Europe during the tumultuous centuries encompassing the discovery of the New World, the rise of entitled monarchies, and the gradual decline of same, this show is a must-see.
Debuting to critical raves earlier this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the exhibition is now on view at the San Diego Museum of Art.
``The Age of the Baroque'' provides a look at the opulence that attended royal and noble life in 18th-century Portugal - exaggerated excesses tied to an abiding Portuguese Catholicism, but also reflecting the unspoken subtext of all art at this grandiose scale: the expression of power.
The indescribable wealth and self-conscious craftsmanship of the works in this fine show remind us of the international sophistication of a little sliver of a country that was by the 1700s a major world player, influencing and being influenced by the highest culture and global politics of its day.
The show's 120 works include crown jewels laden with enough diamonds, rubies, and precious metals to dazzle; furniture; sacramental objects; scientific instruments; and silver work, all executed with unabashed lavish.
The reign of Portugal's King John V represents the apogee of this age of luxury. King John was the learned cosmopolitan King who, though he never left Portugal, aspired in the early 1700s to duplicate the absolute power and art patronage of France's Louis XIV. A commemorative pendant commissioned by King John is adorned with 400 perfect good-sized diamonds, 102 rubies, and a large perfect sapphire.
Then there is the ``Sacramental Monstrance,'' in which a gilded angel holds a sphere composed of 400 pounds of pure silver. Or the gallons of silver tooled by the foremost French smith, Francois-Thomas Germain. (Much of Germain's silver was melted down during the Revolution, so its cropping up in Portugal during the Baroque age was a serendipitous preservation of material culture.)These and other objects in ``Age of Baroque in Portugal'' call to mind a Europe in which religion, wealth, and power were the trade commodities used by church and state to ingratiate, threaten, cajole, and coerce. And in these machinations, Portugal had her ups and downs.
She was a world power in the 1400s and 1500s, leading Europe in exploration and colonization of the New World. But by the 1700s she was depleted of her national coffers, felt drained by her colonial responsibilities, and held increasingly powerful Spain and England at bay. Portugal's adventures into the New World paid off when, in the first two decades of the 1700s, enormous gold and diamond mines were found in Brazil and dragged back to the little country in ship-fulls.
And the wealth could not have come at a better time. It coincided with the century or so during which an obscure monk named Martin Luther claimed that each person, regardless of wealth, had a direct personal relationship with God.
Luther's Reformation cast doubt on papal power. But in the odd wisdom of politics, Rome sent out a mandate demanding that the Church dazzle and intoxicate with visual drama and express exuberant religious fervor and entranced piety in a most literal and grand manner.
As the Counter-Reformation spread to Spain and Portugal, wealthy Portuguese nobles turned to Italy and France for their items of luxury. Little studios or schools of gifted native artists sprang up in patronage centers like Lisbon and Mafra.
An element of national competition is detectable in these pieces - if Louis the Sun King could do it, so could the Portuguese. And because of Portugal's trade colonies in South America and India, there is a delightful multiethnic feel one could only call exotic.
That is how you get in one and the same object the fussy elegance of French aristocratic Louvre-esque craft mixed in with oddly folky mesoamerican motifs like pumpkins and plumes; so it is that King John's mistress/nun was given a funny little desk that combines English pomp and Oriental fussiness.
The show stopper is sure to be a carriage whose size required the San Diego Museum of Art to raise its existing ceilings. The carving of the wheel spokes alone must have taken the best sculptors in Italy months and months. Ordered by a Portuguese envoy to the Vatican - undoubtedly sent to curry favor and get Rome's hand in dealing with unruly neighbors - the gold coach bears near life-size gilded statues of Grecian allegorical figures placing a laurel on a female personification of Portugal ... if this is not a way of signifying homage to the little sea power, I don't know what is.
Art historians assume that most of the items in ``The Age of the Baroque'' were intended to solidify Portugal's position in the world power formula of the time. Nearly every object has a religious context, but scholars and critics have long speculated that the sacred became an excuse for political grandstanding and excess for its own sake. The truth is that when you see these objects firsthand and have been in Portugal, you sense the devotion behind them, whether laced with patrons' other motives or not.
In the end, these objects are both functional and symbolic, intended for sheer pleasure and the sending complex messages. It is safe to say that much of the art on view in San Diego was conceived to suggest that the holders of such wealth were formidable enough to wage war, rich enough to be generous, and pious enough to do it all with the blessing of God.
* ``The Age of the Baroque in Portugal'' continues at the San Diego Museum of Art through Sept. 22.