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Mother Nature is surrounded by grottesche in this fresco detail from Villa d'Este
Grotesque engraving on paper, c.1500 - 1512, Italy.

The word grotesque comes from the same Latin root as "grotto", meaning a small cave or hollow. The original meaning was restricted to an extravagant style of Ancient Roman decorative art rediscovered and then copied in Rome in the 15th century. The "caves" were in fact rooms and corridors of the Domus Aurea, the unfinished palace complex started by Nero after the great fire from AD 64, which had become overgrown and buried, until they were broken into again, mostly from above.

In modern English, grotesque has come to be used as a general adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or bizarre, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks. More specifically, the grotesque forms on Gothic buildings, when not used as drain-spouts, should not be called gargoyles, but rather referred to simply as grotesques, or chimeras.


In art history

In art, grotesques are ornamental arrangements of arabesques with interlaced garlands and small and fantastic human and animal figures, usually set out in a symmetrical pattern around some form of architectural framework, though this may be very flimsy. Such designs were fashionable in ancient Rome, as fresco wall decoration, floor mosaics, etc., and were decried by Vitruvius (ca. 30 BCE), who in dismissing them as meaningless and illogical, offered quite a good description: "reeds are substituted for columns fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes take the place of pediments, candelabra support representations of shrines, and on top of their roofs grow slender stalks and volutes with human figures senselessly seated upon them."

When Nero's Domus Aurea was inadvertently rediscovered in the late fifteenth century, buried in fifteen hundred years of fill, so that the rooms had the aspect of underground grottoes, the Roman wall decorations in fresco and delicate stucco were a revelation; they were introduced by Raphael Sanzio and his team of decorative painters, who developed grottesche into a complete system of ornament in the Loggias that are part of the series of Raphael's Rooms in the Vatican Palace, Rome. "The decorations astonished and charmed a generation of artists that was familiar with the grammar of the classical orders but had not guessed till then that in their private houses the Romans had often disregarded those rules and had adopted instead a more fanciful and informal style that was all lightness, elegance and grace."[1] In these grotesque decorations a tablet or candelabrum might provide a focus; frames were extended into scrolls that formed part of the surrounding designs as a kind of scaffold, as Peter Ward-Jackson noted. Light scrolling grotesques could be ordered by confining them within the framing of a pilaster to give them more structure. Giovanni da Udine took up the theme of grotesques in decorating the Villa Madama, the most influential of the new Roman villas.

French neoclassical painted decor in the Raphaelesque grotesque manner at Fontainebleau, 1780s

In the 16th century, such artistic license and irrationality was controversial matter. Francisco de Holanda puts a defense in the mouth of Michelangelo in his third dialogue of Da Pintura Antiga, 1548:

"this insatiable desire of man sometimes prefers to an ordinary building, with its pillars and doors, one falsely constructed in grotesque style, with pillars formed of children growing out of stalks of flowers, with architraves and cornices of branches of myrtle and doorways of reeds and other things, all seeming impossible and contrary to reason, yet yet it may be really great work if it is performed by a skillful artist."[2]

In Michelangelo's Medici Chapel Giovanni da Udine composed during 1532-33 "most beautiful sprays of foliage, rosettes and other ornaments in stucco and gold" in the coffers and "sprays of foliage, birds, masks and figures", with a result that did not please Pope Clement VII Medici, however, nor Giorgio Vasari, who whitewashed the grottesche decor in 1556.[3] Counter Reformation writers on the arts, notably Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, bishop of Bologna,[4] turned upon grottesche with a righteous vengeance.[5]

In the meantime, through the medium of engravings the grotesque mode of surface ornament passed into the European artistic repertory of the sixteenth century, from Spain to Poland. Later Mannerist versions, especially in engraving, tended to be much more densely filled than the airy well-spaced style used by the Romans and Raphael - in the 18th century this spaciousness was restored. Soon grottesche appeared in marquetry (fine woodwork), in maiolica produced above all at Urbino from the late 1520s, then in book illustration and in other decorative uses. At Fontainebleau Rosso Fiorentino and his team enriched the vocabulary of grotesques by combining them with the decorative form of strapwork, the portrayal of leather straps in plaster or wood moldings, which forms an element in grotesques.

Less used in the Baroque, the style was revived again in Neo-Classicism, and received a further impetus from new discoveries of original Roman work at Pompeii and the other sites round Mount Vesuvius in the late 18th century. It continued in use, becoming increasingly heavy, in the Empire Style and then in the Victorian period, when designs often became as densely packed as in 16th century engravings, and the elegance and fancy of the style tended to be lost.

By extension backwards in time, in modern terminology for medieval illuminated manuscripts, drolleries, half-human thumbnail vignettes drawn in the margins, are also called "grotesques".

In contemporary illustration art, the "grotesque" figures, in the ordinary conversational sense, commonly appear in the genre grotesque art, also known as fantastic art.

A boom in the production of works of art in the grotesque genre, characterized the period 1920-1933 of German art.

In literature

In fiction, characters are usually considered grotesque if they induce both empathy and disgust. (A character who inspires disgust alone is simply a villain or a monster.) Obvious examples would include the physically deformed and the mentally deficient, but people with cringe-worthy social traits are also included. The reader becomes piqued by the grotesque's positive side, and continues reading to see if the character can conquer their darker side. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the figure of Caliban has inspired more nuanced reactions than simple scorn and disgust.

Alice surrounded by the characters of Wonderland in The Nursery "Alice" (1890)

Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most celebrated grotesques in literature. Dr. Frankenstein's monster can also be considered a grotesque, as well as the Phantom of the Opera and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Other instances of the romantic grotesque are also to be found in Edgar Allan Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, in Sturm und Drang literature or in Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Romantic grotesque is far more terrible and somber than medieval grotesque, which celebrated laughter and fertility.

The grotesque received a new shape with Alice in the Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, when a girl meets fantastic grotesque figures in her fantasy world. Carroll manages to make the figures seem less frightful and fit for children's literature, but still utterly strange.

Southern Gothic is a genre frequently identified with grotesques and William Faulkner is often cited as the ringmaster. Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one" ("Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," 1960). In O'Connor's often-anthologized short-story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the Misfit, a serial killer, is clearly a maimed soul, utterly callous to human life but driven to seek the truth. The less obvious grotesque is the polite, doting grandmother who is unaware of her own astonishing selfishness. Another oft-cited example of the grotesque from O'Connor's work is her short-story entitled "A Temple Of The Holy Ghost." The American novelist, Raymond Kennedy is another author associated with the literary tradition of the grotesque.

The term Theatre of the Grotesque refers to an anti-naturalistic school of Italian dramatists, writing in the 1910s and 1920s, who are often seen as precursors of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Grotesque at the University of Chicago

In architecture

While often confused with gargoyles, these stone carvings are not born from the general form of a water spout. This type of sculpture is also called a chimera. Used correctly, the term gargoyle refers to mostly eerie figures carved specifically as terminations to spouts which convey water away from the sides of buildings.

See also


  1. ^ Peter Ward-Jackson, "The Grotesque" in "Some main streams and tributaries in European ornament from 1500 to 1750: part 1" The Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin (June 1967, pp 58-70) p 75.
  2. ^ Quoted in David Summers, "Michelangelo on Architecture", The Art Bulletin 54.2 (June 1972:146-157) p. 151.
  3. ^ "bellissimi fogliami, rosoni ed altri ornamenti di stuccho e d'oro" and "fogliami, uccelli, maschere e figure", quoted by Summers 1972:151 and note 30.
  4. ^ Paleotti, Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane (printed at Bologna, 1582)
  5. ^ Noted by Summers 1972:152.

Further reading

  • Sheinberg, Esti (2000-12-29) (in English). Irony, satire, parody and the grotesque in the music of Shostakovich. UK: Ashgate. pp. 378. ISBN 0-7546-0226-5.  
  • Kayser, Wolfgang (1957) The grotesque in Art and Literature, New York, Columbia University Press
  • Lee Byron Jennings (1963) The ludicrous demon: aspects of the grotesque in German post-Romantic prose, Berkeley, University of California Press
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail (1941). Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.  
  • Selected bibliography by Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972.
  • Dacos, N. La découverte de la Domus Aurea et la formation des grotesques à la Renaissance (London) 1969.

External links


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