The Rustic Style.


Amongst other readings, the discovery of Ernst Kriss’ (1900 – 1957) eponymous text on the subject, first published in Vienna in two parts in 1926 and 1927, has generated the following synthesis. 

1.      Ground and manifestations. 

The Rustic style is a naturalistic expression of Mannerism in the Renaissance. It grew from three different sources. The new infatuation for curiosity cabinets (Kunst und Wunderkammern) first provided it with a special environment. Then, according to Kriss, it was subjected to the technical evolutions of moulding after nature. And at last, its developments were connected to Renaissance precedence of man (and the artist, in the first place) over God, without excluding the idea of a possible rivalry between them. 

a)      Birth of the Wunderkammer

The Wunderkammer was the aesthetic continuation of a medieval superstition. As they often still believed in their magical powers, Renaissance princes went on looking for and acquiring theses strange natural materials that were thought to have the power to detect the presence of a poison in foods, and to neutralize it. Hence coral, adders tongues (which were in reality shark teeth), rhinoceros or "unicorn" horn (that was really a narwhal tusk), toad skin, bezoars (concretions or stones in the stomach of certain ruminants), and so on. Skilful goldsmiths often mounted these curious objects in gold, bringing them up to the level of works of art.


Collection objects made of rhinoceros horn mounted with gold, and lathe-turned ivory. Ambras castle, near Innsbruck.

Portrait of one of the greatest Renaissance collectors : Austria’s archduke Ferdinand II, Regent of Tyrol, Ambras castle.


In addition to these medieval bizarre trails, rare, unusual or monstrous natural things were gathered : ostrich eggs, seashells, nautili, bones from giants (remnants of prehistorical animals), stag antlers plugged in a tree trunk (in Ambras), precious gems… Refined objects made by the hand of man were collected too : various relics, engraved coconuts, one sculpted cherry pit, lathe-turned ivories that were often thinly engraved and chiselled, medals, goldsmithing pieces, usually of German origin, among which the famous Pokalen...

These collections formed the contents of the first curiosity cabinets that, in the case of the grandest sets, could occupy a whole room of the palace (the Italian studiolo) or up to a whole wing of the castle in German countries. For the first time in the 16th century, the fashion to collect things includes hoarding contemporary objects as well. For the first time these frantic accumulations give way to a wish to sort things out. Bit by bit, objects are classified into naturaliae, artificialiae and mirabiliae. Taxonomy and possible contemporaneity distinguish the Wunderkammern from the Church’s collections of relics and ornaments and from medieval private treasuries.


Columbine, ca1502-1505, watercolour by Albrecht Dürer, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna. Spring, 1573, oil on canvas by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Le Louvre, Paris.


These disparate collections of curiosities and marvels belong to an important naturalistic movement that first gathered and classified, but then also described, drew or painted, giving birth to the first still lives in the 16th century (Giuseppe Arcimboldo 1527-1593). Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) and Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) precise observations of nature cast the aesthetic basis of the movement in the field of painting, without being yet “rustic” themselves. But they have introduced an acute and delicate scientific naturalism whose swarming and slithering expressions of the end of the century made up the so-called rustic trend (Joris Hoefnagel 1542-1600).

Folio 123 recto, in Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, manuscript by Georg Bocksay, 1561-62, illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel in 1590-96, J.Paul Getty Museum, Malibu.

Folio 118 recto, in Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, manuscript by Georg Bocksay, 1561-62, illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel in 1590-96, J.Paul Getty Museum, Malibu.


This new current in applied arts to study nature responds to an infatuation with living, sensitive nature.

Besides, at the same time, the interest for natural objects, for seashells notably, was illustrated in the decoration of garden grottoes (Animals grotto, 1538-67, of the Castello, Villa Medici, or the grotto at the Bastie of Urfé).


Rocaille grotto, ca 1550, grotto leading to the Bastie of Urfé chapel, Forez, France.


b)      Animals moulded after nature. 

The practice of moulding after nature, which was already witnessed in Antiquity, survived throughout the Middle Ages by that of death masks. It took a new fervour in Italy during the Quattrocento, especially as applied to small animals. Small realistic bronzes were cast into moulds of toads, crayfish, snakes, lizards and birds (Andrea Briosco, known as the Riccio, 1470-1532, and then later, Giambologna, 1529-1608, who contributed to the moulding of sculptures in the Animals grotto too). This practice raises the controversy as to decide whether the object thus cast is a work of art or a product of nature. Ernst Kriss specifies that like any other technique at the disposal of artistic creation, casting is submitted to an artistic purpose, a deliberate intention.


Unknown author, Snake coiled around two lizards, ca 1550, bronze, Bargello Museum, Florence.


Much further north the use of moulding after nature was taken up for seashells, snails, lizards and turtles throughout the 16th century, and especially in Nuremberg (Hans Vischer 1488-1550, and Wenzel Jamnitzer 1508-1585).


Wenzel Jamnitzer, Ewer basin, embossed and guilt cast silver, 1550-60, Le Louvre, Paris


In France, the use of the moulding technique was mainly used by ceramists (Girolamo Della Robbia, 1488-1556, in the decoration of the now destroyed Madrid château, near Paris, or the “rustic” dishes by Bernard Palissy, 1510-1590).


Oval dish, Bernard Palissy and his workshop, ca 1556, glazed earthenware, musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon



c)      The artist challenging God ? 


Renaissance was characterised by a re-birth of the classical vision of the liberal arts in which intellectual thought and personal inspirations were predominant. It was the assertion of the individual. As far as salvation was concerned, the role of the clerical mediator was belittled. People adopted a more personal and individualistic conception of their relation toward God. Artisans started to sign their works. Writers claimed the authorship of their writings. Painters were making more and more self-portraits. Medieval art had almost banished the nude as it was associated to sin and shame. Against the idea of a fallen Man, Renaissance art stripped of their garments new bodies that were rendered superb, graceful or powerful, and in any case dignified. To place Man at the centre of the universe served perhaps as a way to supplant that omnipotent God of the Middle Ages. Instead of representing the symbols of faith, art started to consider nature differently (the first landscapes were painted then) by trying to represent plants and animals as true as in real life. One tried to imitate nature, if not to surpass it by creating fantastic combinations. Such inventions placed the artist in direct rivalry with the Creator. And curiosity cabinets are cluttered with unlikely monsters.

Mannerism also produced numerous automatons. Such goldsmith’s masterpieces were given life by technical devices. Those applying directly to Kriss’ thesis were rare, bar the fact that they were made to suggest the living.  

More than a mere reminiscence or plagiarism of the living in “rustic” works, the use of small (therefore moulded) animals was a way for the artists to instil life itself in their works and hence they seemed to usurp what was the privilege of God alone. Yet, this praise of organic proliferation was the testimony of the artist’s sincere exultation before the living. Most artists were true Christians, Jamnitzer and Palissy amongst others. Their naturalistic representation of the living was certainly motivated by a genuine admiration for nature, more than by a conceited defiance to the Divine… It might not be so sure of all their commissioners.


2 -       Rustic.

Fragment of a dish, so-called Saint-Porchaire earthenware, reign of Henri II, Le Louvre, Paris. The basin of this dish is ornate with yellow and red squares, each figuring, inside the Sun, Christ’s monogram I.H.S.


In this 16th century whose art re-interpreted all the Greco-Roman mythology (Re-naissance of antique values), with its processions of bacchanalia and panic satyrs, and in which the wonderful was always verging on the scaring, Renaissant naturalism also praised biological life to the extent of loving its monstrosities. In this 16th century that was probably the most pagan in our history, one kept on playing on formal oppositions. One was not reluctant to represent antique orgy side by side with Christian values. Seashell satyrs could piss on the believers who were to enter the Bastie of Urfé’s chapel. Frogs and lizards were quivering in a Saint-Porchaire ceramic dish all studded with monograms of Christ. In this 16th century a horned head on the basis of a crucifix was not meant to be Satan but only a harmless faun, perhaps slightly mischievous, but mostly colourful and funny. In this 16th century Archduke Ferdinand II of Habsburg (1529-1595), though a fervent catholic, though cultivated and extremely refined, went so far as to organise sadistic pagan ceremonies and drinking binges, and was very keen on torture machinery and representations of human monsters in his Ambras castle. This 16th century used to display the picturesqueness of grotesques masks and mascarons’ funny faces as elements of mere decoration everywhere, and artists used to people their most sophisticated, refined and achieved grotesques decorations with extraordinary creatures taken out from sheer dreams as well as from the worst nightmares (in the wake of Hieronymus Bosch 1450-1516). Is it so surprising that an artistic current should not be reluctant to take on an interest in the darkest side of life ? in the luxuriance of what squirms, wriggles and crawls ? For here is well another characteristic of one calls the “rustic” style : to make use of lizards, frogs, crayfishes, “animals, vermin, weeds and snails”, and all the “small fry of marshes and rivers”.


3.      Several prominent characters.

Joris Hoefnagel, Diptyque on parchemin, 1591, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lille.


Like the works of Jamnitzer or of Palissy, naturalistic illuminations by Joris Hoefnagel are mostly inclined to deal with the small and the trifling : isolated vegetables, a cut flower, a fruit, always fresh and realistic, an insect, as though escaped from real life and just alighted on the page, sometimes a butterfly, a frog or a mouse ; never a horse or a cow ! Like Jamnitzer’s and Palissy’s, Hoefnagel’s art lies in the choice of the thing represented and in the free will of its composition.


Both Nuremberg goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer and the French ceramist Bernard Palissy practiced accumulations that are not without reminding one of those by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Their composition is always learned and well balanced, but they are dense too, and it is this very profusion that suggests life. This is furthermore amplified by the fact that surfeit was the customer’s demand : the power of a prince is estimated at the sight of the sumptuousness of the decoration applied onto the objects and garments he possesses. What today seems heavy to us was then dictated by the relations of power.


One can nonetheless note that, in spite of their freshness and their accumulative qualities, Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s compositions are not rustic as they do not deal with the humid, dark and wriggling side of life, save Water and a translucent snail on a marrow in Autumn (1573, Le Louvre).


Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water(Wasser), 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.


Like Palissy, Jamnitzer tried to include nature in his work in the form of mineral nature as well. His naturalistic purpose went even beyond the use of casts since he went as far as to incorporate true chunks of rocks to imitate the ground surface with yet more efficiency.




Rustic dish, Bernard Palissy and his workshop, between 1556 and 1590, glazed earthenware, Le Louvre, Paris.


In Bernard Palissy’s work, minerals are only rendered by various glazes. His research lies in colour, transparency and the matt qualities of different mixtures between transparent lead-glazes on the one hand and opaque white or cloudy tin-glazes on the other to imitate rocks and their mottled aspects. But what changes with him is the scale. Once he had managed to represent rocks and water in his extraordinary dishes, he accepted to build two garden grottoes made of ceramics for Catherine Medici at the Tuileries palace and for Anne de Montmorency at Ecouen. Only fragments and many test shards remain. Were the grottoes ever assembled ? But it is clear that stone was imitated and that, on examining his writings and the preserved moulds, all the flock of creatures, vermin and shells was there, up to the human figure, moulded too, by parts, for the erection of terms. Is the moulding of the human figure still pertaining to the rustic style ? Unless it were regarded as a “grotesque” style, in its literal sense this time… a style from the grottoes. Palissy, kitsch ?


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Bibliographical references read and used to write the above paper :


Ernst Kris, Le Style Rustique, Macula, 2005, Paris.


Léonard N. Amico, A la Recherche du Paradis Terrestre, Bernard Palissy et ses Continuateurs, Flammarion, Paris, 1996.


Dossier Palissy in La Revue de la Céramique et du Verre, N°52, mai-juin 1990.


Une Orfèvrerie de Terre, Bernard Palissy et la céramique de Saint-Porchaire, catalogue d’exposition, RMN, 1997.


Renaissance de la Faïence de Saint-Porchaire, catalogue d’exposition des musées de Parthenay, Thouars, Saintes et Niort, mars 2004.


Le Dressoir du Prince, Services d’apparat à la Renaissance, catalogue d’exposition, RMN, 1995.


Eveline Schlumberger, « Ambras », in Connaissance des Arts, N° 183, mai 1967.


Eveline Schlumberger, « La nature d’après Durer », in Connaissance des Arts N° 399, mai 1985.


Arcimboldo, Connaissance des Arts, hors série N°339, 2007.


George Salmann, « Animaux réels et mythiques en bronze de la renaissance à l’époque baroque », in Connaissance des Arts N° 344, octobre 1980.


Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios et Renato Ruotolo, « De la Wunderkammer au musée », in Antiquités et objets d’art, N° 15, Ambre, Ivoire, Laque, Cire, éditions Fabbri, Paris, 1991.


Les « musées », chambres de merveilles et cabinets d’histoire naturelle, in Norbert Schneider, Les Natures Mortes, Taschen, 1999, Cologne.


Ingvar Bergström, « Georg Hoefnagel, le dernier des grands miniaturistes flamands », in l’Oeil N° 101, mai 1963.


Pierre du Colombier, « Wenzel Jamnitzer, le Benvenuto Cellini germanique », in Connaissance des Arts, N° 154, décembre 1964.