There are strange figures whose foliated limbs are coiling into elegant volutes. Some others are resting on goat-like or wiggly legs. Their human busts are holding basket-crowned heads, often the heads of youths. A bird, sometimes flying, is pulling at a piece of ribbon, from which a gorgeous fruit garland is hanging. Here is a Victory. The hook of one of her curved wings is catching the end of a twisting cloud of smoke billowing from an antique vase. There are satyrs, snakes, dogs and goats. Some chubby-cheeked children are frolicking below. They seem to ignore, above their heads, an enormous grimacing head whose attached body is but the ruffle of a furious, vegetable beard. Further on, a portico with lanky columns is framing a mythological scene. A small dragon and an astrolabe may be completing the picture. This is a world without depth of perspective where everything is often linked with a piece of thread, a strip of ribbon or the crosier of a vegetable stem. Such is the universe in which you are invited to dive. And we shall wonder whether these ceiling and wall decorations, in spite of their apparent inconsistency, obey any rules and belong truly to the era that gave them birth.
Historically speaking, these decorations called « grotesques » were drawn from the painted fantasies that antique Rome adorned its palaces walls and ceilings with. After over a thousand years of oblivion, and stimulated by the revival of classical formal values that characterised the Renaissance, fifteenth century Italy recovered its past and multiplies archaeological researches. This style of wall decoration lasted over quite a lengthy period. In the Middle Ages, it was confused with a sea of interferences and did not exist on its own yet. The 16th century certainly constitutes its golden age by the spectacular importance that it took in the painted decoration of palaces. Baroque times criticised it though they contributed to preserve all its strength. Rococo makes it lighter and turns it into arabesques by adding oriental motifs. Neoclassicism made it a fashion that lost its vigour as it became official. The following lines will only deal with the origins up to the Renaissance golden age.
1) Antique decoration.
The vocabulary that partly constitutes the grotesques decorations already existed in antiquity. Roman decoration of the second style (100-20 BC) already contained dishes of fruits, masks and architectural perspectives opening onto other buildings or landscapes. Hybrid anthropomorphic (mermaids, satyrs, centaurs) or zoomorphic (winged horses and griffins) creatures were already painted on the walls of palaces. The abundance of hybridizations already showed a taste for transformations (Ovid’s Metamorphoses were composed in 8 AD).Candelabra were slowly replacing columns. At Herculaneum were found lanky architectures and trompe-l’oeil. The boldness of innovations kept on increasing in the flattening of volumes until the achievement of the fourth style (from 41 to 79 AD). But these decorations were already subjected to criticism. Though antique morality(Aristotle and Empedocles) accepted that one copied nature, Vitruvius and Horace considered the fantasies of the Roman palaces decorations to be the reflection of the princes’ corruption and thought these paintings were only yielded by the delirious dreams of sick souls. Plato simply condemned all representation.
The revival of classical art in Italy that partly defines Renaissance in the fifteenth century was rarely inspired by paintings for such examples were scarce or only remained through literary descriptions by ancient authors. On the other hand, the vocabulary of decorative sculpture, merely in low relief, was abundant on sarcophagi, triumphal arches, gates and theatres. It produced a decoration that often took the form of grisaille and that was kept to the framing elements of the paintings and frescoes, and preferably to the vertical elements (such as pillars and pilasters), that were painted with scrolls, candelabra, festoons and military trophies (Pinturicchio, Mantegna). The Roman current was still incorporating a good deal of themedieval supernatural, but it was supplemented with classical dolphins, satyrs and harpies. The substratum of the grotesque style also resided in the art of marginalia, illuminated capitals and margins in medieval manuscripts, all swarming with monstrous creatures.
Structurally, the proliferation of grotesques followed two directions : vertically with the stacking up of candelabra ; horizontally with the volutes and counter-volutes of peopled scrolls.
The infatuation for “all’antico” decoration was slow and gradual and the last part of the century was nourished by the fortuitous discovery of a new corpus. When all Italy, and especially Rome, was looking for its vestiges, about 1480, a stroller fell into a gap, not far from the Coliseum. The cavity was searched by torchlight and paintings were discovered. People did not know by then that it was the Domus aurea, the Golden House, Nero’s sumptuous palace. Its large rooms had been filled in, rather than pulled down, when Trajan’s thermae were built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. Owing to a good thirteen century’s long oblivion and to the lack of light, the painted decoration was left untouched. The clearing out of the huge rooms lasted about twenty-five years. The excavation proceeded downwards, revealing the vaults before the walls. Fascinated contemporary artists copied by torchlight these painting whose lightness and fantasy echoed the taste of the moment with some good fortune. What could they see ? Various layouts of peacocks, hippo-campuses, griffins and other hybrid creatures, scrolled friezes, thin candelabra, small rectangular paintings (pinakes) and mythological scenes, ceilings with coffers and different frames. They saw disparate sequences that they thought to be hieroglyphs and tried to decipher. But above all, they marvelled at the spontaneity of the painted stroke, at the lightness of details and the new use of coloured backgrounds. These rooms were then only regarded as gloomy strange grottoes in which young painters were coming to dine on wine and apples. Hence “grotesques” (initially with two t’s) was the name they called the compositions they drew from their visits there, compositions made for the decoration of new palaces that the powerful commissioned.
And these artists were Il Perugino, Pinturicchio, Luca Signorelli, Sodoma, Filippino Lippi, who slowly extracted the antique elements from the framing structures to build up decorations on broader surfaces such as pendentives and segments, on gold, red, blue or black backgrounds.
1) The assertion of a new style.
Nero’s Golden House was a major archaeological discovery that influenced the painters of the end of the Quattrocento. Yet, a clear stylistic change came from the team of artists who worked in Raphael’s workshop. When in the fifteenth century the Popes came back to Rome from the exile in Avignon, the city was lacking the pomp that its position as the first city of Christianity demanded and was therefore the terrain for new projects. In order to raise Rome to the standard it claimed, the Pope called in the best artists, amongst others Raphael. The commissioners’ approval of the new all’antico decoration certainly contributed to the grotesques’ official recognition. Now the enthusiasm of the artists of the Raphael circle in the Vatican (notably Giulio Romano, Giovanni da Udine, and later Perino del Vaga), led to the creation of new decorations for Cardinal Bibbiena, and for the Vatican Loggia that were directly inspired by the recent archaeological find.
In Cardinal Bibbiena’s loggetta, Giovanni da Udine added naturalistic elements (goats, fish, birds…) to the Neronian repertoire. With the painting of the Vatican Loggia, the circumscription of the decorations in a series of frames favoured their control. These frames gave structure to the anarchy that their fantasy could create and thus made them compatible with the religious precepts. The Church nonetheless always criticized their oddness. Renaissance images followed precise rules of an apparent logic of rhythms and frames and only used a small part of all the medieval supernatural found in the marginalia of manuscripts and in cathedral decorations. The threatening supernatural slowly turned into the almost familiar hybrids. With Raphael, clashes are harmonised, excesses tempered, and a large scale spreading begins. The use of grotesques in one’s home became a sign of distinction and culture. The 16th century became the century of grotesques by antonomasia. Charles V troops’Sack of Rome in 1527 scattered the artists away and contributed to propagate the new taste. Giulio Romano in Mantua, and Perino del Vaga in Genoa multiplied inventions. When still in Rome, both of them were already drawing models for all applied arts. The spreading role of engraving was then very important (Marcantonio Raimondi was also working close to Raphael between 1510 and 1520), and especially by engravers working in the 30’s (Agostino Musi, known as Veneziano, and Enea Vico). From the palaces walls, the grotesques invaded tapestries, ceramics, metalwork, and any objects showing a surface to be adorned.
Extremely elaborate decorations were produced in the second half of the Cinquecento. They gave birth to a strong style that moral though and criticism always supported or discussed (see further down). Here and there, the systematic use of grotesques upon a white background sometimes receded to the benefit of colour, stucco, or narrative scenes that were either allegorical, historical of mythological, even landscapes, especially in pump rooms. But the grotesques then flourished in the vestibules called “atriums”, in study cabinets, and on cornices, with blooming brio, speed of execution and ever more frenzied architectural inventions.
If to interpret grotesque arrangements to the letter as though they were hieroglyphs or rebuses is impossible, the golden age that they underwent in the Renaissance was accompanied wy a desire to give them meaning and to make parallels with other symbolical languages. Known signs were readily added in a panegyrical or allegorical purpose : family or heraldic emblems like the Medici balls or Papal tiara and keys ; metaphorical references like an arrow reaching its target or a lily of Truth to illustrate the personal qualities of a commissioner ; hieroglyphic signs and references to alchemy, like those on the ceiling of San Giovanni Evangelista Abbey library in Parma, in a attempt to embrace symbolically all the knowledge of the moment ; and lastly, Aesop’s fables that inserted implied moralising contents in the midst of the apparent disorganization of the Neronian vocabulary, as though to amend for their very use.
The quest for meaning also took on other aspects. Hence the fashion to collect things related to that of the Wunderkammern (as on the painted ceilings of the Uffizi gallery corridors) gathered various objects, which could be domestic or archaeological, around a precise theme, and allowed naturalistic details. Sometimes, elements of the decoration referred to the contents (Uffizi) or to the use (Villa Caprarola) of the rooms. The adjective “grotesque”, with only one “t” did not exist before well into the 17th century in its pejorative meaning as ridiculous, improbably excessive, unduly distorted or overdone. It certainly originated in those who criticised the 16th century decorations. And it gave the grotesque, as a noun in the singular qualifying a genre. Items pertaining to this genre were very rare in grotesques decoration, though the comical and colourfulness were admitted. Yet a relation was often established between the grotesques and the burlesque literature of that time, notably with the macaronic poetical genre.
The above mentioned reservations of the Church regarding grotesques were first associated with the sepulchral and gloomy aspect of what was thought to be caves at the time of the Domus aurea excavations. They were soiled by the bad reputation attached to Nero’s decadent extravagances. In the wake of antique moralists, the unbridled imagination that they revealed was felt as improbable and mendacious, hence fake and immoral by counter-Reformation criticism, notwithstanding their blatant paganism. One required Antonio Francesco Doni’s talent to support them by writing that they were only on the edge of reality, like Nature’s bizarre forms, hybridizations were exceptional yet possible. Moral codification became an excuse. Rules for morphological associations were invented for the making up of new hybrids. These rules, as expressed by Fransisco de Hollanda (1540), then taken up by Paolo Lomazzo (1584), establish that some likelihood was demanded and that the fiendish or demonic and the unnatural and monstrous would be banished. It was further asserted that the grotesques were following the very principle of mannerism saying that art was not only imitation but also trick, device, hence licence that the intellect must correct by making a refined and informed creation, half-way between reality and the imaginary. Pirro Ligorio (1570) debated on the use and the danger of bringing meaning into decoration. The century thus operated constant back and forth shuttles between the bans of the strict defenders of counter-Reformation and the freedom of painters whose imaginary power increased as soon as a possibility was offered them.
At last a word must be said about the grotesque decoration construction rules, as explained by Philippe Morel (1998), rules that he calls the “figures of paradox”. He underlines the aberrant use of the laws of gravity and balance, as well as a certain stress on dynamic contrasts : disproportionate balances of power and pulls between opposite forces. Dynamic relations between petrified figures and living statues are also described, especially in Torrechiara.
Those inventions were of course not only Italy’s prerogative. Incessant comings and goings occurred between the north and the south. France, Germany and the Netherlands joined in the dance. Italy influenced the northern lands and, after they had given the new style its local expression, the latter enriched Italian compositions in return. In France, Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio translated the new style into high relief at Fontainebleau by granting a major position to frames of curled openwork straps, later simply called “strapwork”. This original local production re-influenced the south, whose vocabulary of ignudi, putti, fauns, mascarons vases, terms, canephors and fruit festoons it had taken. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau published two books of grotesques (in 1550 and 1562) that helped propagate the Italian style. René Boyvin and Léonard Thiry created a French angular expression, and Etienne Delaune’s engravings were intended for metal craftsmen.
In Nuremberg, Peter Flötner, amongst others, brought his northern note. Germanic countries readily associated grotesques with Moresques. In Flanders, tapestries were woven after the drawings by Raphael or Perino del Vaga. In Holland, Cornelius Floris fused Fontainebleau’s strapwork and Neronian architectures’ small edifices and prosceniums. Cornelis Bos designed carnival triumphs in which the strapwork looks like soft metal blades. Raphael’s influence was then far off. The Netherlands also had their unique expression by giving the grotesques a disturbing organicity.
Bibliography used to write this synthesis.
André Chastel, « La Renaissance Fantaisiste », in L’œil, N° 21, septembre 1956.
Jean-Jacques Lévêque, L’École de Fontainebleau, éditions Ides et Calendes, 1984, Neuchâtel.
André Chastel, Mythe et Crise de la Renaissance, Skira 1989.
In L’art Décoratif en Europe, Renaissance et Maniérisme, Citadelles et Mazenod, Paris, 1993.
Especially the chapters : "Rinceaux", by Michèle Bimbenet-Privat, "Grottesques" by Alain Gruber, and "Cuirs" by Margherita Azzi-Visentini.
Grotesques, éditions l’Aventurine, Paris, 1996.
Philippe Morel, Les Grotesques, les figures de l’imaginaire dans la peinture italienne de la fin de la Renaissance, Idées et recherches, Flammarion 1997.
Jean-Gabriel Peyre, Céramique, « Le décor à grotesques, fresques de l’imaginaire », in L’Objet d’Art L’Estampille, N° 383, septembre 2003.
Alessandra Zamperini, Les Grotesques, Citadelles et Mazenod, Paris, 2007.
Important places with 16th century painted grotesques decoration in France :
Château de Chareil-Cintrat.
Important places with 16th century painted grotesques decoration in Italy not mentionned in above synthesis :
Villa d’Este, Tivoli,
Château Rossi, San Secondo,
Château della Rocca, Soragna,
Palazzo del Giardino, Sabbioneta.