June 10, 2006

Faces of the Grotesque

The adjective grotesque (as Michelangelo kindly explained in a comment further to the previous entry here), was originally applied to the style of the decorative frescoes found in the buried ruins of Nero’s Domus Aurea at Rome. These long-buried chambers were rediscovered in the last two decades of the 15th Century. The strange ornamental designs that were found there ‘featured elaborate fantasies with symmetrical anatomical impossibilities, small beasts, stylised human heads, and delicately-traced, indeterminate foliage all merged into one unified decorative whole.’ Pliny, in his Natural History, recorded the principal artist’s name: Fabullus; recounting how the painter went ‘for only a few hours each day to the “Golden House” to work while the light was right…’

Two details from the decorative borders of the Farnese Hours, painted by Giulio Clovio before 1546.

By the turn of the sixteenth century, some artists had begun to incorporate elements of grotesque decoration into their own, contemporary works. The earliest known examples are Perugino’s ceiling of the Cambio in Perugia (about 1500) and Pinturicchio’s cathedral library ceilings at Siena (1502). Other artists were likewsie inspired, among them Filippino Lippi, and Signorelli. Perhaps more importantly, the Chief Architect and Prefect of Antiquities at the Vatican, Raffaello Sanzio, studied and copied these designs, and directed that they be incorporated into the decorative schemes of the Vatican Loggia, the Loggetta of Cardinal Bibiena, and of the Loggia of Psyche at the Villa Farnesina. Much of the work on these projects was executed by Raphael’s assistants Giulio Romano, and Giovanni da Udine. Romano, as noted below, was later a mentor of Giulio Clovio’s… The image above shows a pair of stylised heads from the decorative borders of a pair of pages in Clovio’s Farnese Hours.

Two grotesque heads, engraved by Frans Huys after designs by Cornelis Floris, 1555.

In the 1530s, a number of Italian artists were persuaded to join the French court at Fontainebleau, bringing with them a taste for grotesque ornamentation. In the same decade, the first album of prints of grotesque designs was printed. This new style of decoration spread to Germany, and flourished in the major centres of ornamental engraving at Augsburg and Nuremberg. By mid-century, the grotesque had established itself at Flanders, where, ‘in 1555, an artist called Cornelis Floris designed 18 sheets with human faces made up from vegetal elements, some highly stylized, others still recognizable as leaves and fruits,’ which were engraved by Frans Huys in Antwerp. These designs intermixed a dash of Gothic drôlerie into the Classical grotesque. The pair of images above show two of Floris’s designs.

Detail of a grotesque head from a page in the 'Mira Calligraphiæ Monumenta,' illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel, 1580s.


Detail of another grotesque head from a page in the 'Mira Calligraphiæ Monumenta,' illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel, 1580s.

It seems plausible that such stylised faces were one of the inspirations behind Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s famous paintings of ‘composed heads’ the first of which date from the late 1560s. The grotesque came to be applied to all manner of decorative arts: ceramics, tapestry, embroidery, furniture-making, jewellery, and so on. Its later, more exaggerated variant found its way back into manuscript-decoration too, notably in the illuminated alphabet in Joris Hoefnagel’s Mira Calligraphiæ Monumenta, exemplified by the pair of images above. More outlandish still were the designs of Christoph Jamnitzer’s Neuw Grottessken Buch of 1610, in which the standard grotesque ‘mask’ is pushed almost beyond recognition, as in the pair of designs shown below.

Two face-like grotesques from Christoph Jamnitzer's 'Neuw Grottessken Buch,' 1610.

The vogue for the grotesque extended well into the later 17th century, and, to a lesser extent, into the 18th. The final set of images, below, are from a reprint of an architectural treatise published in Prague, in 1677, by a master-builder named Abraham Leüthner. At least one of these designs is a direct copy of one of Cornelis Floris’s, then over a century old… I scanned both the Leüthner and Floris images from a book entitled Barocke Architektur in Böhmen, published in 1998 by Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, as part of their Instrumentum Artium series, a previous volume from which, their reprint of Jamnitzer’s Neuw Grottessken Buch, I used for the images immediately above.

Two grotesque faces from Abraham Leüthner's 1677 treatise.


Two more grotesque faces from Abraham Leüthner's 1677 treatise.

I scanned the Hoefnagel images from the facsimile edition of the Mira Calligraphiæ Monumenta previously mentioned here, while the details from Clovio’s Farnese Hours are from the 2001 facsimile edition mentioned in the entry below.

Posted by misteraitch at June 10, 2006 10:37 AM

Great post, as aways. Very elucidative.

Posted by: Catatau on June 11, 2006 04:31 PM

How dreamy: Fabullus walking to the Golden House as the light changes... Now I wish you would do the same sort of thing with "arabesque," sometimes yoked (I'm thinking of Poe) with "grotesque."

Posted by: marlyat2 on June 12, 2006 03:01 PM

Thank you for this very interesting and informative post. The Frans Huys pages are oddly neat, which gives them a contemporary look, I think. At first glance, before reading, I thought them the work of some post-modern joker such as Serafini.
I am probably not the first to remark this, but do I detect a loose thread in your posts? Let’s see: grotesque, macabre, nocturnal, fantastical, oneiric…

Posted by: Michelangelo on June 12, 2006 09:30 PM

Yes, a post about arabesque would be neat! But does Mr. H take requests? Arabesque comes from the intricate, delicate ornamentation on Islamic buildings such as the Alhambra. By a funny turn, the term is used in Turkey to label “Middle-Eastern-sounding” pop music. The term is derogatory, at least originally, since in modern Turkey music is supposed to be either Anatolian or European in style.

Posted by: Michelangelo on June 12, 2006 09:52 PM

I do sometimes take requests (and I’ll bear this one in mind), although it can take me months or even years to fulfil them… With regard to the ‘grotesque, macabre, nocturnal, fantastical, oneiric…’—yes, that’s what you’ll find here more often than not, although I hope I don’t altogether exclude the plain, normal, wholesome, diurnal & mundane!

Posted by: misteraitch on June 12, 2006 10:43 PM

That list of adjectives covers a range of interests that is at the antipodes of my daily concerns at the office, from which I usually peek at your site. Which makes my brief visits even more enjoyable.

Posted by: Michelangelo on June 13, 2006 02:37 PM

I tossed that out but didn't expect a wish to be granted... Some day, when the light is just right, I'll look for it.

In literary and Western terms, I imagine that "arabesque" is not so much the geometric intricacies of Islamic art and its links to the elements but the portion of the art that celebrates plant motifs--and I suppose connects with the winding nature of calligraphy. I was thinking of Poe's interest in what he called the "arabesque and grotesque," but he put forward a myth about his mind that divided his work into the precise and intellectual on one hand and the lush, swooning, boundary-abolishing on the other. So perhaps he does exhibit both geometric and tendrilous forms, in some sense.

Posted by: marlyat2 on June 13, 2006 03:35 PM

Interesting—I had no idea about the geometric/foliate distinction. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has a piece by Patricia C. Smith, “Poe’s Arabesque,” (from Poe Studies, vol. VII, no. 2, December 1974), which also discusses the fortune of the two terms, especially in Romanticism.

Posted by: Michelangelo on June 13, 2006 08:25 PM

I have wondered for a long time whether there is any allegorical content attached to mannerist and baroque grotesque, or whether it was purely ornamental.

Posted by: Loxias on June 15, 2006 08:34 AM

odd , was searching for them , you have some scanned , thanks for the work....
Blimy it is skills to the bone, i luv it.

Posted by: Hemaworstje on June 25, 2006 01:03 AM

get some more

Posted by: jodie on December 15, 2006 01:59 PM

i've been searching ages for a visual reference to grotesche paintings/murals...
any suggestions?

Posted by: amanda on August 3, 2007 07:04 PM

Amanda—if there is a good single visual reference about grotesque art, I don’t know about it…

Posted by: misteraitch on August 4, 2007 08:42 AM
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