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…’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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