Grotesque 1560

Grotesque is a term which defines a particular mural or sculptural decoration involving mixed animal, human, and plant forms.

 The word is derived from the Italian grotteschi, referring to the grottoes (caves) in which these decorations were found c. 1500 during the excavation of Roman houses such as the Golden House of Nero. Grotesque decoration was common on 17th-century English and American case furniture.

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Bomarzo monster face

The word grottesco in the Renaissance period, were used it to designate a specific ornamental style suggested by antiquity, understood not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one.

A world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid.

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Grotesque Art

Nicoletto da Modena, a Grotesque engraving on paper, about 1500 - 1512, Italy.
Nicoletto da Modena, a Grotesque engraving on paper, about 1500 – 1512, Italy.

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Artists began to give the tiny faces of the figures in grotesque decorations strange caricatured expressions, in a direct continuation of the medieval traditions of the drolleries in the border decorations or initials in illuminated manuscripts.

From this the term began to be applied to larger caricatures, such as those of Leonardo da Vinci, and the modern sense began to develop. It is first recorded in English in 1646 from Sir Thomas Browne:

“In nature there are no grotesques”

By extension backwards in time, the term became also used for half-human thumbnail vignettes drawn in the margins, and carved figures on buildings are also called “grotesques”.

Leonardo Da Vinci Profile Study of a Grotesque Head, c.1500-1505.
Leonardo Da Vinci Profile Study of a Grotesque Head, c.1500-1505.

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A boom in the production of works of art in the grotesque genre, characterized the period 1920-1933 of German art. In contemporary illustration art, the “grotesque” figures, in the ordinary conversational sense, commonly appear in the genre grotesque art, also known as fantastic art.

In Architecture

In architecture the term “grotesque” means a carved stone figure.

Grotesques are often confused with gargoyles, but the distinction is that gargoyles are figures that contain a water spout through the mouth, while grotesques do not.

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.

In the Middle Ages, the term babewyn was used to refer to both gargoyles and grotesques. This word is derived from the Italian word babbuino, which means “baboon”.

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Engravings, woodwork, book illustration, decorations

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.

Pilgrim Bottle, 1560-70, Italy, Urbino, Tin glazed earthenware (majolica).
Pilgrim Bottle, 1560-70, Italy, Urbino, Tin glazed earthenware (majolica).

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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.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the grotesque encompasses a wide field of teratology (science of monsters) and artistic experimentation. The monstrous, for instance, often occurs as the notion of play.

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