"If I am not grotesque, I am nothing"
This halloween, we invited our subscribers on a bewitching journey through the Renaissance in exploration of the grotesque tradition. If you are wondering why you are only see this now on our blog, get on the list.
A goat spews out foliage that ends in torches and an urn grows out of its head, while a sphinge carries her string of baroque pearls. The road to logic does not venture near grotesques.
The history of the grotesque dates back to the fourth Pomepian styles of classical antiquity, but we will start our journey at the European "Renaissance," ignoring historical debate about whether such a thing took place.
Nero's Domus Aurea was discovered in the 15th century, the grotte of which were painted with fantastical frescoes. Hand painted with trompe-l'œil architectural details, fabled beasts, acanthus foliage and of course, grotesque masks. All this, organised symmetrically. The theatricalities of these rooms were considered the height of human art, and were referred to extensively. Most supremely, in Raphael's Loggia. The style was thereafter named "grottesche" after the grotte they were found in.
In architecture, a grotesque refers to the grotesque mask- a gnarly, disfigured face often associated with the Green Man and later mascarons. This decorative ornament has been adapted to each era in different styles, usually sculpted on keystones or carved on doors to prevent evil spirits from passing through. You may be familiar with a similar horned mask hanging outside India homes, often with a black face and a red tongue.
A Parrot & Lily grotesque happens to be our ideal of beauty
Grotesques are the origin of much of 18th century European ornamentation. Copperplate prints of the Domus Aurea frescoes as well as the Vatican Loggia were widely circulated and most artists would have a collection which they would use as pattern books. From entire panels in neo-classical arabesques to individual elements in rococo scrolls, parallels from almost any motif can be found in grotesque prints. These were used in architecture and decoration, but also referenced in painting. The faces of the Elders in Artemisia Gentileschi's Susanna and the Elders are reminiscent of a grotesque mask.
Today, you can find these elements in fabrics, including the toiles de Jouy that we discussed last week, boiserie, porcelain, and much more. But their primary function is decorative, and so the depictions do not make much logical sense. They are a product of the highest imagination of the time. While later art often served to tell religious stories, a grotesque has no real functional value. And neither do our halloween grotesque panels.
A pair of chimerae are intertwined with a flaming torch in this small grotesque panel
Parallel grotesque traditions developed in all parts of the world, notably Cambodia, China and Japan. Their significance in decorative art can not be overstated. Velázquez taught us with the Rokeby Venus that the reflection of ideal beauty is for us to fill in. Who is to say it can't be a Renaissance grotesque?