Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Medieval Grotesque

The word grotesque does not appear in that form until the 1560s, though now it is used to refer to illustrations and carvings from much earlier eras. It is from Italian grottesca ("of a cave") from Italian grotto ("cave") because it was first used to refer to paintings found in basements in the ruins of Classical Era Rome, specifically the palace complex begun by Nero in 64CE that had been abandoned and buried long ago.

We see grottesca used in Italy in a 1502 contract in which Raphael Sanzio da Urbino (better known to the Modern Era simply by his first name) agrees to decorate the Piccolomini Library attached to Siena Cathedral.

Not everyone appreciated the fanciful designs. One artist complained about

this insatiable desire of man sometimes prefers to an ordinary building, with its pillars and doors, one falsely constructed in grotesque style, with pillars formed of children growing out of stalks of flowers, with architraves and cornices of branches of myrtle and doorways of reeds and other things, all seeming impossible and contrary to reason... [link]

We use the word to describe three-dimensional art such as gargoyles. If you wanted to categorize types of grotesques in two-dimensional art, you will often see hybrids such as the illustration to the left. Another type is a strange juxtaposition or anthropomorphism such as a rabbit jousting with lance and sword, using a hybrid snail for a horse.

Sculptural grotesques originally were used for waterspouts in medieval architecture, but became their own genre of architectural decoration. Despite the complaint noted above, folk like the monk who designed Salisbury Cathedral did not hesitate to add grotesque figures that had no function other than to provide decoration. Salisbury, in fact, shows a more consistent architectural style than most other cathedrals, owing to its swift completion: 38 years, as opposed to generations for most gothic structures. In fact, Salisbury Cathedral is a good subject for the next post. See you soon.

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