Ornament and The Grotesque

Alessandra Zamperini, Ornament and the Grotesque: Fantastical Decoration from Antiquity to Art Nouveau, London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.

Grotesques in candelabrum arrangement
Fresco painting
Loggie di Rafaelo nel Vaticano

A lavish survey of the grotesque style in European painting and decoration, from Roman times to the late nineteenth century.

In the fifteenth century, the ruins of Nero’s Domus Aurea were discovered in Rome. The first explorers to enter the interior of this spectacular palace complex had the sensation of finding themselves in a series of grottoes, and this is why the fanciful frescoes and floor mosaics discovered there were called "grotesques."

As Nero's Golden House was unearthed in Rome at the end of the 15th century, its sumptuous interiors not only sparked renewed interest in ancient culture but also revealed an unfamiliar, playful style of ancient ornament. Far removed from the formal language of traditional classical ornament, what was found was something essentially decorative and only semi-serious. Walls and ceilinga were adorned with parodies of classical mythology, fantastic hybrid monsters, images of perverse eroticism, impossible architectural visions, giant butterflies, mischievous putti, monkeys, sphinxes and nightmare insects - a repertoire of uninhibited imagination where nothing was taboo.

A fashionable form of ornamentation in ancient Rome, grotesques consist of loosely connected motifs, often incorporating human figures, birds, animals, and monsters, and arranged around medallions filled with painted scenes. Inspired by this discovery, fifteenth-century Italian artists such as Perugino, Signorelli, Filippino Lippi, and Mantegna immediately started to copy the ancient Roman examples, incorporating their motifs in their own work.

The most famous use of the style was Raphael's Loggie (c. 1518) in the Vatican Palace, which became immensely famous and influential all over Europe. Raphael's arrangements and motifs made the grotesque into a European-wide fashion, and it soon became an integral decorative feature of the most lavish residences, incorporating ceramics, textiles and tapestries.

This magnificently illustrated book covers the entire history of the grotesque in European art, from its Roman origins through the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century. It reveals the key periods, influences and artists that shaped grotesque ornament, from its origins in Roman and medieval art to the discovery of the Golden House, the Classical revival and its most important stylistic developments between the 15th and 19th centuries. The book also illuminates how grotesque decoration was transformed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into arabesque, chinoiserie, and singeries, and how it continued in the nineteenth century, leading eventually to Art Nouveau.

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