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The Grotesque and its Meaning

The cover of this book is quite old and plain therefore I automatically thought it to be filled with old English, however I found it quite the opposite though it quotes an immense amount of Latin. It actually defines grotesque in an understandable form by viewing the words origins and extends on the meaning over the course of 2 chapters. Though it’s not completely Carnivalesque based I found it helpful in understanding the meaning behind Mikhail Bakhtin’s references to the grotesque.

The review below is of the the main chapter; Chapter 1: ‘The Grotesque: The word and its Meaning’

The word Grotesque and the words which correspond it derive from Italian. La Grottesca and Gtottesco refer to grotta meaning cave which was coined to give a name to a new ornamental style which came about in the 15th centurary. It first started in Rome then travelled to the rest of Italy at the beginning of the Christian era.

Vitruvius’ De archiectura quotes in the book: “All the motifs taken from reality are now rejected by an unreasonable fashion. For our contemporary artists to decorate the walls with monstrous forms rather than reproducing clear images of the familiar world. Instead of columns they paint fluted stems with oddly shaped leaves and volutes…For how can the stem of a flower support a roof, or a candelabrum pedimental sculpture? How can a tender shoot carry a human figure, and how can bastard forms composed of flowers and human bodies grow out of roots and tendrils?”

Vitruvius condemned the new ornamental style and his critique was supported by art critics of the 16th century, however they were unable to stop this new fashion.

In 1502 Cardinal Todeschini Piccolomini ordered Pinturicchio to decorate the ceiling of the library of Siena Cathedearl “with such fantastic forms, colours, and arrangements as are now called grotesques (…che oggi chiamano grottesche).”

Raphael applied the most famous and influential ornamental grotesques in 1515 to the pillars of Papal loggias. The criticising quote of Vitruvius’ could be applied to Raphaels creation as his work is all Vitruvius criticises.

The remainder of the chapter falls off the topic and the main reason I read this book. The grotesque was an art form, architecture Vitruvius stated a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, it must be solid, useful and beautiful; which was the opposite of this new fashion helping to coin the word grotesque and its meaning.





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