From Ornament of Late Antiquity to Netherlandish Grotesque

On one of the seven hills of Rome – the Esquiline Hill – caves full of ancient paintings were excavated around 1480 under the foundations of medieval buildings. Their walls were decorated with fantastic, light and symmetrical structures created of figural, animal and floral motifs. La grotte, or caves, were in fact ruins of the villa of the Emperor Nero. It was called Domus Aurea because of the extraordinarily rich decoration of the walls and the inner part of the dome, which were covered with gold and paintings. They were created between AD 54 and 68 and related to the turn of the Third Style and Fourth Style of Pompeian painting.

Grotesque, Raphael Santi, decoration of the Vatican loggias, 1518, source: Wikipedia, public domain

The term grotesque (grottesche) was derived from the name of the finding (la grotte). The way the ornament is called can also be translated as “weird, weirdness”. In its form, grotesque resembled ornaments of ancient origin popular in the Renaissance, namely arabesque or Islamic moresque. However, they both assumed the shape of a more or less stylised braided plants; on the other hand, grotesque was enriched with numerous additional motifs, and it created a fantastic structure. Formally, the latter was also close to its predecessor – the late medieval braided plants – since characters and animals were entwined in it in the same way. However, in medieval ornament it had an apotropaic or allegorical function.
Renaissance ornamentation was immensely influenced by the discovery of Domus Aurea. The finding was the main source of inspiration for artists, even though at that time there were known examples of other ancient grotesques decorating, for instance, the Colosseum and Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. The popularity and strengthening of the fashion for Renaissance grotesque was primarily an effect of the influence of works by artists from the early 16th century, which were travesty of ancient paintings. The most important works of art in this field were paintings of the Vatican loggias, the Villa Madama and Palazzo Baldassini – the works of Raphael and his apprentice Giovanni da Udine. They were almost a total novelty in the field of decoration and this contributed to their extraordinary popularity among contemporary artists. Grotesque became a decoration type widely known and used in the 1st half of the 16th century (especially after 1520) thanks to the Italian works mentioned above, as well as widely accessible patterns created by ornamentalists.
Through numerous imitations of ancient grotesque in various art centres, this ornament gained its local variants. Netherlandish grotesque, even though based on the same formula as the Italian one, had a slightly different structure and elements. It gained extraordinary popularity thanks to replicated in graphic arts designs of Cornelis Floris or Cornelis Bos (e.g. The Book of Moresque of 1554), ornamentalists unequalled in their skill and imagination.
Initially, Netherlandish grotesque included mostly floral motifs but in time, because of oriental inspirations, exotic animals and fantastic creatures appeared, as well. The following mythological motifs were depicted particularly frequently: pairs of deities, their frolics, Bacchic processions, and various fantastic creatures or hybrids of human, animals and plants. In their details, depictions of an allegorical nature and even allusions to the exoticism of the New World (e.g. figures of Indians) can be noticed.
Netherlandish grotesque seemed to be, above all, more filled up than the Italian one. It had a much richer repertoire of motifs, and its spaces, separated in a certain way by the structure (scaffolding), were almost entirely filled with ripe fruit garlands and putti, as well as exotic plants and animals. However, horror vacui did not disturb the sense of order, which was controlled by the symmetry of the arrangement of all elements of the decoration. Interestingly, in its expanded form, the scaffolding structure, on which individual elements were based, was similar to metal fittings and fragments of rolled metal sheet, heralding the ferrule ornament that appeared in the art of the Netherlands in the mid-16th century.
The specificity of Netherlandish grotesque was its characteristic dualism manifested in the almost encyclopaedic realism of some depictions of plants and animals (species of which we are able to recognise), as well as fantasy affecting construction of its form, typical of this ornament.

See also:
Borders of tapestries of the Story of the First Parents, Story of Noah and Story of the Tower of Babel series;
Grotesque tapestries of monogram, heraldic and under-window types
Grotesque decoration of a pharmaceutical mortar

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Aleksandra Bernatowicz, Niepodobne do rzeczywistości. Malowana groteska w rezydencjach Warszawy i Mazowsza 17771821 (Unlike reality. Painted grotesque in residences of Warsaw and Mazovia), Warszawa 2006;

Magdalena Piwocka, Arrasy z groteskami (Tapestries with grotesques), [in:] Arrasy wawelskie (Wawel Tapestries), edited by Jerzy Szablowski, Anna Misiąg-Bocheńska, Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa, Magdalena Piwocka, Warszawa 1994, pp. 271–348;
Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych (Terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts), Krystyna Kubalska-Sulkiewicz, Warszawa 2007.