“Infinite Follies and Nonsense” Grotesques in Renaissance Italy

October 26, 2016

“Infinite Follies and Nonsense” Grotesques in Renaissance Italy

Would a six-week lecture series with this title pique your interest? Well it did pique mine mostly because I remembered how much more I could appreciate the art I was looking at during our trip to Arezzo (See Post La Toscana January 2015) because the guide had so astutely narrowed her focus on the works of artists that were “precursors” to the Renaissance.   With this lecture series I was hoping to be able to perhaps gain some tiny modicum of insight into the world of Renaissance art.   I thoroughly enjoyed both the topic and listening to the lecturer. She received her Ph.D. in Art History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in January, 2016. Her dissertation was titled “Vasari, the Medici, and the Grotesques of the Palazzo Vecchio”.   Kingston, Ontario is a long way away from Florence and the Medici but it would seem that the passion for this art really knows no boundaries!

Grotesques are not, as I first thought, ghoulish looking gargoyles. The word was used to refer to paintings found on the walls of Roman ruins that were called at that time Le Grotte (The Grottoes or caves). These grotte were in fact rooms and corridors of the Domus Aurea (Golden House), the unfinished palace whose construction was ordered by Nero after the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD. The Domus Aurea, was inadvertently rediscovered in the late 15th century, buried under fifteen hundred years of fill. The story says that a young Roman out for a walk on the Esquiline Hills fell through a cleft in the hillside and found himself in an underground room covered with painted figures. The story does not seem to say how he made his way out or who he told about what he saw! Those who wanted to see the rooms had to be lowered down into them from above with ropes, giving the impression of going underground into Le Grotte.  And apparently many Renaissance artists wanted to see these drawings. Pinturicchio, Domenico del Ghirlandaio, Raphael Sanzio and Michelangelo went down to study them, carving their names on the walls to let the world know they had been there- Renaissance “graffiti”!

The 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari in “The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1550” gave this description of those Roman drawings:

“.. a kind of free and comical painting, made by the ancients to ornament high empty spaces where nothing else was suitable. For this, they created monsters deformed by the eccentricity of nature and by the whim and fancy of artists, who make these things without any rule, attaching to the thinnest thread a weight that it cannot hold, to a horse legs of leaves, to a man the legs of a crane, and infinite follies and nonsense; and the person with the strangest imagination is the one that was held to be the most talented. Afterwards they were well-ordered, and for friezes and compartments had a beautiful effect….And in truth, they have a beautiful grace.”

Sculptures because of their stone medium survived from Greek and Roman times. The renaissance artists drew their inspiration from these classical antiquities. The natural human form was a central part of their work. So to see all these colorful, fanciful Roman wall decorations in fresco and delicate stucco was a revelation.

It was Raphael together with his assistant, Giovanni da Udine who revived and developed the grottesche style in Rome for the decoration of the loggia of the Vatican (1517).

Giulio Romano also trained under Raphael, helping him to paint frescoes in the Vatican and the Villa Farnesina. In 1524 Romano moved to Mantua, where he created a suburban pleasure palace, the Palazzo del Te, for Duke Federigo II Gonzaga. As a court artist, Giulio produced a range of work, including architecture, painting and designs for silverware.

Obviously there is far, far more to be understood about grottesche in Renaissance art and twelve hours of lectures cannot do it full justice. And despite also having an audio guide with us while walking through the rooms of the Palazzo Te, it was hard to know where to look. There was just so much “action” and so many messages being told through the images in the frescoes that it was to say the least overwhelming.

These pictures that I took at the Palazzo del Te of the grottesche do not in any way capture the impact of the sheer number and variety of all these fantastical forms rightly described by Vasari as “infinite follies and nonsense”.  

More about the Palazzo del Te in my next post.


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