10 April 2008

Grotesque obsession

window detail from the Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museums
As an Ornamentalist (and posting this while currently traveling in Italy) I can't help but obsess just a bit about the grottesca ornamentation that covers entire ceilings and indeed whole rooms in some of the places I have  been visiting  recently.

I am also absolutely rapt with my newest aquisition: Les Grotesques by Allessandra Zamperini.  A comprehensive and lavishly illustrated book that traces the history of this form of ornamentation , from ancient Pompeii to the bestiaries and drolleries of medieval manuscripts, to the discovery of the Domus Aurea in the 15th century that inspired Raphael and his contemporaries to create an entire system of "grottesca" ornamentation, and what we might consider the first decorative painting of the modern era.  Grottesca has endured as a major influence in painted decor for centuries, including singerie, neo-classical, and 19th century revival interiors. I bought the French version of this astounding book while in Florence and have only slightly minded its weight in my luggage this last week.

ground zero for Grottesca
In future travels I'd love to visit the Guila Romano, Palazzo Farnese, Villa d'Este and some of the other fabulous villas that sport this kind of painting.
This time, I did get to spend a long day at the The Vatican Museums:
Grottesche ceiling in the entry stairway to the Vatican Museums
Spandrel ornament in the entry stairways, Vatican Museums
Grottesche wall ornament in the entrance to the Vatican Museums

Renaissance "grottesche" ornamentation created by Raphael and his team of decorative painters in 1517-22.

Vatican - Museo Pio Clementino: detail of ornamentation
by Christoforo Unterperger circa 1776

this splendid bit is in a window inset
 Santa Maria dell'Anima, Rome: detail of a chapel painted by Francesco Salviati, 1548.
Florence: The Uffizi
Spectacular painted ceilings in the main corridors, many of which were painted by Antonio Tempesta and Alessandro Allori around 1580
detail of above ceiling

A small spandrel ornament on the lower level of the Uffizi

note: photography is not permitted inside the Uffizi, so my images were taken by stealth.
Some of the other stealth photographers sharing this work on the web:
groenling's flickr set

All of the images in this post photographed by Lynne Rutter, April 2008.

Select any image to view at larger size.

Les Grotesques is now available at amazon.com in English as: Ornament and the Grotesque: Fantastical Decoration from Antiquity to Art Nouveau
also recommended: "
La grottesque
" by Andre Chastel

update:  Incredible book detailing painting techniques by contemporary master Carolina d'Ayala Valva:   the Art and Techniques of Grottesca


  1. glorious stuff. too beautiful to be grotesque ;)

  2. Just spectacular! I didn't realize Raphael did decorative painting.

  3. Thanks for mentioning this book Lynn! I had been looking all over for a quality art book on Italian Grotesque painting since visiting the Vatican Museum this summer. I too was rapt each time I saw them in a museum. We saw such work in Vienna too.

    1. HI Amy
      yes in Vienna this look was extremely popular int he 19th century and there are many fine ceilings in the MAK as well as the Kunsthistoriches Museum.

  4. Stunning grotesques! What wonderful images. Will returning to your blog often! many thanks.


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