Grotesque obsession

window detail from the Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museums
As an Ornamentalist 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 here in Italy.
I am also absolutely thrilled with my newest book 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, which in turn 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.

As a designer I notice how Grottesca could be adapted to any shape or size of area, and offered the decorative artist a chance add some personal statements into their work. Details designed to simpy ornament space, could have more meaning.

Rome: 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 Vatican Museums, as well as a few places elsewhere in Rome.

Spandrel ornament in the entry stairways, Vatican Museums
Grottesca ceiling in the entry stairway to the Vatican Museums
wall ornament in the  stairway entrance to the Vatican Museums, the ornament is tilted to match the angle of the stairs
Vatican - Museo Pio Clementino: detail of ornamentation by Christoforo Unterperger circa 1776
 Santa Maria dell'Anima, Rome: detail of a chapel painted by Francesco Salviati, 1548.

Florence:  The Uffizi

A large number of ceilings in the Uffizi  Galleries are ornamented with this Grottesca style. Most were painted far later than the Vatican, by about 40 years. They are busier, and full of interesting details.
Spectacular painted ceilings in the main corridors, many of which were painted by Antonio Tempesta and Alessandro Allori around 1580
detail of above Uffizi ceiling
a later style of Grottesca,  painted in the lower floor of the Uffizi, Florence
note: at this time photography is not permitted inside the Uffizi, so my images were taken by stealth.

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


Les Grotesques is now available at in English as:
Ornament and the Grotesque: Fantastical Decoration from Antiquity to Art Nouveau

also recommended: "La grottesque" by Andre Chastel 

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


  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.


What do you think? Join the conversation!