Grotesque (ornament)

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Grotesque decor in the Sala di Giove , Palazzo Farnese , Caprarola

In the history of art, grotesque (also: grottesque ; from Italian grottesco to grotta , 'cave', 'grotto') is understood as an ornament form that was particularly popular in the Renaissance and Mannerism , and made of “fantastically designed”, delicate, light and airy arrangements Tendrils exist that can include animal and human figures, fantastic hybrid creatures, vase motifs, architectural elements and others in addition to plant forms.


Ancient grotesques, decorations in the Domus aurea , Rome, around 64–68 AD.

The term, first documented for 1502, originated in the Renaissance , soon after around 1479 in Rome in the domus aurea of the emperor Nero, ornamentally painted halls of Roman antiquity were discovered, whose peculiarity is evident from the description of wall decorations in the 7th book of the Architectura des Vitruvius covered. Because these were found in buried, i.e. supposedly underground rooms, they were referred to with the adjective grottesco (Italian : cave- like, wild, fantastic), derived from grotta ( Italian : cave ), which since then has not only applied to such ancient wall decorations, but was also applied to their modern derivations and then beyond that to distorted and exaggerated descriptions in the visual arts and literature.

In early imitations of the ancient frescoes that appear in the work of various artists from around 1480 - especially with Pinturicchio , Filippino Lippi , Ghirlandaio and others. a. -, the motifs are still pushed together and show a rather heavy style through acanthus tendrils.

Italian ornamental engraving with grotesques, Nicoletto da Modena, ca.1500 - ca.1520.

In contrast, from 1515 Giovanni da Udine from Raphael's workshop painted loosely composed garlands and pendants in the loggias of the Vatican , which are considered the most prominent and exemplary examples of grotesque painting of the Renaissance. Wall paintings in the Villa Madama (Rome, 1518/27), the Villa d'Este (Rome, 1560/72), the Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola (1579/1600) and many other Italian palaces and villas join up these ornaments went out of style in Italy with the end of Mannerism after 1600. North of the Alps, on the other hand, they are further developed and modified through ornamental engravings.

The engravers Hans Sebald Beham , Daniel Hopfer and Peter Flötner are southern German representatives of a Roman-inspired ornament style. Candelabra are a popular main motif here. The north, on the other hand, first developed completely independent variants of the grotesque with the so-called Floris style , then the fittings , the roll , the tail and the auricle . They were based on the production of copperplate engravings in the Dutch publishing centers and also showed lasting effects in northern German architecture from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 17th century.

An even more continuous development can be observed in French art: the grotesque engravings by Du Cerceau (1550/66) were still based on Italian models. Curly ribbons and swaying tendrils are typical of Étienne Delaune's sheets (1560/80). In the 17th century the tendrils became heavier and more vegetal, the modification and mixing with other ornamental motifs (e.g. the arabesque ) resulted in a conceptual blurring. With the bandelwork (1680–1720) and the rocaille (1730–1800) in the 18th century, French ornamentation became elegant and light again, and the pictorial context of the rococo shellwork again approximated the idea of ​​the grotto , but it became the antique one Leave the meaning background and scope of the grotesque in the narrower sense here.

Inspired by the excavations in Pompeii in the middle of the 18th century, from around 1760 classicism consciously reverted to the original grotesque elements, whose Roman-imperial origins were very well perceived. Starting in Italy, this Pompeian style spread to the rest of Europe, especially France, England and Northern Germany.

In historicism , and especially since the Vienna World Exhibition in 1873 , the recourse to the Renaissance increased and revived the use of grotesque ornaments: in handicrafts (furniture, metal, faience , wall decoration), in book art and in architecture.

Image examples


  • Grotesque. In: Lexikon der Kunst , Vol. 5. Ed. By Wolf Stadler a. a. Karl Müller Verlag, Erlangen 1994, pp. 258-260
  • Friedrich Piel : The ornamental grotesque in the Italian Renaissance. Berlin 1962.
  • Günter Irmscher: Ornament in Europe 1400–2000. Cologne 2005, pp. 107–146 and a thorough bibliography
  • Carsten Peter Warncke: The ornamental grotesque in Germany 1500–1650. Berlin 1979.

Individual evidence

  1. Duden : Die Groteske , online at
  2. a b "Groteske", in: Lexikon der Kunst , Vol. 5, ed. by Wolf Stadler u. a., Karl Müller Verlag, Erlangen 1994, pp. 258-260, here: 258-259

Web links

Commons : Grotesque (ornament)  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Grotesque  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations