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Grotto of the Villa Haas estate
Grotto in the park of Wilhelmsthal Palace

A grotto ( Italian grotta , 'cave', later 'vault') is a hollow space of small size that may have been created by nature or by humans and has a high degree of moisture. Originally natural cavities can be heavily overworked by humans. Man-made or modified grottos are design elements of garden art.

Closely related to the Italian word “la grotta” is “il grotto”. The grotto was originally a cave used as a rock cellar to cool food. In the Swiss canton of Ticino , in particular , a small restaurant on the mountain slope is now called a “grotto”.

Word field "Cavities in rock and soil"

  • A natural cavity is called a " cave ".
  • "Grotto" is either a small rock cave or a building that simulates a rock cave.
  • A hollow space artificially dug by humans horizontally or (accessible) at an angle in naturally occurring material is a tunnel . Most of the tunnels are also tunnels.
  • A vertical cavity is a shaft , both in naturally occurring material and in a building. A (cave) shaft was created naturally.

"Grotto" and "Cave"

The exact differentiation of the terms filled geological , speleological and Germanistic works for decades and still today . In traditional parlance, the term “grotto” refers more to individual, mostly small rooms with an extremely rich content (e.g. stalactites, shells, fossils), whereas the term “cave” mostly refers to halls and passages of larger dimensions. In a cave system traditionally referred to as “grottoes” in the plural, a single “grotto” is a hall; several of these halls in cave systems are connected by corridors.

A precise delimitation of the meaning of the terms “grotto” and “cave” is not possible because there are no uniform, generally binding definitions for the terms. The Association of Austrian Speleologists only calls natural cavities "caves". He recommends not referring the term “grotto” to such cavities, since “its definition […] mostly also includes artificial objects.” Accordingly, the term is not used “incorrectly”, but it often causes confusion when one uses natural cavities referred to as "grottos".

Nevertheless, even in the 21st century, natural caves are occasionally referred to as “grottoes” (e.g. by the Institute for Nature Conservation and Nature Conservation Law Tübingen).

Cultural history of the grotto

Natural caves and rock springs were considered to be the abode of nymphs and other chthonic beings in ancient times . In Hellenism and Roman times , such sanctuaries were architecturally set in the form of nymphaea , furnished with niches and sculptures. Even in late antiquity, however, facilities were created that only "cited" such mythological traditions and had predominantly profane art character.

In the Renaissance, the garden art elements of antiquity were taken up with the world of gods. Leon Battista Alberti (1452) already recommended creating cool, damp grottos in gardens, and in the 16th to 17th centuries niches on lining walls , water features and architectures lined with uncut natural stone (e.g. tuff) and shells were part of the standard program of larger gardens .

In France, the Italian examples were soon imitated and further developed ( Fontainebleau Castle , Palace of Versailles ). In the north, too, the grottoes soon became part of the repertoire of the palace gardens ( Hortus palatinus , Munich Residence , Hellbrunn near Salzburg).

The idea of ​​the grotto is always associated with the element of water; This reference to nature can be expanded through romantic-religious conceptual content, through mirrors ( Giardino Giusti , Verona) and mysterious twilight, magically unreal ideas can be created, they can be designed into mineralogical rarities cabinets, treacherous water jokes in the immediate vicinity of the caves (example: Hellbrunn water games ) serve to amuse court society. The placement of the grottoes is just as varied as the variety of types. As a wild, rugged imitation of nature, placed on the garden boundary, it can lead over to the grown landscape; on the other hand, grotto elements are often integrated into the basement of palace buildings themselves and determine the character of the garden halls (examples: Pommersfelden , Wilhelmsthal Palace , New Palace in Potsdam). A grotto is either a building built underground or at least appearing underground, or a correspondingly decorated pavilion as part of the garden architecture. While gardening theorists lost interest in cave architecture in the early years of the 18th century, the specialist craftsmen known as cave makers found work in gardening practice until the end of the Rococo . It is indicative of their acceptance that the rocaille , the asymmetrical, shell-like ornament of the Rococo period, has developed from the grotto motifs since 1730 and is used in all decorative applications.

Another important group of grottoes are the Mariengrotten . Most of them go back to the Grotto of Lourdes , an originally natural cave of small size, little more than an overhanging rock. Marian caves were artificially created around the world due to the popularity of the Lourdes cave.

Attributes of the type "ugly"

Anyone who uses the attribute “ugly to the grotto” does not intend to imply that they consider grottos to be ugly (“X is as ugly as a grotto”). The most common is the alternative interpretation, according to which the first part of the attribute can be traced back to the Swabian or Palatine word “Krott” ( High German “toad”). Attributes such as "badly grotto" or "wrongly grotto" are probably analogies to the word "ugly grotto ".


  1. Der Duden (spelling): Overview of meanings: "Grotte, die"
  2. Lukas Plan: Speleology, Speleology . Association of Austrian Speleologists. October 2007
  3. ^ Institute for Nature Conservation and Nature Conservation Law: Landespflege Freiburg. "National Natural Monuments". FKZ: 3510 82 3500. Final report . January 2014, p. 12
  4. ^ Alberti, De re aedificatoria, Book IX, 4
  5. ^ Hans-Martin Gauger: Grotto wrong is krotten wrong . German Academy for Language and Poetry. November 15, 2010


  • Kilian Jost: Rock landscapes - a 19th century building task: grottos, waterfalls and rocks in landscaped gardens (dissertation), Zurich 2015.
  • Uta Hassler, Julia Berger, Kilian Jost: Constructed mountain experiences - waterfalls, alpine scenery, illuminated nature, Munich 2015.
  • Uta Hassler (ed.): Rock gardens, garden grottos, mountains of art: Motifs of nature in architecture and gardens, Munich 2014.
  • Brigitta Mader: Observations on historical terminology: Grotte and Höhle in German texts . ACTA CARSOLOGICA, XXXII / II pages 83-90, Ljubljana 2003.
  • Dieter Hennebo and Alfred Hoffmann, History of German Garden Art, Vol. 2, Hamburg 1965, pp. 71–74

Web links

Wiktionary: Grotto  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Grottoes  - Collection of images, videos and audio files