Ornament and the Grotesque

Ornament and the Grotesque

Fantastical Decoration from Antiquity to Art Nouveau

  1. Alessandra Zamperini
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  • ISBN 9780500238561
  • 32.50 x 26.80 cm
  • Hardback
  • 308pp
  • 246 Illustrations, 242 in colour
  • First published 2008
‘Quite beautiful … a valuable contribution to the subject’ – The Art Newspaper
‘A lucid, eloquent and interesting survey … a book that both teaches and delights, inviting us to consider seriously imagery that has conventionally been overlooked as ‘mere’ decoration’ – The Art Book

Ornament and the GrotesqueDetail of a candelabrum panel by Luca Signorelli at Orvieto Cathedral

The discovery of Nero's Domus Aurea in Rome at the end of the 15th century revealed an unfamiliar, playful style of classical ornament that captured the imagination of Renaissance artists.

For the first explorers it was like entering a series of caves or 'grottoes', which is why they called the style of the painting on the walls and ceilings 'grotesque'. The first book to reveal this vast treasury, Ornament and the Grotesque brings the story up to the late 19th century and shows how it led eventually to Art Nouveau.

Far removed from the formal language of traditional classical ornament, what they saw was something essentially decorative and only semi-serious: parodies of classical mythology, fantastic hybrid monsters, men hatching out of eggs, images of perverse eroticism, impossible architectural visions, giant butterflies, mischievous putti, monkeys, sphinxes and nightmare insects - a repertoire of uninhibited imagination where nothing was taboo.

Inspired by this discovery, Italian artists, including Perugino, Signorelli and Mantegna, immediately started to copy the style. Raphael's decoration of the Vatican Logge in the early 16th century made the grotesque into a Europe-wide fashion, and it soon became an integral decorative feature of the most lavish residences, incorporating ceramics, textiles and tapestries.