ANNE WANNER'S Textiles in History   /  book reviews, articles

  The Magic World of the Grotesque
16th and 17th century Grotesques in the Applied Art of Western Europe from the Hermitage Collection
by T.H. Kossourowa
St. Peterburg, 2000
151 pages, catalogue of 174 objects, most of them in coloured photos


  Engraving, ornamental pattern,
Daniel Hopfer, Germany, ca. 1530


  The present catalogue accompanies an exhibition which will be shown in the Hermitage Museum next year. It concerns the collection of Western European applied art of the Hermitage, which is little known not only abroad but also in Russia. The exhibition is devoted to the most characteristic ornament of the Renaissqance era - the grotesque. Altogether 174 objects from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries will be exhibited, most of them for the first time.
  The ornament of the grotesque first flourished in classical antiquity, then fell into oblivion, it re-appeared in Italy in the fifteenth c. For its name it is indepted to the archeological excavations of Roman ruins, known as grottoes. In 1480 in one such grotto the famous golden House of nero was discovered.
In Manierist Western European art the idea of absurdity increasingly permeated the grotesque and in sixteenth-century France it experienced a new revival espescially in the interior decoration of the royal chateau of Fontainebleau.
The italian development also left a mark on the development of the grotesque in Germany in the major centres of ornamental engravings in Augsburg and Nuremberg.

Pillow case featuring acanthus scrolls on the border
and half-figures of putti
Linen and silk, 43 x 34 cm, Inv.No T 9615
Italy mid 16th century

Tapestry: Spring-Venus, unknown workshop,
silk, gilt thread and wool, Inv.No T 6992
Brussels, Flanders, , 1560s,

  In tapestries the grotesque developed into an autonomous ornamental genre. The ornament was used to decorate the borders of subject compositions

Detail of
a filet border featuring sphinxes, human and dog's figurines
Linen, 9,5 x 74 cm, Inv.No T 7864

Crimson band with depictions of gryphons and birds
Silk, gilt and silver thread, 105 x 21 cm, Inv.No T 2276
Italy, late 16th - early 17th c.

  For embroidery one can call the grotesque era indeed a "golden age". Gold and silver embroidery in relief imparted to the pattern the volume and monumentality, characteristic of sculptural reliefs. The use of "or nue" technique brings embroidery close to paintings.
In applique work the masters of embroidery used contrasts of texture and colour.
Amateur needlewomen especially favored Assisi work. In drawn work and filet technique the pattern was executed on white linen or filet net.
In religious embroidery grotesques decorated alter frontals or orphreys of vestments.

part of a suit of armor (leg piece)
engraved steel, Inv.Nr. 3.0.3973
Augsburg (?), Germany, 1530-40

Plate featuring large grotesques,
Majolica with polychromatic and lustre painted decoration, diameter 32,5cm, Inv.Nr. 412
Master N. Gubbio, Italy 1530s-40s

  The grotesque can be found in all kinds of decorative art. It was used for decoration of panelled walls, in embellishing of furniture, in majolica-producing centres like those of Faenza, Siena and Urbino. The Ornament can be found in Limoges enamels as well. It also established itself in the decoration of gold- and silverwork, it was used in vases carved from hard species of stone.
Also the history of arms and armour is linked with general tendencies of development in decorative and applied art: the Hermitage collection contains a series of embossed helmets, shields, pieces of armour and metal covers for saddles. Firearms from the second half of sixteeenth century were decorated, the grotesque being one of the component parts of the ornament.

home   content Last revised August 3, 2001 For further information contact Anne Wanner