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Lomazzo, The Composition of Grotesques

Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Treatise on Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. (Trattato dell'arte della pittura, scoltura, et architettura). Milan, 1585.

This document contains Chapter 48 of the sixth book ("The composition of grotesques")

Translated by Liliana Jansen-Bella and Thomas Crombez

The composition of grotesques

Monsignor Barbaro [Daniele Barbaro, 1513-1570, "The practice of perspective", translator's note] demonstrates in his commentary on Vitruvius that he is not in favor of the free use of grotesques. He regards them as dreams and fantasies of the art of painting, because they offer a mixed composition of many different things. Painting, like every other human product, should keep a certain effect in mind towards which the whole composition is aimed. Yet I rather wish to follow the opinion of Baldassare Peruzzi, and say that they should be freely allowed in those kinds of spaces designated by Peruzzi in his commentary on the writings of Sebastiano Serlio.

Just as an image cannot be depicted in a vacuum nor without any kind of visual support, the same holds true for grotesques, which are introduced as a bizarre and whimsical ornament of representation. In a grotesque figure, the painter expresses things and ideas not through their own images, but through other types of images. So, if he wants to depict a person of good reputation, the grotesque will represent the Fame in a beautiful and merry way, but when it concerns someone with a bad reputation, the same Fame will be painted dark and black. And because I said that, in our understanding of free application, the grotesques will not fit well in a subservient part of the painting, they should be placed in blank panels in order to decorate and enrich them.

I have heard many people say that Rafael, Polidoro, Rosso and Periono have made some of the grotesques of antiquity disappear in order not to reveal where their findings derived from, which they did with great skill. Yet I do not know whether it is possible to remove grotesques and neither do I disapprove of it. Many grotesques that were painted in ancient times can be seen in Rome, Pozzuoli and Baia. For imitating the ancient grotesques, as was the case with their own inventions, the appropriate honor has been bestowed on these painters. They have learned how to express their capriccios and personal experiences through this type of painting as well. They are learning to others that one should not deviate, in everything that one undertakes, from the footprints of the ancients and from the remains on which they have left their mark.

There are many others who have also excelled in this discipline of art, such as Polidoro, Matturino, Giovanni da Udine, Il Rosso, Giulio Romano, Perin del Vaga and Francesco Fattore, who were the first to introduce animals, foliage, sacrificial gifts, garlands, trophies and other bizarre objects into the grotesques. From the decorations in ancient caves by Serapione and others they copied the finest and most elegant elements. They have have used them to decorate places all over Italy and other countries with their followers, including Aurelio Busso, Pessa and Soncino, and Giacopo Rossignolo da Livorno. These painters have delivered such amazing results that they really confuse some observers, who believe that the grotesque figures are truly dreams. These spectators are the first to concede that, if executed carefully and with creativity, art is greatly enriched by grotesque ornaments.

Troso da Monza has drawn a book full of so many different and powerful grotesque figures that I believe that there are no longer any more left to invent. In that book is actually recorded anything is possible in this kind of specialty. In sculpture, they were rare. It was especially in the art of Silvio Lucchese and the ironwork of Giovanni Batista Cerabalia that one could find grotesques. Therefore, let the whiners grumble who do not want to admit that the grotesques are artful, and who act just like people who, because they themselves are unable to design, have no idea of beauty and elegance in art. They are like the verse says:

People for whom the night falls
Before the evening has arrived

In grotesque art, it therefore possible to express lust gracefully through the satyr and the naked woman; to express the playful lover through the shepherd and the nymphs; to express the cowardice of the suitor through the beauty of the siren; to express caution through the sphinx; and all other concepts. In a similar manner as in religious painting, these concepts acquire an external form.

I will not further examine the grotesques in detail, for neither in reality nor from the artists themselves may it be known from what parts these figures are composed. Nevertheless, I wish to report, before I discuss the composition of grotesques, that in the opinion of many scholars and experts these figures are not only named ‘grotesques’ for the caves (grottesca) where the ancients sometimes took refuge to experience secret fun and pleasure with a loved one. They were also, like riddles or coded writings or symbols of the Egyptians (called hieroglyphs) deliberately made to represent a certain concept or an idea through a different shape, as we do in emblems and mottos.

I am for my part convinced that there is no more convenient way to draw and express a concept than by means of grotesque art. Only in grotesque art it is allowed to use so many forms, such as sacrificial gifts, trophies, musical instruments, vines, forms in relief, and also concave, convex, twisted and hanging shapes. Then there are all kinds of animals, foliage, trees, figures, birds, rocks, mountains, fields, skies, storms, lightning, leaves, flowers, fruits, oil lamps, lighted candles, fantasies, monsters ... In short, everything one can think or imagine.

But let us leave this remarkable analysis that treats of such diverse things, as I have mentioned earlier. I will only elaborate on the composition of grotesques, which is very important. Because they are used freely in order to please the observer, they have to be based on the authority of art, precisely because they are nothing but an expression of artistry and ornamentation suitable for specially designed and isolated spaces. And it is true that they require above all an appropriate and sophisticated composition, which may be observed in the many painters who excel in painting figures, but cannot gain any praise or honor in grotesque art. Especially since the invention of grotesque figures, even more than all other types of painting, requires some degree of rapture, and a natural capriciousness. That is the very lack of those painters, so they could make nothing of all their skill. Not much more is achieved by those who, although they arrived at bizarre and whimsical shapes, could not portray them with enough artfulness. Passion and skill go together, and both should contribute.

The composition of grotesques should always in the first place present a natural truthfulness, for example by placing trees that support candles in a central position between columns, and temples with statues in areas that show more solidity and greatness. Below, at the base, is the right place for weird animals, monsters and similar things, which serve as support. For ornaments one may use masks, harpies, ladders and cartouches which should have a solid appearance. But if they are hanging by a thread, as so many grotesque figures do, then they fit neither at the top nor at the sides.

It is also true that things that do not partially agree with nature cannot make a pleasant impression. Moreover, one must pay attention that all branches and small twigs spring from a common root for the sake of solidity, and that they are connected with the tree trunks, and the tree trunks with the stems, not unlike the flowers are connected with the leaves, the leaves with the branches and the branches with the twigs. They should also be distributed evenly. This also applies to animals, monsters, birds, children's figurines and masks, all of which should have a symbolic meaning and be adapted to each other. It would not be nice if there are more animals on one side than on the other, or all other figures at the top and the animals at the bottom, or all leaves and branches in the same place, even if they would be mixed as a whole. All those caprices, therefore, require a uniform distribution in space compositionally.

The size of the elements should take the mutual relationships into account, so that a child appears small compared to a large shape, which appears in its own turn small compared to large animals. All shapes in the painting should have a proper effect for their own sake, and be represented in a manner that indicates that they were not created randomly, but deliberately in order to achieve the result that they aim for. For example, a bird that seems to fly away from a flame or a snake-like thing should not be painted right above it. The same goes for a bird that flies towards something it desires, like a head of millet, a vase with fruits or flowers, or a water source. Moreover, for a human figure it should be obvious that it supports something, such as a frieze or something else, or that he is warming himself or engaged in any kind of action with animals and the like, or even fishing in a boat, in which case the water may be represented by thin lines as if trapped between a rock and the shore. The mountains should be painted from nature.

But because in grotesque art, unfortunately, one is free to make everything what reason, art or whim may conceive of, this cannot mean (as happens often) that arbitrary fantasies that do not make any sense are portrayed. For example, the depiction of children that are larger than men but smaller than some other figures, or birds that are larger than lions, or lizards and snails that are larger than birds. And other such nonsense, like children playing with snakes or merrily jumping into a fire, or people and animals fleeing into the air without any support nor wings, and even fish in the air without water, or very large weights hanging from very thin threads, or temples that are smaller than the hole shown in a lizard. Because of that there are not many grotesques that look nice and are well thought out. It is therefore not surprising that some who do not know better, condemn them. And they would not do so if they could see the good examples, that few artists are able to create.

He who follows natural reason in the composition of grotesques, can be sure that success will come easily and that he will be honored and famous. And so he would show a very keen insight, because in my opinion it is harder to impose order on something disorderly, than to follow something which is already ordered in itself, since it already possesses order, and demands nothing else than to be recognized as such. Concerning the grotesques, it follows that – in addition to recognizing the order – one has to transport them from disorder to the order of nature. So, when converting historical events into a fantasy one should add ornaments, as one might expect when the subject is celebrated in a poem and in other forms, in an attractive and beautiful manner. History itself, on the contrary, can simply be expressed in prose and in its own images, produced without any ornamentation.