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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Grotesques

This blog is prompted by my reading an excellent little book entitled Les Grotesques by Philippe Morel, Flammarion, 1997 (little is the word - not only the actual size but the font is minute not more than 8 point which makes the read an arduous task). It describes and theorizes about the grotesques with which a great many Italian palaces were decorated in the latter half of the 16th century. There are some 180 photographs illustrating wonderfully imaginative grotesques and their ensembles, together with full notes and a good bibliography.

I read it in the hope of learning the connection between the grotesques of medieval manuscripts, Renaissance decoration and Renaissance books, particularly the frames of the pictures in such books which are often made up of grotesques. Then there is a further connection between the grotesques and the books of monsters of which many were published in the 16th century and the satires of the age which were illustrated by grotesques e.g. the Songes Drolatiques de Pantagruel. I was also interested to learn whether the grotesques constituted a language or allegorical sign system which could be fitted into the genres of symbolic literature.

The use of grotesques in the margins of illuminated medieval manuscripts is well-known and Morel refers to the practice briefly. There was an obvious thread from these marginalia into the decorative schemes of the 16th century and it is clear that the tradition had been going on for many centuries. Horace, the Roman poet, in his vastly influential Art of Poetry opened his poem with a castigation of the grotesque:

Suppose a painter to a human
Should join a horse's neck, and wildly spread
The various plumage of the feathered kind
Oe'r limbs of different beasts absurdly joined;
Or if he gave to view a beauteous maid
Above the waist with every charm arrayed
Should a foul fish her lower parts infold
Would you not laugh such pictures to behold?
(trans. Francis)

Morel quotes St. Bernard who wrote in about 1130 and complained about the stupefying number of bizarre forms which could be seen in cloisters and, he says, in books. But despite these objections, the thousand year old tradition continued and by the 16th century, grotesques were widespread in the decoration of Italian palazzi where they reflected several aspects of the on-going debate which obsessed Renaissance theorists as to the nature of art and poetry. Aristotle had validated mimesis as the objective of poetry but how was this to be defined and what was the contribution of imagination? (Many of the treatises of Renaissance poeticians are reviewed in detail in a splendid book by Teresa Chevrolet L'idee de Fable: Theories de la fiction poetique a la Renaissance, Droz 2007)

The primary meaning of mimesis was clearly copying but copying what: nature and human activity as it was or as they could be imagined? And if the latter, were non-existent forms acceptable? The debate flowed back and forth between the extremes and in the meantime the practice of decorative grotesques continued. It had been orthodox belief at least since Isidore of Seville that there were areas of nature that were undiscovered and it was there that monsters and grotesques might be found. It is not a coincidence that the period of decoration that Morel covers in his book, the late 16th century, is exactly the moment when books of prodigies and monsters were most popular e. g. Boiastuau’s Histoires Prodigeuses of 1561, the Prodigeuses of Lycosthenes of 1557 and Ambroses Paré’s Des monstres et prodiges of 1573.

At the same time, there was recognition that important similarities existed between different species, even between animals and plants, that indicated links or connections of some kind between them and it was accepted that animals such as Horace describes in his poem could be created by the union of different species and these hybrids were thus not necessarily non-existent and certainly not unimaginable. But this was more than a sort of primitive darwinism. It reflected the contemporary paradigm of a sympathetic relationship between all created things of which the familiar connection between microcosm and macrocosm was just one example. (see the full discussion by Michel Foucault in Les Mots et Les Choses Paris 1966 rendered in English as The Order of Things) Sympathy counterbalanced by antipathy, what we call attraction and repulsion, was the driving mechanism of the world and of life, a notion first formulated by the earliest Greek philosophers with their dynamic of love and strife, eros and eris. Without the sympathy between created things, the world would revert to the primal chaos. The grotesques, therefore, illustrated a profound belief by contemporaries about the physical nature of the world and existence.

Morel also makes it clear that from the artistic point of view, the grotesque phase of decoration was a conscious reaction to the defining style in Renaissance art of greater realism and perspective. Here was an aesthetic which was non-realistic and fantastic but not, let it be said, entirely random. Even compositions of grotesques should observe a balance between order and freedom; what was essential according to G.P. Lomazzo in his treatise Tratto dell' arte della pittura (Milan 1584) was a 'certain creative force and natural weirdness.'

Apart from the symbolic meaning of those monsters and hybrids in the bestiaries, and described for instance as late as 1614 in the Cinqs Livres des Hieroglyphes by Pierre Dinet, there was no attempt to create a coherent symbolic language with the grotesques such as the hieroglyphic language was recognized to be (although the hieroglyphic translation by Renaissance scholars was largely fanciful). Both grotesques and hieroglyphs were found in decorative schemes alongside other symbolic species such as emblems and devices. As such and in their paradoxical and incoherent forms, they followed the paradigm of the age: the ongoing search for ways to conceal and reveal the mysteries of heaven and earth.