Grotesque Decoration and the Early Modern Printed Book

12 April 2024

Many of the books in Magdalen’s Old Library feature the art form known as the grotesque. In early modern European printing, grotesque imagery was widely used to adorn title pages, chapter headings, chapter endings, and even covers. This blog post explores some of our most striking examples.

What is the Grotesque?

The word grotesque comes from the Italian grottesco, which means “of the grotto”. Grotesque art is inspired by the intricate sculptural décor of Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House), built on a hillside in Rome in the first century AD.

After being buried under later construction projects, the royal residence was dramatically rediscovered at the end of the fifteenth century. According to legend, a young man on a walk tripped over, fell into a hole, and found himself surrounded not by soil or worms but by Nero’s beautifully preserved statues. Word of the forgotten palace soon spread to the artists of Rome (including Raphael and Michelangelo), who had themselves lowered into the hole on ropes to see the sumptuous art first-hand. A craze for imitative works, featuring arabesque foliage, mythical creatures and strange human forms, soon spread across Europe.

The Domus Aurea is included in this seventeenth-century reimagining of the geography of Ancient Rome (Old Library, B.10.14).

The Fontainebleau School

The grotesque movement reached its peak in the 1530s with the construction of the Château de Fontainebleau near Paris. Commissioned by King Francis I of France and designed by Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio, Fontainebleau was grander, wilder, and more elaborate than any tribute to the Domus Aurea that had been attempted before. Highlights included enormous paintings of nymphs, doors carved with life-size grimacing faces, and a hidden outdoor grotto.

Designer Rosso Fiorentino was also involved in the book arts and is thought to have conceived the title page for this French translation of the Spanish navigational manual Arte de navegar. As befits the first book ever to be written in Spanish on an important topic, the sculptural framework is spectacularly intricate, but among the wild beasts and coy satyrs lurks an unpleasant innovation: the two fauns at the bottom corners of the central text panel are vomiting. Hopefully, Fiorentino was not making a comment on author Pedro de Medina’s work but rather experimenting with ways to disconcert the viewer. In this era of the grotesque, artists revelled in the surprise and unease caused by stumbling across vestiges of another world.

Old Library, Q.12.4. de Medina, Pedro (1554). L’art de naviguer de Maistre Pierre de Medine, espaignol: contenant toutes les reigles, secrets, & enseignemens necessaires, à la bonne navigation. Translated by Nicolas de Nicolaÿ. Lyon: Chez Guillaume Roville.

Science and the Grotesque

Gaspard Schott’s Physica curiosa has been described as ‘a summary of all natural monstrosities’ (Salomão, 2009). Jesuit priest Schott was a prolific scholar who engaged enthusiastically with every aspect of science and nature. He is perhaps best-known for his Mechanica hydraulico-pneumatica (1657), in which he was the first author to describe several contemporary physics breakthroughs including the Magdeburg hemispheres experiment and the invention of the air pump.

The lavish frontispiece of this twelfth volume of Physica curiosa would have been full of surprises for seventeenth-century readers. Few people would have heard of non-European animals like the giraffe or the gorilla, let alone seen images of them. Nor would the mermaid, faun and sea monster necessarily have seemed like playful embellishments. Many scholars of the time still believed that such creatures existed on faraway continents.

Unfortunately, in its chapters on human “curiosities”, the book exoticises birth defects in a way that is discomforting to today’s readers. Lurid illustrations of conjoined twins and twisted limbs might bring to mind the modern connotations of the word grotesque: distasteful, unsettling. These new meanings arose in the 1700s along with Enlightenment values of tolerance and open-mindedness. Artists began to shy away from the sensationalist elements of the grotesque in favour of a more refined aesthetic.

Old Library, r.7.4. Schott, Gaspard (1667). Physica curiosa, sive mirabilis naturæ et artis. Libris XII. Herbipoli: Sumptibus Johannis Andreæ Endteri & Wolfgangi Jun. Hæredum.

Mini Grotesques

Here are two smaller examples of the grotesque in its heyday.

The entwined belts and tendrils on the 1552 binding are an example of ‘strapwork’, a type of decorative framework often used to support grotesque motifs. In this case, the strapwork takes centre-stage. It gives the book an air of grandeur appropriate to a treasured item.

Fauns are once again used to playful effect in the miniature edition of theologian John Owen’s Latin epigrams (brief, witty statements). Here the fauns are happily engaged in hiding behind masks and blowing horns. As with their vomiting counterparts above, their symmetrical positioning helps to create a grotto-like frame for the title.

Old Library, Arch. C.I.1.10. Lactantius (1548). L. Coelii Lactantii Firmiani Diuinarum institutionum lib. VII. De ira Dei liber I. De opificio Dei liber I. Epitome in libros suos, liber acephalos. Carmen de Phœnice. Resurrectione Dominica. Passione Domini. Edited by Markos Mousouros. Lugduni: Apud Ioan. Tornæsium, & Gulielmum Gazeium.
Old Library, Arch. C.II.1.13. Owen, John (1628). Epigrammatum Ioannis Ovven CambroBritta][n]ni, Oxoniensis. Lugd. Bat.: Ex Officina Elzeviriana.

Where It All Began

Here is a sixteenth-century reconstruction of the Domus Aurea as it might have looked in Nero’s time. Symmetrical figures adorn the entrance, while the walls of the inner quadrangles are covered in sculptural foliage. Creatures frolic around a lake reminiscent of the outdoor grotto area at Fontainebleau. This lake would have been situated where the Colosseum is today. Though artist Giacomo Lauro may have used his imagination to add detail to the image, the layout is based on archaeological research of the time and reflects much of what scholars still believe about the Domus.

The remains of the Domus have sadly endured centuries of environmental instability and some of the original décor has faded, but what is left can be visited by the public. Thankfully, the tourist route is modern and accessible, so suspending yourself from ropes is no longer required.

Old Library, B.15.17. Lauro, Giacomo (1630). Antiquae. vrbis splendor: hoc. est. præcipua. eiusdem. templa. amphitheatra. theatra. circi. naumachiæ. arcus triumphales. mausolea. aliaque. sumptuosiora. ædificia. pompæ. item. triumphalis et. colossæarum. imaginum. descriptio. Romæ: [s.n.]

Written by Jessica Woodward, Special Collections Librarian