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In search of Grotesques

By Simon Paterson, BAFRA Magazine 2010



I recently traveled to southern Italy to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples where I saw very fine examples of third period frescos. These frescos reminded me of elements within marquetry and more broadly in the Neo-Classical architectural styles of the late

18thC. I recognized details that I have studied during my restoration of 18th and 19th C Boulework furniture. I was curious to know more.


Where have we got this broad base of stylistic fantasia from? Is the discovery of Pompeii as important to the origins of Neo-Classical style as I have always been led to believe?


I began my journey in Sorrento where I had the good fortune to discover that craftsmen in this area specialize in marquetry. I also found a museum dedicated to the history and development of marquetry in this region of Italy.  The Sorrento Intarsia Museum, in the Via San Nicola, contains a fascinating collection of antique and modern marquetry furniture. The exhibition focuses on the technical and decorative characteristics of intarsia schools and workshops from the Sorrento area. There are also many cabinets containing fine examples of foliate scroll and figurative marquetry, and below these are drawers showing some of the fine original pen work drawings used in their creation.  One of the reasons for the success of the marquetry industry in this area is the large number of people visiting the impressive sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum following their excavation in the mid 18thC. The craftsmen in Sorrento created their industry on the strength of the ‘Grand Tour’, a ready market for portable trinkets.


The traditional marquetry of the region seems to consist of three distinct elements:-

1. Figurative work, showing pictorial scenes of the tarantella dance of the region.

2. Flowing foliate decoration which frequently incorporates grotesques and animals.

3. Mosaic decoration, believed to pre-date and even to have inspired Tunbridgeware, (according to the museum catalogue).


There is a style of inlayed grotesque mask that seems to have developed specifically within the Sorrento area.  The face is squeezed in the centre, like sucking in ones cheeks, and above and below the mask are elaborate foliate forms. These masks are sometimes accompanied by a mouth ring or foliate ears.

I note that one of the local timbers available to the craftsmen of Sorrento, (an area of thriving citrus fruit orchards), is Orangewood which was widely used in their marquetry. This gives a warm orange glow to much of the furniture, especially in contrast to ebonised pear-wood. The use of natural woods such as olivewood and walnut as well as ivory is often enhanced by the use of penwork to bring out the details of the design. Later designs incorporate coloured timbers to give more contrast but the tendency seems to be to more and more intricate designs so that the mass of inlayed shapes confuse the eye.


I then visited the excavations of Herculaneum, where digging begun in1738, and Pompeii discovered in 1748. It was not until 1828 that open air digs were authorized, making the sites more available to tourists.  The frescos at Pompeii have their origins in a Hellenistic style, as Alexander Speltz tells

us in the ‘History of Ornament’ (Studio Editions 1989),‘The artists were probably of Greek origin from Alexandria a Greek colony in Egypt, occupied by Rome’ (which may also explain the Egyptian elements within the frescos ay Pompeii).


The main elements of the third period frescos from Pompeii seem to be:-

- Foliate scrolls and festoons.

- Acanthus leaves.

- Figures and Faces (often of gods, deities and cherubs standing on or propping up imposable structures).

- Architectural elements, (such as columns, plinths and candelabra).

- Framing or cartouche, (dividing an area off for special treatment).

- Grotesques.

The grotesques are particularly interesting in there form and variety. These fantastical creatures are sometimes half human or combinations of parts of animals making recognizable mythical beasts: Maenads, Centaurs, Winged Horses, Sea Monsters, Winged Sphinx, Caryatids and Masks. There are many similarities with the grotesques I have observed on inlayed furniture.

On my return I spent some time reading up on the origins of the Neo-Classical style in the 18th Century and whether there were links with the frescos at Pompeii or if this was a  misconception on my part.

Thanks to Peter Thornton’s ‘Form and decoration in the decorative arts’ (Published by: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1998), I have discovered that this artistic style seems to have developed following the discovery of another important but earlier ancient Roman excavation.  Since the middle-ages, and thus pre-dating the discovery Pompeii, the ruins of the ‘Palace of Nero’ in Rome have been accessible, through caves under the city (the word ‘cave’ is ‘grotte’ in Italian, giving us the source of the word ‘grotesques’).  Thornton says, ‘The earliest depictions of grotesque ornament are in the fresco Santa Maria Novella in Florence dating from the late1480’s, where such patterns are represented as being inlayed into wood panelling’. This date places the fresco at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.

The Vatican had much to do with the spread of this rediscovered classical ornament.  Thornton goes on to say, ‘From 1480 onwards successive Popes invited a shoal of artists to Rome to make the Christian capital as magnificent as possible’. The most notable of these artists, in the context of the development of grotesques, seems to have been Raphael.   

Raphael of Urbino traveled to Rome in 1508 to decorate some important rooms in the Vatican. Raphael was appointed warden of antiquities in Rome at a time when the ruins of Nero’s palace were being excavated. Many rooms in the palace were found to be decorated with a network of grotesque patterns on white background. This clearly inspired Raphael who went on to decorate several rooms and corridors in the Vatican in close imitation of this ornamentation.  According to Thornton ‘Raphael’s great gift to posterity in the realm of decoration was to devise a less crowded form of grotesque ornament, more logically organized than the antique originals, while still retaining the dominant elements of fantasy’.  Rome was sacked in 1527, dispersing the artists who had worked under Raphael and thus spreading the elements of classical Roman design throughout Europe.


The Roman excavations at Pompeii certainly had some influence on the 18th Century inlay designs. There is evidence of the use of books of prints, showing Pompeian fresco designs, as inspiration for artists. These books were published widely throughout Europe and helped to popularize the neo-classical revival of the 18th C. But it is worth remembering that the neo-classical period had already begun before the excavation of Pompeii. According to English Furniture, (Thomas Arthur Strange, McCorquodale &Co) it was not Pompeii that James Adam visited in 1756 but Rome ‘where he made many drawings of antique buildings’. Strange also tells us that, in the mid 17th C ‘Inigo Jones was one of the first English Architects who studied in Italy the old Roman ruins’, and introduces grotesques into England, ‘with as much weight, but with less fancy and embellishment’.


When I am next working on a piece of marquetry or Boulework furniture with grotesque forms I will be more aware of their Greek and Roman origins. I think there is more work to be done to discover the symbolism of the grotesques and their origins. I will now have to plan a trip to Rome to see the work of Raphael and if possible his inspiration.


Visiting The Palace of Versailles

 By Simon Paterson Published in the Valley Diary 2015

I recently visited the Palace of Versailles and Trianon. I wanted to share what we saw to encourage you to go.


From the outside the main Palace is very striking with gilt gates and newly re-gilt windows and rooftops crests.  It was built over a long period from the original hunting lodge in 1623 to the completion of the palace in 1789.


We entered the grand hall and through to the dramatic two-story space that is the King Louis XIV Chapel with it’s painted ceiling and sculpted columns and gilt ornamentation.


In the Kings State Apartments there were several wonderful pieces of furniture. Because it is my particular interest I photographed the Commode by Andre Charles Boulle circa 1708.


The parquet known as the Versailles pattern that is only found in the royal rooms. The servant’s areas have terracotta tiles as was thought appropriate to their status.


There was little original furniture in the main palace as unfortunately most of it was sold after the French Revolution. Today some of it is in the British Royal Collection and our Queen’s desk is from Versailles.


We walked through many rooms with sumptuous style and grand proportions, until we came to the famous Hall of Mirrors. It is a dramatic space, with fantastic views across the gardens. But with so many tourists it was hard to get an impression of the true spectacle of the gallery.


Through a side door was the Kings Bedchamber with the royal bed surrounded by gold, red and grey tapestries in a room predominantly in gold. In the 18thC the royal bed was regarded as having the same status as the throne and it would have been necessary for everyone passing it to bow or curtsey whether the king was in the bed or not.


We left the Grand Palace and crossed the park to The Trianon.

From here we were invited to see Marie-Antoinette’s private theatre, which was wonderfully lit as if by candlelight. We crossed the upper gallery and then backstage behind the curtain. The theatre still has the original flats and backdrop with a scene from a peasant’s hovel.


The Petit Trianon was built between 1763 and 1768 and was in effect a gift for Marie-Antoinette from Louis XVI on his accession to the throne.


Between 1800 - 1815 The Grand Trianon became a residence by Napoleon Bonaparte.

One of his rooms decorated  in lavish colours with pink fabric and a fabulous green malachite bowl on stand, which was a gift to Napoleon in 1808 by Tsar Alexander I.


In one of Napoleon’s private rooms is the leather chair that would normally sit by his desk in the office and his private cabinet for secret papers. We saw Napoleons Bee motifs and other elements recalling the triumphant revolution over the excesses of royalty.


Finally we re-entered the rooms used by the last King. In 1833, Louis-Philippe proposed the establishment of a museum dedicated to “all the glories of France,” before he was forced to abdicate in 1848.


We were overwhelmed by the regal quality of the Palace. I urge you to visit and see for yourself.

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