Grotesques

This post is an answer to question posed in the previous blog post:

Q.  “Who are we?”

A.  We are grotesques, inlaid into the terra cotta floor of the Reading Room in the Laurentian Library, in Florence, Italy.

libreriaThe Library’s Entry Vestibule and Reading Room were designed by Michelangelo. They are notable because of the radical ways in which architectural elements are used without strict adherence to their traditional/ expected/functional roles. The tall vestibule, an interior room, is made to feel like an outdoor courtyard, literally outside-in.  There are large corbels (brackets) that don’t physically hold anything up, and window-frames surrounding planes of opaque stone rather than glass.

It is a prime example of the style called Mannerism. From Wikipedia, “Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities. Mannerism favors compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance (work).”

I had been taught that the Laurentian Library was both conceived of and fleshed out by Michelangelo. Because of this, I thought that the faces inlaid in the floor were made from sketches by Michelangelo. However, in a correspondence with Leonard Barkan, a scholar, currently at Princeton University, with many deep interests including Literature, History, Art History, Classics, and Meaning, I learned that this was not the case. He wrote:

The faces on the floor of the Laurentian Library are indeed interesting, in the fashion of grotteschi, which were a widely diffused style of decoration throughout the sixteenth century and beyond.  They probably don’t have much to do with Michelangelo himself.  The Library was realized from what appear to have been his very generalized architectural designs, but he seems to have had very little input as regards the details, since it was all done after he had definitively left Florence.  And the letters we possess on the subject suggest that he wasn’t very closely connected with what was going on in the construction.  The drawings for the floor were (we’re told) by Niccolò Tribolo.  For a brief account in English, see: http://www.bml.firenze.sbn.it/ing/tour_of_the_complex.htm

The inclusion of this assortment of cartoon-like heads in this stately space may have been done in order to include the wild, sensuous, and willful side of human nature along with the sublime, intellectual and religious side.

Grotesques are found in architecture throughout the world. The following Gothic examples are from the Bayeux Cathedral, in Bayeux France.

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Bayeux images courtesy of  George P. Landow

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