Sunday, September 12, 2010

Vitruvius, Baby, One More Time

Another entry in the haphazardly historical review of grotesque writings. This time its Roman architect and writer Vitruvius in De architectura or Ten Books on Architecture, dated to somewhere between 25 and 15BC (full text available here).

I don't really have time to get through all ten books... tragic, I know.

So, here is Vitruvius' opinion on the-style-that-would-one-day-be-known-as-grotesque, as quoted by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574):

"All these motifs taken from reality are now rejected by an unreasonable fashion. For our contemporary artists decorate the walls with monstrous forms rather than reproducing clear images of the familiar world.

Instead of columns they paint fluted stems with oddly shaped leaves and volutes, and instead of pediments arabesques, the same with candelabra and painted edicules, on the pediments of which grow dainty flowers unrolling out of roots and topped, without rhyme or reason, by figurines. The little stems, finally, support half-figures of human or animal heads. Such things, however, never existed, do not now exist, and shall never come into being.

For how can the stem of a flower support a roof, or a candelabrum pedimental sculpture? How can a tender shoot carry a human figure, and how can bastard forms composed of flowers and human bodies grow out of roots and tendrils?"

Raphael's decoration of the Vatican Loggias is a good example of what Vitruvius is complaining about, as this work is based on designs sourced from ancient remains. These pics of the Russian Hermitage Museum feature exact replicas of Raphael's overwhelming ornamentation, as copied by his pupils. So colourful. Click for a closer look.

One day my roof will look like that. One day.

Vitruvius is translated slightly differently by Morris Morgan, who writes this section as:

"But those subjects which were copied from actual realities are scorned in these days of bad taste. We now have fresco paintings of monstrosities, rather than truthful representations of definite things.

For instance, reeds are put in the place of columns, fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes, instead of pediments, candelabra supporting representations of shrines, and on top of their pediments numerous tender stalks and volutes growing up from the roots and having human figures senselessly seated upon them; sometimes stalks having only half-length figures, some with human heads, others with the heads of animals.

Such things do not exist and cannot exist and never have existed. Hence, it is the new taste that has caused bad judges of poor art to prevail over true artistic excellence. For how is it possible that a reed should really support a roof, or a candelabrum a pediment with its ornaments, or that such a slender, flexible thing as a stalk should support a figure perched upon it, or that roots and stalks should produce now flowers and now half-length figures? Yet when people see these frauds, they find no fault with them but on the contrary are delighted, and do not care whether any of them can exist or not."

Cobbled together bodies have clearly been causing affront to the principles of realism, symmetry and 'good art' for centuries.

[Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536)]

[Sebald Beham (1500-1550)]

I'm getting all my historical pics from Wikimedia Commons these days. Great resource.

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