Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Grotesques of the Luttrell Psalter

[f. 168r]

The Luttrell Psalter is a book that was commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell in the 14th century. It is best known for its outstanding marginalia, which combines religious events and iconography with scenes of everyday life in medieval times.

Apparently they had squirrels as pets back then, which is a bit awesome.

[f. 33r]

[f. 201r]

[f. 164v]

There is only one copy of this text in existence, however the British Library recently digitised the manuscript, and you can check it out here. So you can look at this priceless artifact without leaving your couch. Pretty cool.

The online viewer reveals that the ancient pages have retained much of their original colour, as the imagery is bright and clear throughout.

As the British Library explains, Psalters are religious texts:
The Psalms are 150 ancient songs, grouped together to form one of the Old Testament books of the Bible. In the Middle Ages (and down to the present day) they formed a fundamental part of Christian and Jewish worship, for ecclesiastics and lay-people alike; many people learnt to read by being taught the Psalms. The Psalms were often written out separately from the rest of the Bible, preceded by a calendar of the Church’s feast-days, and followed by various types of prayers. Such a volume is known as a Psalter.
Accordingly, the Luttrell Psalter contains many biblical scenes depicting the adventures of saints and angels, and includes the story of Jesus himself (click to enlarge all pictures).

[f. 86v]

[f. 90v]

[f. 93r]

Due to my limited religious knowledge, I can't identify precisely what is going on in many places, although some events are rather disturbing.

E.g. is this a zombie execution?

[f. 108r]

This naked man appears to be stuck on a cactus. Not that he is getting any sympathy.

[f. 106v]

[f. 60v]

Who or what is this sinister hooded figure?

[f. 60v detail]

Why is this two-faced werewolf being told off?

[f. 54v]

I don't remember any of this happening in the Bible.

[f. 47r]

[f. 38r]

[f. 34r]

Excuse me what.

[f. 155v]

At this point it's probably obvious that the Luttrell Psalter is much more than 'just' a book of Psalms. As well as many scenes of rural life in the 1300s, it is packed with rude and beautiful medieval grotesques.

[f. 154r]

A number of anonymous artists participated in illustrating this text, but it seems one very imaginative person in particular may have been responsible for the creatures. The British Library again:
The finest decoration is in the central section of the manuscript, painted by the most gifted of the artists. His pictures display acute observation and attention to detail - he even tidied up some of the other painters' work. His clear talent for inventiveness and gentle humour is expressed in the so-called 'grotesques': hybrid monstrosities that may combine a human head, an animal/fish/bird body, and a plant tail. The animals have attracted the interest of scholars and public alike. Many of these must have been products of the artist's imagination, and seem unrelated to the text they accompany.
And there are so many. Big ones. Small ones. Ones with bird hats.

[f. 30r]

[f. 212r]

[f. 201v]

[f. 58r]

Or birds with hats on...

[f. 185r]

[f. 186v]

That guy above seems to be wearing the medieval version of a fedora.

I can't emphasise enough: if you are a fan of grotesquerie, surreal art, animals, or weirdly wonderful things in general, you need to check out the Luttrell Psalter.

[f. 168r]

It's really difficult to try and pick my favourites, but here are a few more amazing ones (there are many others):

 [f. 48r]

[f. 27r]

 [f. 50r]

[f. 203v]

 [f. 56v]

[f. 81r]

[f. 82v]

[f. 50r]


[f. 182v]

[f. 72v]

[f. 61r]

[f. 74r]

[f. 200v]

 [f. 191r]

[f. 188v]

[f. 194v]

For first-time users of the BL digital archive, please note - to access the Luttrell Psalter, first go here, then scroll down and click 'View: bindings':

Then you can use the buttons on the upper right to turn the pages and explore the book.

To find specific pages, use the drop down menu on the furthest right. You can see the reference number for each page - e.g. f. 56r - and you can chase up all the grotesques I've posted here that way as well.

(Adding these instructions because it took me a little while to work it out the first time. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.)

 [f. 77r]

Right, I think that's enough gushing from me. If you're interested in these kinds of texts and images, I would encourage you to follow the British Library's medieval manuscripts people on Twitter. Click the 'traditional grotesque' keyword tag below if you want to read other posts about these kinds of beasties.

[f. 52v]

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Down In The Grotto

Hello there. Been a while.

Got a bit overwhelmed with other things and lost my blogging mojo this year. Oh well, it's nearly over. Bring on 2014.

But I have been missing my grotesques, and recently remembered that I hadn't blogged about the Medici grottos in the Boboli Gardens. So let's try this, for a gentle re-entry into grotesquerie...

In addition to the incredible Palazzo Vecchio, which I posted about here, the Boboli gardens were one of the highlights of my stay in Florence. Not only are the grounds utterly magnificent, but they stretch for miles and you can explore all day if you want (and have the fitness for some extreme hills).

More importantly - at least from my biased perspective - the gardens are also a haven for sculptural grotesques.

Possibly inspired by real life rather than pure imagination...

This pathway had a drain running down the side - each step punctuated by a different grotesque head vomiting water into the channel below:

But for me these were all preambles to the real novelty - the Medici grottos.

By way of a quick reminder:

The word grotesque comes from the same Latin root as "grotto", which originated from Greek krypte "hidden place," meaning a small cave or hollow.

Of course, the dark places that inspired the creation of the term grottesche were not real caves at all, but the buried rooms of the Domus Aurea (which I also visited, sort of). For this reason I find the creation of artificial grottos during this time very interesting. It promises to reveal something of how 16th century artisans imagined the origin space of grotesquerie; the kind of environment in which grotesques emerge and belong.

And honestly, I had never seen anything quite like this before (click photos to enlarge):

Some contextual info via Atlas Obscura:

[T]he Buontalenti Grotto was commissioned by Francesco I de’ Medici in order to complete the previous Vasari project, a complicated plan to create a huge nursery garden which was left unfinished.

[...] The facade is completely overlaid with concretions similar to stalagmites. The tympanum is displayed in the center and the Medici coat of arms is supported by two mosaic feminine figures symbolizing Peace and Justice. The background of the facade, on which all of this sits, is decorated by mosaic frames containing sea goats and other mythical designs.

Once inside, visitors notice that the Buontalenti Grotto is divided into three communicating rooms. The first, bigger than the other two, has walls decorated with fake stalactites and stalagmites, sponges, stones, and shells that are laid out to resemble anthropomorphic figures. Carved by Pietro Mati, these designs are meant to resemble a natural grotto - with a twist.

Here, in the main room of the Grotto, is a hole in the center of the ceiling where a fishpond was once set. (Before the restoration, the entire place was filled with waterworks, including sluices, which forces the water to create iridescent shimmers on the walls.) The hole is set in the center of ceiling frescoes that represent an arbor with wild animals and satyrs designed by Bernardino Poccetti.

The way the concrete has been applied makes everything look like it's dripping and oozing, yet frozen and hard at the same time. A very unique and uncanny effect. Especially with faces peering out from the depths.

Atlas Obscura use the term "concretions" to describe the style, which I love, because it does look like concrete is secreting from the walls. (The normal use of this term actually refers to natural formations.)

While the Buontalenti Grotto is the largest of these man-made caverns, the gardens are full of smaller grottos, many of which are decorated in the same style. Some are closed, and it was difficult to get usable photographs of their dimly lit interiors through the bars.

Some had clearly been stripped and left to serve as party spots for locals.

Others had been more carefully preserved.

As shown above, more familiar grotesque forms are also present in some of these grottos, where "concretions" form the backdrop, or even provide textured frames for paintings and frescoes.


I would recommend a visit to the Medici grottos if you ever get the chance. Just make sure you wear sensible shoes. The Boboli gardens eat high heels for breakfast.