The grotesques of Palazzo Grimani in Venice
Compared to the many other Venetian palazzos from the Renaissance period, Palazzo Grimani is something unique.
The Patriarch Giovanni Grimani modelled his mansion after ancient Roman villas and the residences of 16th century Roman clergy.
For this reason, his palazzo is home to lots of grotesques, a type of decoration which was very common in renaissance Rome, but rarely used in Venice.
Let’s explore the fascinating history of grotesques, from antiquity to Palazzo Grimani.
The Domus Aurea: anti-classical antiquity
What are grotesques?
They are images which combine real and imaginary elements without telling a story or creating a realistic space.
The word appeared in the 15th century in reference to the decorations of the Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s house, which was discovered around 1480. To the people of the time, it looked like a huge underground “grotto”.
Though grotesques were around before this particular emperor, it was Nero who really fell in love with them and used them to cover entire rooms in bright and contrasting colors, gold gilding, and stuccoes.
This playful and subversive decorative style fitted perfectly with Nero’s idea of absolute power, which allowed him to break and reverse all the rules. The emperor considered his reign a continuous Saturnalia, an ancient festival similar to our Carnival, and in keeping with this darkly playful festive spirit, masks and fantastical creatures are typical elements of the grotesques that covered his home.
While they were appreciated by ancient patrons of the arts, these decorations were not favored by critics of the time. Vitruvius, in his treatise “De Architectura”, condemned the grotesques as “perversions” and “monsters”. In his opinion, art was supposed to be a faithful reproduction of reality and narrate historical or mythological events.
The classical origins and anticlassical attitude of the grotesques remained a matter of controversy in the Renaissance period as well.
Giovanni ‘the Embroiderer’: from Raphael’s Rome to Palazzo Grimani
When Raphael visited the Domus Aurea, he was accompanied by his collaborator Giovanni da Udine, a painter from Friuli who, because of his family’s profession, was also known as “the Embroiderer”.
Giovanni specialized in the “embroidery” of vaults and ceilings with delicate grotesques: he often worked with Raphael, for example in the Vatican Loggias (1517-1519), and he is buried next to the Renaissance master in the Pantheon in Rome.
Giovanni Grimani hired Giovanni da Udine to decorate his palazzo in Santa Maria Formosa in Venice.
In the Callisto Room (1537-39) the artist used an ancient stucco recipe, mixing marble and travertine. With this technique he narrated the myth of the nymph being seduced by Zeus in small rectangular frames, surrounding them with garlands, cupids, swans, and masks, covering the entire vaulted ceiling in white and gold.
In the Apollo Room, on the other hand, the stuccowork is mixed with frescoes in vivid colors, some of them depicting birds of different species suspended on fantastical plants.
There’s nothing so subversive in these grotesques by Giovanni da Udine: all the monsters have been replaced by lightness and fancy.
Weird and demonic elements became common for other artists, especially from Northern Europe: the best example would be the art of the Flemish painter Hieronimus Bosch, whose works were featured in the collection of cardinal Domenico Grimani, Giovanni’s uncle.
Yet, even fancies can be harshly criticized.
The Council of Trent discouraged the use of grotesques as improper, and Vincenzo Scamozzi stated that “where the architectural orders reign, there is no place for the grotesques that defy any architectural rule”. Another Venetian patriarch, Daniele Barbaro, also condemned them: they never appear in the rich but realist decorations of his villa in Maser, which was designed by Palladio and decorated by Veronese.
The grotesques by Camillo Mantovano
In the room known as the “Room of Leaves” in Palazzo Grimani, the decoration is by a lesser-known artist, Camillo Mantovano.
Mantovano painted grotesques in the rib vaults: though not as refined as those depicted by Giovanni da Udine, they are nonetheless just as interesting.
On the 16 rib vaults we can find 10 different themes on 10 different background colors, all organized symmetrically.
If we look carefully at them, it almost seems that they want to tell us a story: are they just fanciful imaginings or are they part of a bigger message involving the entire decoration of the room, with its realist natural elements, its Latin mottoes, and mysterious emblems?
Explore Palazzo Grimani with the Best Venice Guides and we’ll unveil all its intriguing stories!