the origin of "grotesque" -- 10/13/22

Today's encore selection -- from Haunted by Leo Braudy. The word grotesque is derived from the word grotto, Italian for cave. Over the years it has been used to describe the wild, strange, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting:

"Whereas words like terror and horror, along with dread, fright, scare, and fear itself, generally refer to a physical effect on an observer, there is a whole other class of words in the general realm of the horrific that invoke specific responses to the extraordinary creations of the natural world.

"Just as gothic originates in the realm of architecture to designate the gloomy structures of the distant (usually pre-Reformation) past, a term like grotesque also com­bines an architectural term with its ability to excite a sense of wonder and strangeness. Originally the word came from the Italian for cave, grotto.

"In the late fifteenth century, Raphael Sanzio, more remembered as a great painter, who was then head of antiquities for Rome as well as the chief architect of the Vatican, supervised the partial excavation of Nero's Domus Aurea (Golden House), which had recently been discovered to exist under what was other­wise assumed to be a natural hill near the Colosseum. The site had been dis­covered in the course of digging a well there, when workmen broke through what was found to be the dome of an enormous room. Lowered down on ropes to explore this vast underground construction, they discovered a series of equally large rooms on whose walls were paintings of mingled human and animal forms fantastically tangled with vegetation, fruits, and flowers that were dubbed grottesca -- the kind of visual images to be found in grottoes. Down to our own time, this discovery of a marvelous and perhaps terrifying world under the commonplace is mirrored in such places as Freddy's base­ment lair in A Nightmare on Elm Street and the steamy, molten interior of the climactic factory in The Terminator.

"After the eighteenth century, with the discovery of the buried city of Pompeii, this style was later named Pompeian by art historians, but grotesque remained as the general term for any abnormal combination of human, ani­mal, and natural elements.

"Later the term arabesque, which described fantasti­cal Moorish designs (although without human and animal forms) was associated with grotesque as a similarly astounding and disquieting part of vi­sual art. So it was that when Edgar Allan Poe in 1840 collected previously published short stories (including "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher") in a single volume, he called it Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. For his early-nineteenth-century readers, both terms invoked a combination of startling images that was both titillating and mysterious. Like melodrama on the stage, his stories dared the boundaries of both art and na­ture by their excesses."
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