AskDefine | Define grotesque

Dictionary Definition

grotesque adj
1 distorted and unnatural in shape or size; abnormal and hideous; "tales of grotesque serpents eight fathoms long that churned the seas"; "twisted into monstrous shapes" [syn: monstrous, unnatural]
2 ludicrously odd; "Hamlet's assumed antic disposition"; "fantastic Halloween costumes"; "a grotesque reflection in the mirror" [syn: antic, fantastic, fantastical] n : art characterized by an incongruous mixture of parts of humans and animals interwoven with plants

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Bizarre or fantastic in appearance
  2. disgusting or otherwise viscerally reviling



  1. a style of ornamentation characterized by fanciful combinations of intertwined forms
  2. anything grotesque

Extensive Definition

When used in conversation, grotesque commonly means strange, fantastic, ugly or bizarre, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks or gargoyles on churches. More specifically, the grotesque forms on Gothic buildings, when not used as drain-spouts, should be called grotesques or chimeras rather than gargoyles.


The word grotesque comes from the same Latin root as "grotto", meaning a small cave or hollow. The expression comes from the unearthing and rediscovery of ancient Roman decorations in caves and buried sites in the 15th century. These "caves" were in fact rooms and corridors of the Domus Aurea, the unfinished palace complex started by Nero after the great fire from 64 AD.

In art history

In art, grotesques are a decorative form of arabesques with interlaced garlands and strange animal figures. Such designs were fashionable in ancient Rome, as fresco wall decoration, floor mosaics, etc., and were decried by Vitruvius (ca. 30 BCE), who in dismissing them as meaningless and illogical, offered quite a good description: "reeds are substituted for columns fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes take the place of pediments, candelabra support representations of shrines, and on top of their roofs grow slender stalks and volutes with human figures senselessly seated upon them." When Nero's Domus Aurea was inadvertently rediscovered in the late fifteenth century, buried in fifteen hundred years of fill, so that the rooms had the aspect of underground grottoes, the Roman wall decorations in fresco and delicate stucco were a revelation; they were introduced by Raphael Sanzio and his team of decorative painters, who developed grottesche into a complete system of ornament in the Loggias that are part of the series of Raphael's Rooms in the Vatican Palace, Rome. "The decorations astonished and charmed a generation of artists that was familiar with the grammar of the classical orders but had not guessed till then that in their private houses the Romans had often disregarded those rules and had adopted instead a more fanciful and informal style that was all lightness, elegance and grace." In these grotesque decorations a tablet or candelabrum might provide a focus; frames were extended into scrolls that formed part of the surrounding designs as a kind of scaffold, as Peter Ward-Jackson noted. Light scrolling grotesques could be ordered by confining them within the framing of a pilaster to give them more structure. Giovanni da Udine took up the theme of grotesques in decorating the Villa Madama, the most influential of the new Roman villas.
Through engravings the grotesque mode of surface ornament passed into the European artistic repertory of the sixteenth century, from Spain to Poland. Soon grottesche appeared in marquetry (fine woodwork), in maiolica produced above all at Urbino from the late 1520s, then in book illustration and in other decorative uses. At Fontainebleau Rosso Fiorentino and his team enriched the vocabulary of grotesques by combining them with the decorative form of strapwork, the portrayal of leather straps in plaster or wood moldings, which forms an element in grotesques. By extension backwards in time, in modern terminology for medieval illuminated manuscripts, drolleries, half-human thumbnail vignettes drawn in the margins, are also called "grotesques".
In contemporary illustration art, the "grotesque" figures, in the ordinary conversational sense, commonly appear in the genre grotesque art, also known as fantastic art.

In literature

In fiction, characters are usually considered grotesque if they induce both empathy and disgust. (A character who inspires disgust alone is simply a villain or a monster.) Obvious examples would include the physically deformed and the mentally deficient, but people with cringe-worthy social traits are also included. The reader becomes piqued by the grotesque's positive side, and continues reading to see if the character can conquer their darker side. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the figure of Caliban has inspired more nuanced reactions than simple scorn and disgust. Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most celebrated grotesques in literature. Dr. Frankenstein's monster can also be considered a grotesque, as well as the Phantom of the Opera and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Other instances of the romantic grotesque are also to be found in Edgar Allan Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, in Sturm und Drang literature or in Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Romantic grotesque is far more terrible and somber than medieval grotesque, which celebrated laughter and fertility.
The grotesque received a new shape with Alice in the Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, when a girl meets fantastic grotesque figures in her fantasy world. Carroll manages to make the figures seem less frightful and fit for children's literature, but still utterly strange.
Southern Gothic is the genre most frequently identified with grotesques and William Faulkner is often cited as the ringmaster. Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one" ("Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," 1960). In O'Connor's often-anthologized short-story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," the Misfit, a serial killer, is clearly a maimed soul, utterly callous to human life but driven to seek the truth. The less obvious grotesque is the polite, doting grandmother who is unaware of her own astonishing selfishness. Another oft-cited example of the grotesque from O'Connor's work is her short-story entitled "A Temple Of The Holy Ghost." The American novelist, Raymond Kennedy is another author associated with the literary tradition of the grotesque.
The term Theatre of the Grotesque refers to an anti-naturalistic school of Italian dramatists, writing in the 1910s and 1920s, who are often seen as precursors of the Theatre of the Absurd.

In architecture

While often confused with gargoyles, these stone carvings are not born from the general form of a water spout. This type of sculpture is also called a chimera. Used correctly, the term gargoyle refers to mostly eerie figures carved specifically as terminations to spouts which convey water away from the sides of buildings.



  • Kayser, Wolfgang (1957) The grotesque in Art and Literature, New York, Columbia University Press
  • Lee Byron Jennings (1963) The ludicrous demon: aspects of the grotesque in German post-Romantic prose, Berkeley, University of California Press
  • Selected bibliography by Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972.
  • Dacos, N. La découverte de la Domus Aurea et la formation des grotesques à la Renaissance (London) 1969.
grotesque in Bulgarian: Гротеска
grotesque in Danish: Det groteske
grotesque in German: Groteske
grotesque in Estonian: Grotesk
grotesque in Spanish: Grotesco
grotesque in Persian: صور عجایب
grotesque in French: Art grotesque
grotesque in Croatian: Groteska
grotesque in Italian: Grottesche
grotesque in Hebrew: גרוטסק
grotesque in Georgian: გროტესკი
grotesque in Hungarian: Groteszk
grotesque in Dutch: Groteske
grotesque in Japanese: グロテスク
grotesque in Norwegian: Grotesk
grotesque in Polish: Groteska
grotesque in Portuguese: Grotesco
grotesque in Slovenian: Groteska
grotesque in Swedish: Groteskornamentik
grotesque in Turkish: Grotesk
grotesque in Chinese: 西洋穴怪圖像

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