In architecture and decorative art, a mural or sculptural decoration combining animal, human, and plant forms. The word derives from the Italian grottesco, in reference to the grottolike underground rooms (grotte) where such ornaments were found during the excavation of Roman buildings circa 1500. The grotesque was revived in the Renaissance, and a fashion for it in 16th-century Italy quickly spread to the rest of Europe; it was used most frequently in fresco decoration (painted, carved, or molded) until the 19th century.
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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.
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.
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.
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.