The Grotesque, Flowers and Fruit

Biagio and Giuseppe Arcimboldi for Milan Duomo

Stories from the Old Testament (1835/1838) by Bertini workshopVeneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano

In 1480, a series of frescoes including particular wall decorations - that are defined as grotesques - were found in the underground ruins of Nero's Domus aurea (the so-called caves).

Stories of Saint Helena and the finding of the Cross (1570/1577) by Rainaldo da Umbria di Fiandra (?), Valerio Profondavalle, Pellegrino Tibaldi (?)Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano

Grotesques were reproduced as an exercise of imitatio antiquitatis, i.e., a reproduction of the antique classical form, a key focus of the Late Renaissance and 16th-century Mannerist styles.

Stories of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1556; 19th century (remakes)) by Corrado de MochisVeneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano

Vasari dedicates a chapter to grotesques in his Introduction to the Three Arts of Design, defining them as “very licentious and ridiculous pictures”.

Observing at the same time how the antique form has been reinterpreted by modern artists with superior results to the Neronian archetype.

Raphael's decorations with grotesques in the Vatican Loggias, created by Giovanni da Udine, were examples of exceptional workmanship, considered to be among the greatest expressions of the genre.

A grotesque is characterized by a light and fantastical arrangement of natural forms mixed with small human figures, whimsical animals, and little narrative scenes, structured in a symmetrical manner and on a generally monochrome background.

They were predominantly made in stucco, as frescoes, or transposed into sculpture and glass art.

The vibrant colors were used to confer an element of cheerful and engaging commentary onto architectural forms.

Miscellaneous windows from the 15th-19th century (15th to 19th century) by Various artistsVeneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano

This mostly fanciful and playful illustration does not always fulfil a purely ornamental function, but sometimes also has a didactic and encyclopedic purpose.

Stories of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1556; 19th century (remakes)) by Corrado de MochisVeneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano

The stained-glass windows within the Cathedral, dating from the 16th century, make extensive use of these decorations. The artist that applied them in the most elaborate and original manner was Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

In fact, Arcimboldo is well known today for his art "that is made to amaze". His fantastical portraits and allegorical figures were created by including flowers, fruit, vegetables, and other disparate objects in a virtuosic manner.

However, Arcimboldo's best known pieces have their origin thanks to the years of work that he carried out for Milan Duomo, together with his father Biagio, between 1549 and 1557.

The most interesting work completed by the two Arcimboldos is the beautiful stained glass depicting Stories of Saint Catherine of Alexandria for the large window located above the Cathedral's side doors.

Here you can admire the compositional originality, the great vivacity of the figures rendered with intense colors, and the propensity towards the use of imaginative and highly expressive decorative motifs.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's hand can be recognized in the nervy original design, which imparts great liveliness to the figures, through the use of intense colors and his propensity for fantastical and strongly expressive motifs.

Perhaps Arcimboldo's most interesting exercise in fantasy lies precisely in the details of the grotesques in this stained-glass window.

Cherubs with varied expressions.

Fruits, vegetables and flowers intertwine, masterfully framing the panels.

The Life of Saint Martin of Tours (1570 - first quarter of the 17th century) by Unknown master glassmakerVeneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano

Some similar elements are also found in other 16th-century stained-glass windows, such as V15, dedicated to the stories of the life of St. Martin of Tours...

Stories from the Old Testament (1835/1838) by Bertini workshopVeneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano

or in stained glass window V21, dedicated to the Old Testament.

Read more on Milan Cathedral Remixed.

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