Have you ever wondered where fabric patterns come from? Sometimes it’s hard to find it out. But other times we’re absolutely certain about it. And that’s the case with grotesque decorations: they adorned baroque, rococo and neoclassical fabrics, but their history began long before that.

They’re so old that the first who so them were Roman emperors.

The origins of grotesque decorations

Have you noticed that the adjective “grotesque” contains the word “grottoes”? All the fault of Nero’s Domus Aurea and of the people who discovered it.

In 1480 a young man accidentally fell into one of the caves on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. And he saw that its walls were covered with colourful paintings showing monsters, chimeras, sphinxes and other queer figures. These frescoes immediately drew hosts of artists who decided to call them “grotesques”, since they’d been found in grottoes.

The grotesques in the Library of Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, painted by Luzio Luzi and inspired by the frescoes of the Domus Aurea.

They realised only later that those, as a matter of fact, weren’t caves, but rather the underground remains of Nero’s Domus Aurea. And that the same kind of decorations could be found in the palaces of other Roman emperors: the oldest ones date back to the 1st century BC. But by then the name “grotesque” had already spread among painters, just like the news of this discovery.

Grotesques in Renaissance art

Those illustrations were indeed a perfect example of classical harmony: bursting with fanciful creatures, natural elements, vases and garlands, but all showing thin outlines and a perfect symmetry. In short, the ideal kind of decoration for framing a fresco on the ceiling or on the walls of a palace.

And so countless painters started going underground, into these caves, to see these wonders with their own eyes and copy them in the Renaissance houses of popes and nobles. That’s why now you can admire what Ghirlandaio sketched into his notebook, if you visit the Tornabuoni chapel  in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence – they’re in the fresco with the Nativity of Mary, on the wooden panels behind the women.

But you can find them in the Orvieto Cathedral, in Rome, Bologna and Siena, and later in France, Spain, England and even the United States. Indeed, grotesques enchanted other artists, too, such as Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Filippino Lippi and, most of all, Raphael and his workshop.

But the time came when Renaissance artists ceased making mere copies of Roman frescoes: they started inventing their own animals, plants, vases and architectural elements and used them on stuccoes, frescoes… and tapestries.

And that’s when grotesques first embellished fabrics.

From frescoes to baroque patterns for fabrics

From Baroque to Neoclassicism and till the Victorian age: grotesque decorations remained popular from the 16th to the 19th century. But following the different rules of each art movement.

The pattern of our Grottesche velvet, for example, dates back to the late 1800s, when there was a vogue for style mixtures. That’s why it features elements from the 16h, 17th and 18th century.

The sphinxes, winged women and the face between the latter are typical of the 1500s. But the face already pushes you into the Rococo: it isn’t simply the head of Medusa or some other mythological creature. No, it’s part of a rocaille. And what’s this?

It’s the imitation of an oddly-shaped rock, or a stalactite, or a shell. At first it decorated only gardens, but during the 18th century it began appearing inside houses, too, on furniture and textiles.

And what about the baroque elements? Take a look over the rocaille. You may have seen that baldachin before, in a baroque church. Or the shelves on which the sphinxes sit: they resemble baroque architectural elements, too, with their volutes, wavy lines and elaborate structure.

Are you wondering how difficult it could be to produce such kind of velvet on a handloom? Very difficult, and we’ve discovered it while we worked on a fabric for the Kremlin: this is its story.

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