The Gothic and the Grotesque: The Mysteries of the Golden Mansion

Posted by Rarignac on May 27, 2012 in Guest Blog, Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Domus Aurea. © Rarignac

Bordeaux, Midi, La Fête de la Pentecôte, 2012

The Gothic and the Grotesque: The Mysteries of the Golden Mansion

It has been a month since I agreed to serve as Stirling’s guest blogger for May, and on all but two of the past thirty-one days, I have spent an hour or more preparing my blog.  Most evenings were passed before my keyboard till wee hours grew muckle.  In that I ended up working more than I intended, mea culpa.

My first blog shared an idea born of my own restless Gothic Imagination, the Gothic expedition.  Believing that ideas can cling to the material, encrust themselves on specific time-space locales that we can with a little effort return to and visit, I have attempted to search out a few terrestrial nodes relating to Gothicity.  The prospect of discussing my experiences and engaging with you has motivated me, and I thank Stirling for generously allowing me to present some of my more heretical notions at a location where those interested in the subject might access, challenge, reject, adopt, or ignore them.  In this my last of four blogs, I hope to complete my tales of vagabonding within the Gothic, for I am tired, a thousand miles and several centuries from home, and, like Dorothy or Alice, without any sure idea of how to return.

What I have abstracted from my reports thus far is a constant: the Gothic rises out of the graves of the most honoured and ancient of our unknown predecessors.  It was previously noted how Gothic cathedrals were raised over ancient burial sites, how the considered aesthetic statements of the Gutar and Greek are concerned with facilitating the voyage of the dead through eternity; I should add that a morbid preoccupation, and a music celebrating it, was also the principal theme that emerged from my young goth interview in Stockholm.  Hence the black.

Last week, I moved back in time and into a more academic mode and took a critical look at the Vampire as I probed ‘Gothic’ as a useful aesthetic category.  When last I broke off, Polidori had collided with Alaric: a mystical creative energy had literally run into an indomitable material force possessed of a profound spiritual anger.  While Gibbon’s phrase — “the rude savages of the Baltic were destitute of a taste for the elegant arts, and they despised the ideal terrors of a foreign superstition” — reads as historically apropos, the meaning of his “ideal terrors” is not entirely clear.  The ideal terror of Eleusis was deeply embedded in its cult, though the shadow of the divines’ residual terror was projected into tragedy.

The remains of the Boukoleion, Dionysian home, near the theatre. © Rarignac

During my Grecian interlude, I reserved an afternoon to visit the Illisos, where the Dionysian Lesser Mysteries were held, only to find that what’s left exposed of the river bed, where virginal Artemis had her hunting ground, is now given over to desperate, predatory promiscuity.  Despite the site’s natural beauty (disfigured), my visit was anything but peaceful.  From there I went to the Dionysia, the Athenian temple to the god of theatre, where a score of tourists pondered the stony remains, the youngest wondering when the ride would begin.  Finally, I found the nearby Boukoleion, the god’s Athenian home that he graciously made available to the royal Archon and his wife, where I was again alone and at peace.  From the cavernous Ploutonium to the Boukoleion, Dionysian dwellings inform my final meditation.

Dionysus at the Vatican. © Rarignac

Dionysian Worship

Dionysus was a dying-god, and — through his bride Persephone and a Zeusian lightning flash — recurrent father to himself.  An icon of torch-bearing Iakkhos, the infantile Dionysus, was displayed at the head of the procession leading from the Temple of Iakkhos, by the Kerameikos cemetery, to Eleusis for the Greater Mysteries.  The principal place of cult to the god of vegetation, fertility, and wine, however, was the Athenian theatre, situated near the god’s city residence, the Boukoleion.  Dionysus in the form of a statue was enshrined on the stage during performances.

Iakkhos at Eleusis. © Rarignac

Commenting on the Dionysian theatre in “Preface to Cromwell”, Hugo helpfully remarks that “history and its religion are mingled on its stage.  Its first actors are priests; its scenic performances are religious ceremonies, national festivals” (¶ 19).  Athen’s principal Dionysian festivals were semi-annual: in spring, the City Dionysia was held, during which trilogies of tragic representations (accompanied by a satiric restatement of theme) were featured; in winter, there was the Lenaea, at which comedies were performed.  The contiguous Lenaea, Anthesteria (feast of the dead), and Lesser Mysteries intercommunicated through Dionysus.  From these festive liturgical celebrations arose Greek drama.  Satyr plays, consisting of mime, phallic procession, frenzied, ecstatic maenads, orgiastic worship and drunken revelry, elucidate the Socratic contention that poetry is produced only when reason is no longer in the poet [1].  In recalling its improvisational origins, Aristotle acknowledges drama’s attachment to Dionysus’s cult: comedy had been the domain of the leaders of the ritual phallic processions of the Leneae; tragedy, the incantations of the leaders of the dithyramb at the City Dionysia.  Aristotle’s two great genres thus flow from and unite within the twice-born masked god.

Metallic cult image of Iakkhos. © Rarignac

Comedy is “humorous in its treatment of theme and character and has a happy ending” [2], “bringing to nothing what is in itself null” [3].  When a comic plot, a series of actions marked by error and faulty judgement, has run its course, comedy’s often twin-protagonist is habitually left where he began.  When all’s well that ends well, all begins anew.  No matter how torturous the path comic figures are set to wander, the difference between beginning and end points is negligible or insignificant.  As Edmund Burke wryly remarks, “Pleasure, when it has run its career, sets us down very nearly where it found us” [4].  Man proves incapable of being more than he was to begin with.  Comedy, in portraying humanity’s contradictory nature, beast-like (lusting) and godly (loving), reveals worldly truths, and laughter’s salty tears purify.  Comedy functions through psychically distancing the spectator from an objectivised protagonist (perhaps explaining the efficacy of the device of the doubled figure).

In contrast, Tragedy, depicting a “protagonist engaged in a morally significant struggle ending in ruin or profound disappointment” [2], is a rite of blood sacrifice (initially that of the scapegoat, Tragos) displaced.  Its goal is to purify and enrich the sacred community, the audience, through finalities.  In Tragedy, plot’s end exposes a singular protagonist whose status in the world and vision of himself have been profoundly and permanently altered.  Tragedy charts, within a finite moment observed from beyond the pale of temporality, a protagonist’s precipitous fall from on high, a fall, it is often revealed, preordained by the gods, the hero realising a destiny against which he had struggled in vain.  Tragedy functions on a principle of spectatorial identification with a sujectivised protagonist.

Dionysus conserved at the Vatican. © Rarignac

Aristotle’s analysis posits devices of recognition, reversal, and suffering as providing drama with the means of sacramental purification of the audience and its spectators, catharsis.  Catharsis, induced by a properly constructed drama, is implicitly contrasted with miaron — pollution, filth, shock — resulting from an ill-balanced drama [6].  In exteriorizing human soul-life and projecting it into the stage’s ritual space, tragedy represents a world turned by undying primal passions, in which the immaterial assumes substance as an irresistible, restless force.  Pity and Terror, Aristotelian motor of tragic catharsis, furnish the spiritual means for tragedy to attain its raison d’être: the transformative purification of the spectator’s soul.  Whether from within or without, the conditions that affect a protagonist are merely the means to the end of altering the spectator, offering a form of sacramental communion — the blood spilt unjustly pumping, injury-transfused, to the breast of the spectator through Sympathy —, the soul of the sacrificed protagonist enriching that of the living audience member.  The tragedy’s sequenced actions horrify to prepare the way for expiatory sacrifice.

As Pity and Terror channel tragedy’s treacherous emotional currents, the Ridiculous and Pompous are germane to comedy.  The often inflicted but trivial pain suffered by the comic protagonist is regarded as humorous (think Three Stooges), the pain seems ill-addressed, the reaction exaggerated or inappropriate, and fear manifest by a comic figure is dismissed as cowardliness or idiocy.  The mortal and moral pain of the tragic hero is sympathetically felt by the spectator as akin to his own and — since tragedy represents portentous and painful incidents — eventually, at the point of resolution and purgation, as an ennobling delight, for the protagonist’s suffering has been established as appropriate.  Tragedy’s disquieting delight derives not from amusement at the pain inflicted on the protagonist but from relief that a taboo violated has been expiated, revenge has been wrought, the dead have been vindicated, the gods propitiated, the world and the soul cleansed of spiritual contaminants.  Tragedy is morally hence spiritually gratifying.

Emergent from the romance of the Romantic age, sibling Comedy and Tragedy perverted gave birth to intercommunicating forms that proved so popular that they have been the poetic mainstay of the last quarter-millennium.  The usurping misshapen child of comic form and tragic action, deposer of the classic, was given the name ‘Melodrama’.  While some link its birth to the rise of Capitalism and industry, and others see it materialise whole in Rousseau’s Pygmalion, Peter Brooks famously traces the melodramatic impetus to a vacuum created by a perceived death of the Sacred in the excesses of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, “the epistemological moment” that signals “the final liquidation of the traditional Sacred and its representative institutions” — Church and Crown —, “the shattering of the myth of Christendom, the dissolution of an organic and hierarchically cohesive society, and the invalidation of the literary forms—tragedy, comedy of manners—that depended on such a society” (15).  Reasonably, what collapsed in the late-eighteenth century was something far less spiritual than the Sacred per se — even during the Terror, the revolutionary ideals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité remained profoundly religious; God still breathed.  What is true is that the anointed representatives of traditional sacral institutions were driven from the temple of civic life.  In a polar reversal, institutional power flowed from the citizen, God dwelling within each individual.  Man, comic figure incapable of being more than he is, granted new powers and importance, and Man, tragic hero, pre-ordained sacrifice of propitiation, met in the Melodrama to establish a new identity.


It seems doubtful that melodrama was intentionally created to express any particular moral, philosophic, or aesthetic point of view.  Rather than to fill a vacuum left by a collapse, melodrama more likely was a detonator, coming into being in reaction to sacred institutions still in place though set to implode.  Melodrama was first and foremost an improvised but decidedly formal development, a terrain of synthesis, forcibly experimental, in which the tastes, interests, and moral outlook of its public played a leading role in defining thematic and moral contents, and establishing the conventions of form.  As in Britain under the Licensing Act (1723), the performance of all published dramas in Bourbon France fell within the exclusive domain of Royal theatres [7], those few privileged institutions granted Royal monopoly.  Limited to unpublished, non-repertorial works, the Parisian boulevards’ theatres presented dumb shows which became progressively and more compellingly spectacular as the 18th century drained away and increasingly elaborate industrial deus ex machina were developed.  Deprived of dialogue, Melodrama required the representation of direct action.  Choreographed to music, structured by tableaux and non-dialogued action scenes — often demarcated by explicative intertitles —, these presentations mimed popular works, plots whose general outlines were already familiar to the audience.  The boulevard theatres readily and rapidly adapted the latest ‘best sellers’, modifying plots to be more palatable to the audience’s tastes and sensibilities when necessary, and incorporated them into an ostensibly heterogeneous repertoire, but one in which the operational genres shared many if not most underlying conventions.  To create mood and intensify audience pathos, music exploited classical and eventually Romantic devices that were charged with affective resonance.  The creation became auxiliary to the human receptive instrument.  By elevating the importance of reception above the art object, the boulevards’ commercial theatres tailored the homogenizing melodrama to order.

The father of Melodrama, René Guilbert de Pixérécourt, maintained: “To succeed in the theatre, the choice of a dramatic subject” is everything.  Dramaturgy should be the product of a single author, organised in “acts, not by tableaux”, and include: 1) a subject at once dramatic and moral, 2) natural dialogue, 3) simplicity and veracity, 4) delicate sentiments, probity, heart, 5) a mixture of gaiety and interest, sensitivity, 6) the reward of virtue and punishment of crime, 7) soul and sentiment (493).  Pixérécourt exploded Boileau’s unities of place, action, and time, judging the unity of place not only dull and monotonous, but almost always improbable.  As a reaction against effete classicism, melodrama was necessarily subversive, a theatre of the ‘boulevards’ representing Paris’s developing periphery, bourgeoisie.  Despite its reputation as indulging a “mode of excess”, this theatre was a terrain of formal innovation, and, even if Pixérécourt speaks of the need of a theatre of moral instruction, only a quality of content secondarily.

It is said that Melodrama’s newness and originality was in its “representation of violent actions with shocking reversals” [9], yet these were quickly drained of savage unpredictability, smoothed out and made begrudgingly palatable to polite society, for the “shocking reversals” systematically conclude in a manner to assuage indignity, reassure the spectator, and reinforce social beliefs and order — bourgeois morality.  Melodrama of this formative period typically pivoted on dénouements of coincidence, amazing discovery — especially of clarified identity —, often aided by some fortuitous intervention of the divine secularized and expressed through Nature’s might.  The tribulations of the pure and virtuous in melodrama are entirely due to the machinations of a heartless, vice-ridden villain, a master of the material world and occasionally of society, typically driven by a combination of Lust and Greed.  The melodrama pitted Good against Evil to generally conclude with a double resolution: the Good’s triumph — the virtuous, innocent heroine saved by the pure-hearted hero — and Evil’s defeat — the villain not merely thwarted but publicly exposed and undone.  Platonically exemplary, the happy ending and morally edifying triumph of the Good quickly became ironclad and enduring conventions.  The plotting, fantastic in nature, resembles that of the fairytale and, of course, much Gothic.

Charles Nodier.

Pixérécourt in old age complained that “in modern dramas, one finds nothing but monstrous crimes that disgust all sense of morality and modesty.  Always and everywhere adultery, rape, incest, patricide, prostitution, the most shameful vices, fouler and more disgusting the one than the other” (497-98).  As for Romanticism, the old man, near-blind and suffering, refused all credit, qualifying it as “bad, dangerous, immoral, void of truth and interest” (498).  Pixérécourt’s close friend, Charles Nodier was the villain responsible for the lamentably monstrous turn of events.  He adapted Polidori’s Vampyre as a melodrama.  In so doing Nodier sought to transform the melodrama into a more spiritual, Romantic drama.

Contemporaneous to the launching of the Polidorian melodrama, Nodier was associated with a vampire roman, to which he wrote an introduction imagining — as if with thoughts of justifying his melodrama as ulterior motive — the inevitable critical response.  “It is perhaps essential,“ he begins, “when one publishes a novel indulging the taste of this one, to respond in advance to the critic’s inevitable objections with an unwavering confession.  The story which we are about to read belongs to that kind of romantic genre so obstinately, and perhaps so justly disparaged.  The only reason that we might proffer in favour of this choice is that we know no novel of the Ancients which might be considered as a classical model, and it appears that only Aristotle bothered to trace the rules of this kind of composition. …  If one of these genres has for eons ceased to be classic, since it has ceased to be true; if the other has never been classic for good and honest folk, since it has never been moral: we must seek in the modern novel another genre of our current civilisation’s nature, and another source of inspiration in our most ordinary feelings, in our most extreme passions, in our most poetic superstitions” [10].

No vampire would have been welcomed to the French stage prior to the Staël-instigated, Nodier-fomented French Romantic revolution.  The Romantic, railing against unchecked scientific materialism, insisted there was necessarily something more than that which empiricism could account for.  Imagination was put forward as an organ of transcendental cognition that allowed the apprehension of the Infinite and Eternal.  Here, within the imagination of man, seat of all images, imagos, is where Man could once again reside as the erased image of God.  Shelley’s ‘Defense of Poetry’ could cast Man, imagining creature, as existing himself as “the Divine Image”, image and imagination intersecting.  Dream, altered states of consciousness, ecstatic revels could place the Romantic in closer communion with a shifting infinite of a contrasting nature, a nature of contradictory forces, glorious and troubling, reassuring and provocative of anxiety, blissful and savagely cruel.  Solace from the Enlightenment’s brilliance was sought in the sombre womb of night, in dreams, in the intoxicating warmth of subjectivity, in contradiction, opposition, mysticisation, the primal.  Le Vampire achieved that ideal marriage between Melodrama and Romanticism, but at a price: Aubrey and his sister were obliged to survive; Ruthven to die, his demise concluding the play.

Ruthven not only quickly took to the boards bathed in gaslight, but appeared in multiple version: Charles Nodier’s Le Vampire (1820, Porte-Saint-Martin, Paris), James Robinson Planché’s The Vampire (1820, English Opera House, London), Eugene Scribe’s Le Vampire (1820, Vaudeville, Paris), George Blink’s The Vamprire Bride (1834), Alexandre Dumas (father)’s Le Vampire (1851, Ambigu-Comique, Paris), Boucicault’s The Vampire (1852, Princess Theatre, London), reworked as The Phantom (1856) [11].  Fitting to a common summer of 1816 genesis, Mary Shelley’s Genevan “ghost-tale”, too, found melodramatic expression —  Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption or The Fate of Frankenstein (1823), Merle & Anthony’s Le Monstre et le Magicien (1826), Henry M. Milner’s Frankenstein or the Man and the Monster (1830), Richard Henry’s Frankenstein (1884), Peggy Webling’s Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre (1927)….  Hollywood, Hammer Film, and others have furthered the roster.

Audiences flocked to these spectacles, emphasis placed on spectacle, to experience both tragedy’s terror and comedy’s laughter.  And for every new monster, a fiendish parody would soon be unleashed.  This generic ambivalence, melding of comedy and tragedy, now typifies both melodrama and subgenre horror.  A circular form, emptied of comic content, stuffed full of serious and painful incidents produces Aristotelian “shock”, miaron.  This imbalance between content and form defines not the Gothic, but the Grotesque.  Seven years after The Vampyre was put on stage, three years prior to publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo, one-time Nodier protégé grown mighty, celebrated this modern aesthetic in lending a Renaissance term a new and more precise meaning: “This type is the grotesque; its new form is comedy”.  The new form is that of comedy, but the new content belongs to tragedy, begetting the Grotesque.

Through the prism of Hugo’s Romantic manifesto The Vampire is perceived not merely as some fictive being, but as a particularly virulent and pure projection of an aesthetic which brazenly declares itself modern, synonymous with Romantic.  In considering this aspect the Vampire becomes an aesthetic key that links in dynamic proximity Romanticism and the Classical.  Comedy and tragedy as separate classical genres are intermingled in the melodramatic form and placed in a dynamic relationship.  Beauty opposed to the Grotesque, the Beautiful to the Sublime, Darkness to Light: in embracing a kind of Hegelian logic Melodrama constitutes a purely modern form, an integrative force that borrows from a variety of representational idioms — prose, poetry, pictorial representation, music, dance, architecture, and technologies — to forge a veritable synaesthetic discourse.

Grotesque. © Rarignac

The Grotesque

The classic perfectly expresses an immutable ideal.  Not only is there no need to alter its expression, the classic — only susceptible to degradation — is necessarily change-resistant.  Rome’s Bacchus, however, was hardly Athens’ Dionysus, Grecian classicism having been transformed by imitative, innovative Rome.  And it was through Rome that a Dionysian grotesque became incorporated — based on the dynamic Nodier introduced to the theatre — into Hugo’s aesthetic of modernity.  The story behind its appearance depends not on writers, artists, or philosophers, but Roman boys at play on the Esquiline hill where the earth opened beneath them and one fell into a cave, a grotta, realm of Plouton, that is, Dionysus.

The boy, rescued, brought back news that the cavern walls were covered with strange signs.  The cavern turned out to be Nero’s pleasure palace, the Domus Aurea, hastily buried along with all memories of the despised tyrant.  The fantastic decorative elements unseen in fifteen hundred years attracted subterranean visits by Raphael, Michelangelo, and other Florentine artists working in high-Renaissance Rome, initiating a fashion for the grotesque.  The grotesque established several expressions, one concerned bands of playful graphic elements, arabesques, often organised by cartouche-delineated nodes, linking fantastic forms, vegetable, animal, human, and divine, through orgiastic swirling tendrils that seem possessed of sexual energy.  Another concerned surfaces that were encrusted with lumps and bumps, pumice and sea shells, called spunga and scali.  A passion for spunga-covered artificial caves consumed the high and mighty.  Both tracks of grotesqueries became essential parts of the Neoclassical counterpoint to the Romantic and Gothic, and continue to thrive.  Both effects are notably Dionysian and emerge from a classical pagan, not a Gothic, imagination.  The mosaic ceiling was another antique novelty derived from the Golden Mansion.

Spunga of the Domus Aurea. © Rarignac

Golden mosaic ceiling at the Domus Aurea. © Rarignac

Adam & Eve with a mosaic grotesque ceiling at Boboli. © Rarignac

The onset of a grotesque mode coincided with the height of Mannerism, an artistic movement departing from idealised Alberti perspective towards more thoroughly personal and idiosyncratic expressions, exaggerated foreshortening typifying the genius of the movement, but also exhibited in, say, El Greco’s elongated, strangely outlined figures that seem to discharge electric spirituality.  Mannerism channelled a desire to go beyond simple classicism renewed, classicism reborn, into daring, individualistic, modern expressions, a liberation from the encumbrance of the classic inheritance that had become systematized, stultified.

A chamber in the Domus Aurea. © Rarignac

New Golden Mansions

Mannerists seized on the grotesque, incorporating it into post-Renaissance pleasure palaces and their garden architecture as can be seen at Villa d’Este, the Palazzo Pitti, Villa Lante, and elsewhere.  Beyond peninsular Italy and the 16th century, the grotesque found favour with the collaborators Lebrun, Le Nôtre, and Le Vau at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Versailles, etc., in the 17th, and was essential to defining the Arcadian gardens at Stourhead, with its classical temples, ruins, meditation on Aeneid VI, and Nemi-like vistas.  Horace Walpole, visiting Stourhead in 1765, enthused about the then nearly completed garden: “the whole composes one of the most picturesque in the world”.

The oldest grotesque at Boboli is the Grotta Madama.  The exterior shows the grotesque surface adorning a combination of temple and cavern, but the inside, more remarkable still, shows a concretisation of the grotesque arabesque arranged in an altar-like spectacle.  Framed by a roman arch, goats appear to arise out of trees, what seems to be a reliquary goat god is situated centrally, as if the cross behind the altar of a Roman Catholic chapel, while a she-goat accompanies twin infants on the ground.  There is something worshipful and theatrical about the installation.  This sacred theatricality is more spectacularly evident in the Grotta Grande.

Groticina di Madama, an early grotesque, outside and in, circa 1556. © Rarignac

In Giorgio Vasari’s Florence, a covered passageway he designed crosses the Arno and leads from Pallazo Vecchio through the Uffizi to the Pitti, ending at the Giardini di Boboli’s “Bacchus Square”.  The exterior of Vasari’s passageway is covered with grotesque motifs.  The Square, formed by the passageway, the Grotta Grande situated at right angle to it, and the rising topography from the Square’s terrace, finally reveal that what Vasari had opposed to the Gothic is the Grotesque!  Baccio Bandinelli’s statues of Bacchus (stage right) and Ceres (stage left), authentically Dionysus and Demeter, flank the grotto’s entrance.  From the exterior (attributed to Vasari and Bernardo Buontalenti), the Grotta Grande resembles a theatre, not merely in its symmetry and ornamentation, but also by suggesting the proscenium opening towards a theatrical interior, a spectacular world, and indeed the actors are visible within.  The facade (1557–60) is temple-like as well, the serene symmetry, niches on either side displaying their  Eleusinian gods, indicate the supernatural nature to be sacramentally mise-en-scène.

Vassari’s grotesque. © Rarignac

Boboli’s Grotta Grande on Bacchus Square. © Rarignac

The grotto, divided into three chambers, represents the three realms of existence, each, at a further remove from the proscenium, separated one from the next by grotesque curtains.  The first space, circular, domed, penetrated by a central light-giving oculus, depicts underworldly, subaqueous depths; a grotesque fountain seems to symbolise the underwater source of life.  Initially the oculus contained a crystal, fish-filled sphere of water, but since the 19th century, various beasts look down from the world above into the subterranean.  The central chamber, terrestrial, carnal, contains a sculpture installed nearly three decades after the grotta’s creation (1587) representing a man holding a woman, alternatively said to represent Theseus and Helen, and Paris and Helen.  The sculpture’s white stone, standing out from the shadows, is visible from beyond the entrance.

Boboli: a grotesque curtain separates revealing interior worlds. © Rarignac

The third chamber, aerial, depicts a topiary, birds gathering on a painted trellis; in the centre of the space, a nude Venus (1587), supported by four leering satyr grotesques, cringes above a source, perhaps looking into the world of the first chamber.

Boboli: bucolic grotesque. © Rarignac

“By the word grottesco the Renaissance, which used it to designate a specific ornamental style suggested by antiquity, understood not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one — a world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid” [12].  The ominous and sinister aspect often concerned gods that were intimately linked to death.  Most startling are the number of Ploutoniums seen represented across Europe, in which the cavern becomes a womb-like structure containing the Hadean god awaiting to reenact his violation of the Maiden.  These are found at Este, Lante, Vaux, in an altered form at Stourhead, and many other sites.

The river gods’ caverns at Vaux-le-Vicomte, 17th century.  © Rarignac

The Ploutonium within the sacred precincts of Eleusis.  © Rarignac

Pirro Ligorio designed Villa d’Este; some contend that Villa Lante, too, depended on his iconography.  When, in the early 19th century, Germaine de Staël quipped that before Johann Winckelmann “no one had rendered himself a pagan to penetrate antiquity”, she was nearly mistaken; the pious Ligorio believed that classicism could not be separated from paganism, a belief manifest in his pleasure gardens.  1550 saw groundbreaking for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este’s villa at Tivoli, and barely fifteen years later, Grand Inquisitor Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara undertook and completed the construction of the gardens at Bagnaia today known as Villa Lante.  The grotesque manner permitted these gardens of the Ecclesiastical hierarchy to extend Carregi’s Neoplatonic traditions: statements as philosophical as architectural as horticultural, gardens that are formal in the sense of organizing space into unitary elements, instilling and investigating Platonic form, perfecting nature through the application of the divinely ordering human intellect.  Gravel walkways invite passage from one hedge-defined enclosure to another, clustered shaped trees play light against shade: terracing and chiaroscuro, grottos and boscage, waterways and fountains, pergolas and labyrinths, architectural structures and statuary celebrating not simply pagan icons, but rediscovered iconographic principles.

Fountain at Tivoli.  © Rarignac

Gambara’s villa articulates the least complex, least compromised statement of the cinquecento garden: along a central axis, water courses through cascading terraces, emptying through fountains, each the focal point of an individual level narratively marked by grotesques and pagan iconography.  The bilaterally symmetric garden unfolds from the stream, flanking paths on either side connect the highest to the lowest levels by virtue of mirror-image double stairways, double motif evoking Neoplatonic dualities.  The terraces’ retaining walls are pierced by symmetrically distributed grottos and niches.  In these, we find Persephone doubly represented once to the left and again to the right of the water flow, which, as it passes Persephone, is split in two by a fountain flanked by reclining Hadean “river” gods, representing the “Arno” and the “Tiber”— though neither river passes nearby.

Twin river gods in a fountain at Villa Lante, and double Persephones in niches.  © Rarignac

Lante: the western Persephone and the eastern River god.  © Rarignac

Ligorio was hired by Cardinal d’Este to impose an imperial regard on the Holy City from a site then known as Pleasure-seeker’s Valley.  The previous year, Ligorio had been elevated from the status of ‘painter’ to “the more intellectual task of design, … particularly the design of iconographic programs” [13].  His elaborate scheme engages Greek heroes Hippolytus, in reference to the Cardinal’s given name of Ippolito, and Herakles.  David Coffin explains that “the Este family … was reputed to descend from Hercules, and Tivoli … had been an ancient town dedicated to Hercules” (93).  Elucidating the iconography in comments to a series of drawings Coffin considers, Ligorio notes: “The first depicts a battle of Amazons led by their Queen Hippolita”.  Artemis-Diana of Ephesus — who subsumes both Demeter and Persephone within her paradoxical being — was the Amazon’s tutelary deity and protector of Hippolytus, offspring of Hippolita and Theseus.

Villa d’Este’s Mother Nature—Artemis-Diana/Artemis-Hekate.  © Rarignac

The gardens are woven together by intersecting axes; principal alleys running north to south, water flowing east to west.  Contained on the south by the villa, the east and north by Tivoli village, the trestle-bourn gardens push towards the west, opening towards a view of Rome.  A series of “fish ponds” form a central waterway that begins with the great central fountain.  Originally crowned by the throne of the great goddess Diana-Artemis of Ephesus, the fountain was referred to as “Mother Nature’s Flood”.  The idol, a reproduction of a Roman copy of the Ephesian goddess, represented Artemis-Diana with manifold water-spouting breasts.  To Mother Nature’s north, Ligorio installed the Fountain of Venus, to her south, the Grotto of Venus; suggesting that the first is dedicated to Venus Celeste, the second to Venus vulgare.  Indeed, the Grotto displays the goddess degraded.  Close by is the Ovato fountain, above which lurk two reclining, cornucopia attributed river gods, Giovanni Malanca’s “Aniene” and “Herculanean”.

Venus Celeste and Venus vulgare.  © Rarignac

A Malanca-sculpted river god hides above the egg of the Ovato.  © Rarignac

In a cavern, Plouton rises from the depths astride twin steeds.  © Rarignac

The Ovato’s waters flow towards an installation known as ‘The Rometta’, below which is a chapel dedicated to Persephone whose serpentine columns, reminiscent of Bernini’s Baldachin, are wrapped in vines yielding grapes and pomegranates.  In its central chamber, a figure of the underworld, heralded by conch-blowing cherubs, rises from the depths astride two horses: it is Plouton, originally shown transporting the Maiden from the garden to the underworld.  Nearby, youthful Dionysus rides a dolphin [14].  Just above this tabernacle, a river god is incorporated into the complex installation of the Rometta that seemingly refers back to the imperial Villa Adriana’s ‘Tiber’.  Ligorio’s reclining Tiber is contained beneath the earth as if in a cave, as at Vaux-le-Vicomte, and pours out an amphora; above him, the Tiber bifurcates as part of the Rometta, Villa d’Este’s last great mise-en-scene.  In all these great gardens, the river gods reside in caves, grotesque wombs, recalling the Ploutonium.  

At Villa d’Este, a river god in his Ploutonium pours out water. © Rarignac

A river god in his Ploutonium and ‘Nile’ or ‘Tiber’ clutching Persephone’s flowers. © Rarignac

Paradise Valley, Stourhead, 18th century.  © Rarignac

Dionysus and The Maiden, Stourhead.  © Rarignac

View of Apollo’s Temple from the grotto and the lair of Stour’s river god.  © Rarignac

The Pantheon as seen from Flora’s Temple.  © Rarignac

Looking over Lake Nemi towards the site of the Temple of Diana.  © Rarignac

The pagan resurgence

From Giotto’s time, the Renaissance advanced through a pursuit of a Christian art.  Christian thought, however, permitted neither the opulence required nor the sensuous earthly pleasure afforded by the post-Careggi garden.  The intersection of spiritual and material in the natural world that these gardens celebrate exceeded the limits of Christian discourse.  The proliferation of pleasure gardens over the early modern period and beyond could only have been accomplished through a ready-if-syncretic acceptance of pagan notions and the fuller understanding of the classical that led towards Mannerism, the Baroque, the Neoclassic, Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Psychedelic Art, etc.  The embrace of a more expansive understanding of the sacred; the recovery of antiquity’s ‘Mother Nature’ as an unfolding being with multiple avatars; the recognition of the complementariness of the sexes, of the teleological necessity of the solar cycle’s harmonious contrast — from day and night to summer and winter — and of the timeless value of cyclic Nature’s spiritually instructive quality necessarily predicated the great gardens’ founding.  The classic was inseparable from the pagan, classical Beauty requiring pagan embodiments of Truth through “holt and howe” [15], initiatory ways, and Telesterions.

These gardens’ favoured theme is the Agricultural Myth of the Eleusinian Mysteries.  The knowledge of the Mysteries these gardens evidence seems to surpass the possibilities of their eras.  If the Arno of Lorenzo, Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola was the source of the intellectual stream that watered the gardens that spread through Europe, the Tiber, tributary of the Nile and the Kephisos, provided the currents for the art that would, in flowering, express its ideals.  Vaux’s ‘Tiber’, like Este’s and Bagnaia’s, was excavated from the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa Adriana; its ‘Dionysus’, like Stourhead’s ‘Ariadne’, had for centuries inhabited the Vatican museums, the Renaissance they personify bridging modernity and antiquity even as they attempt to reconcile the material and spiritual.

Dionysus and Persephone. © Rarignac

Demeter and Plouton. © Rarignac


I began my Gothic quest by asking if there were any aspect to the sundry Goths, goth, and Gothics that served to unite the set into a singularly meaningful force or coherent idea, into some actionable belief, justification for a desire for adherence.  How, I wondered, could the brilliant polychromes of the fifteenth century have bled into the ubiquitous flat black of our own age?  What specificity, what valid limit has been left to ‘Gothic’ today?  And what, ultimately, is the utility of ‘Gothic’ as an aesthetic term?  The answer I have arrived at seems to suggest that there should be more precision, perhaps attainable by forging a distinction between ‘Gothic’ and ‘Grotesque’, the former denoting a darkly playful, suspenseful genre playing on hollow superstitions of past ages; the latter, an ambivalent genre incorporating pagan systems of symbolisation with a belief in their integrity and profundity though perhaps not the specifics of their creeds.

The tattoo of the goth is more strongly related to the Grotesque’s arabesque — in line quality, design parameters, and iconography — than to the heraldic motifs of the Gothic.  The Wiccan overtones of some goth components is definitely derived from the philosophical notions embodied in the Grotesque of Florentine Academy Platonism.  Surely Manga can only be Grotesque.  And Lolita is but Persephone by another name.  I recall that at Stourhead, Henry Hoare eventually included a few ‘Gothic’ pieces in his menagerie of wayward monuments and temples, including the spire of Bristol Cathedral.  This demonstrates that perhaps Gothic is, in fact, a subset of the Grotesque.  The Gothic was sited upon ancient paganism, but the modern Grotesque was based on pagan iconography superposed upon the Christian.  It is strange that Ruskin’s many-pinnacled Northern heart precisely championed the “Pre-Raphaelite”, meaning pre-Grotesque, as Raphael was the first practitioner of the Grotesque engaged in the decoration of Vatican loggias.  Just now, using Wikipedia to tentatively quick-check the historic validity of my previous sentence, I found the following: “Since at least the 18th century (in French and German as well as English) grotesque has come to be used as a general adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks. In art, performance, and literature, grotesque, however, may also refer to something that simultaneously invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as empathic pity. More specifically, the grotesque forms on Gothic buildings, when not used as drain-spouts, should not be called gargoyles, but rather referred to simply as grotesques, or chimeras” [16].

Grotesque?  Gothic?  © Rarignac

The images included with this post tend to suggest that the noun Grotesque only concerns past centuries.  The monuments to the grotesque of the last century are not set in stone but etched in silver on celluloid-nitrate: embodied through actors Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Gary Oldman, and so many others.  They regularly revivified the grotesques of the 19th century’s literature as the ages’ Ploutonian Lord Ruthvens, Quasimodos, and Count Draculas.  Those that played the Maiden/Mother, though more numerous, are somehow less memorable, their collectively-voiced unique scream remains nevertheless unforgettable.

The Grotesque drama has been presented as a deliberated form/content disjunction, contents exceeding the capacities of or ill-adapted to the formal envelope, circular comedy stretched and forced to accommodate tragedy’s serious actions.  Tragedy’s motivating force came from beyond life, beyond death: “Ghosts and cadavers screaming for vengeance” [17], but with the Grotesque, finalities are defeated; if blood revenge is germane to several of melodrama’s subgenres, it is not to the Grotesque of Horror.  In general, melodrama, and much of what succeeded it, is an odious form: terror’s deliberately prolonged indulgence, Suspense, is counterbalanced by a concluding comic resolution, the reestablishment of stasis, restoration of the world as it was before.  Rather than purified, the spectator is relieved, entertained through distraction, the art producing only Aristotle’s miraon, moral filth, an abject pre-defined spectatorial manipulation, facile, shoddy, ersatz.  Actively grotesque Horror reunifies the Dionysian to operate at double, tripling levels, purifying through metamorphoses, providing multiple paradoxical answers to questions unposed; it psychically and intellectually shifts the spectator by opening new realms and generic possibilities.  The living become haunted by the dark regions of the cosmos and of consciousness.  Having collectively overcome the horrors of history and defined new social orders, we find neither tragic nor comic visions of life compatible with our hard-purchased contemporary outlook.  This, arguing for the pursuit of forms truer to our less fatalistic consciousness, makes divergences between the Gothic and the Grotesque more significant.  The cathartic experience may belong to an age of mysticism now debunked and interred, yet to treat serious actions, to cause protagonists to suffer with the end of transmitting that sufferance to the spectator, only to abandon him to bemusement weakens Art’s sacred mission.  The post-sacred Gothic seems to content itself with explaining away nimbi and spectres to restore a hereditary order; the Platonic Grotesque insists on representing multiple co-existing dramaturgies in order to reveal paradoxical truths and restore the Earth to the gods of the agricultural order, our spiritual progenitors: new life coming from death.  The intersections between Gothic and Grotesque are many, but their discrepancies require more careful mapping, marking, and consideration.

The god at the Vatican Museum and at Vaux-le-Vicomte.  © Rarignac

Pax et Lux

As if by magic, the grotesque has returned me from Bosco dei Mostri, Bomarzo to my Bordelaise home through the grottes of the Parc de Majolan (1870–80).  Today, the fiftieth day since Easter’s feast of the Resurrection, is Pentecost, commemorating the apostles’ mystical endowment with the divine spirit that enabled them to go forth to preach the Word of the gospels.  The word I leave with you is ‘Grotesque’.  As a souvenir of our Gothic journey, I also send you a homemade postcard from Bordeaux that celebrates the town’s mix of Grotesque and Gothic, sublimity and beauty, through a sombre look at the city that has in recent years offered me shelter:  Bordeaux_Rocks.

Devotedly yours,


Grotesque commerce.  © Rarignac


[1]  Plato’s Ion “For a poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred, nor can he compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired and as it were mad; or whilst any reason remains in him” (Shelley translation).

[2]  American Heritage Dictionary.

[3]  Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Æsthetics, 73.

[4]  Edmund Burke (1756) 1937:  32.

[5]  An argument forcefully presented by Richard Janko.

[6]  La Comédie Italienne, La Comédie Française, L’Opéra Comique.

[8]  René Guilbert de Pixérécourt. Théâtre choisi précédé d’une introduction par Ch Nodier… Dernières réflexions sur le mélodrame, etc.  Nancy, 1843.

[9]  Anne Ubersfeld, “Le Mélodrame” in Histoire Litteraire de la France, p. 669, from Burch 1990.

[10] Charles Nodier, “C. B.”,  Les Vampires.  Paris: Lavocat, 1820.

[11]  See appendix to Flammarion Frankenstein ; John Fell, Film and the Narrative Tradition, pp. 15–16 ; Bibliography of Montague Summer’s The Vampire.

[12]   Wolfgang Kayser 21.

[13]  David Coffin 13.

[14]   (Alberto Galvanic constructed the Ligorio-designed enclosure between 1569-70.)

[15]  “Grove and Grave”, from the Gutasaga.

[16]  Google search “Raphael grotesque” Wikipedia entry.

[17]  Jan Kott 9.

GothImag-blog4 Bibliography

ALBERTI, Leon Battista.  On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trs. Rykart, Leach, Tavenor.  Cambridge MA: MIT Press,1991.

BOILEAU, Nicolas (Despréaux).  L’Art Poetique.  Cambridge: Campridge U P, 1907

BROOKS, Peter.  The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess.  New Haven : Yale University Press, 1976.

BURKE, Edmund.  The Origins of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful. New York: Collier & Son, 1937.

COFFIN, David.  Pirro Ligorio: The Renaissance Artist, Architect, and Antiquarian, Penn State UP, 2004.

EDOUARD, J-E. “The Enchanted Gardens of the Renaissance”,

FELL, John.  Film and the Narrative Tradition.  Norman, Oklahoma : University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.

HEGEL, Georg Wilhelm Fredrich.  Introductory Lectures on Æsthetics, Bernard Bosanquet, tr.; Michael Inwood, Introduction and Commentary.  London & New York : Penguin, 1993.

HUGO, Victor.  Préface de Cromwell.  Paris : Larousse, Petits Classiques, 2001

————  Preface to Cromwell. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard Classics, 1904-14.

JANKO, Richard (tr. & ed. with introductions & annotations).  Aristotle : The Poetics with the “Tractatus Colslinianus, reconstruction of Poetics II, and the fragments of the On Poets.  Indianapolis & Cambridge : Hackett Publishing Company, 1987.

KAYSER, Wolfgang.  The Grotesque in Art and Literature, U. Weisstein, tran.  Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1963,

KOTT, Jan.  Manger les dieux (Eating the Gods).  Paris : Payot, Editions du Seuil, 1995.

NODIER, Charles.  Lord Ruthvwen ou Les Vampires, Roman de C. B. publié par l’auteur de Jean Sbogar et de Thérèse Aubert.  Marseilles : Lafitte Reprints, 1978.  (Réimpression de l’édition du même titre, Paris : Chez Ladvocat, Libraire, 1820.)

PIXERECOURT, René Charles Guilbert de (1773-1844)  Théâtre choisi de Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt ; précédé d’une  introduction par Charles Nodier et illustré par des notices littéraires dues à ses amis… et autres  hommes de lettres.  Nancy : [C. Guilbert de Pixérécourt], 1841-1843; Geneva : Slatkine, 1971.

SUMMERS, Montague, S.J.  The Vampire.  New York : Dorset Press, 1991 (reedition of 1931 text with additional materials).

UBERSFIELD, Ann.  Le Drame romantique.  Paris : Belin, 1998.

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