The Figure in the Grotto

Call for Papers for a session at the First International Meeting of the European Architectural History Network, Guimaraes, Portugal, June 17-20, 2010.


The Figure in the Grotto: Materialisation and embodiment in the Renaissance

In renaissance Italy the garden represented a space of mediation between nature and culture. Within this liminal context the body appeared in a specific guise, figures ambiguously seen as both animated material emerging from nature, and conversely the petrifying figures of culture. The context of the garden, a very overt locus of private reverie, encouraged the experimentation with meaning through form that was deemed to have insufficient decorum for the public realm. Figures of the antique and mythical past were used to create a psychologically provocative setting for the indulging of fantasy away from the cares of ecclesiastical or civic office. In particular the appropriation of herms, half architectural element and half statue, as ambiguous figures in the populating of grottoes, were exploited as members to define, and even on occasion support, the other and originary world of the garden. Their presence provided literal embodiments that were invested with interpretative meaning. Constructed of marble, mosaic, tufa, and stucco the nymphaea spatialised the painted grotteschi uncovered in early archaeological explorations of ancient villa sites, with their phantasmagoric juxtapositions of architectural elements and mythical creatures. The scale transformation, from a fictive realm to an architectural one, inevitably involved a coarsening of the detail and the illusionistic exploration of material possibilities. The intellectual meaning expressed was therefore obscured by the immediacy of sensation and novelty, which served as a mask to the ancient ethos evoked through the form, decoration and location of such spaces. In such situations the human and the natural were treated as one phenomenon, tied into a corporeal expression that sought to make the intangible expressively apparent. They stand as manifestations of the mediating role of architecture as human intervention in, and vulnerability to, the elemental forces of nature.

Papers are invited which explore specific examples of the genre (such as the nymphaeum of Villa Giulia and the Casino of Pius IV in Rome, the Grotto of Buontalenti in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, or the nymphaeum of the Villa Barbaro at Maser) or which exploit the expressive range of architectural grotesques, as column, as pilaster, as sculpture and as decorative ornament, to define the space or figure the surface.

Send paper proposals to Eamonn Canniffe
Manchester School of Architecture, Manchester Metropolitan University, Faculty of Art and Design,
Chatham Building, Cavendish Street, Manchester M15 6BR, United Kingdom. Tel +44 (0)161 247 6956 / Fax +44 (0)161 247 6810.

The full programme for all sessions is available at

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