Natural artifizio – artifiziosa natura: Grottos of the Early Modern Age in Italy


The choice of decorative materials played a key role in the formation of a grotto. What determined their selection was the wish to imitate a natural cavern with artistic means and strive for an imitation of nature in which art pressed into its service the most decorative phenomena that nature itself had created, such as shells, corals, crystals or bizarre limestone incrustations. The aim, however, was not just to imitate, but even to surpass, in richness, variety, and novelty of composition, the natural creation of caverns in the rock. Rustic wall panels of naturalistic form using such natural phenomena as pebbles, shells and stones were frequently contrasted with figurative and ornamental mosaics, in which the formal properties for instance of shells were cleverly used for the imitation of architectural ornament or those of crystals for the imitation of glass, e.g. the glass shield of Perseus. Genoese grottos are especially distinguished by an extraordinary polychrome richness that was produced with enamelled majolica pebbles and large masses of corals – favored by the monopoly Genoa enjoyed in the trade in coral. Contemporary descriptions repeatedly emphasize the preciousness of these garden rooms which offered the Genoese, as hardly any other genre of art, the opportunity graphically to display their wealth and their relations with distant lands – e.g. the presence of exotic shells – and make the natural treasures of the oceans serve for their self-representation as maritime power.

Florence, Villa Bandini, grotto, festoon

Genoa, Fonte Doria, detail of shell-encrusted beam

Genoa, Fonte Doria, Shield of Perseus

Florence, Villa Bandini, grotto, detail of vase

Genoa, Grotta Grimaldi in Bisagno, pendentive with siren

Genoa, Grotta Pavese, ring of water with rocaille niche

Genoa, Grotta Pavese, Proserpina

Genoa, Grotta Pavese, Diana

Florence, Villa Bandini, grotto, dragon

Genoa, Grotta Pallavicino, vestibule, vaulted ceiling with Pallavicino coat of arms


Florence, Villa Bandini, grotto, festoon

© KHI in Florence | 19.01.2021 13:29:10