At the end of the 15th century a young Roman fell through a cleft in the Esquiline hillside and found himself in a huge vaulted room, adorned with frescoes bearing bizarre figures that intermingled human, plant and animal forms. It was the Domus Aurea, or Golden House of the decadent Emperor Nero. An embarrassment to his successors, it was built over within forty years of his death, and so inadvertently preserved for future generations. Soon, some of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance were having themselves lowered by rope, in pitch darkness, to view the strange ornaments. Among them was Raphael, who drew upon them in his designs for the Vatican Palace’s Stanze di Raffaello, thereby bringing about a revival of what came to be called the “grotesque” (literally, “of a grotta,” or cave).
During the Baroque period, the grotesque reflected a growing fascination with the monstrous. In Northern Europe, grotesques were often rendered in the so-called auricular style, characterized by forms that resemble the side view of a human ear or conch shell.
These grotesques by the Dutch silversmith Arent van Bolten were published by the Flemish-born Parisian print-seller Pierre Firens between 1604 and 1616. They bear a strong similarity to a contemporary series of bronze figurines, some of which were designed as novelty lamps, with the wick and flame emerging from the creature’s mouth. However, it is not clear whether these were created by van Bolten or an imitator.
The ornamental use of such designs afforded artisans greater freedom to indulge in fantasy than was ordinarily true for the painters of their era, who were obliged to honor the strict conventions of their trade. In them, we find an unusually modern mode of self-expression that was not to blossom in Western visual art until the 19th century.