Have you ever wondered where you could find a spotted, two-legged creature with the body of a lizard, the ears of a goat, the wings of a bird and the claws of a chicken? How about a monster with the head of a dolphin, ears of acanthus leaves, the body of a snake, and a tail that turns into the architectural frame of a frieze? Each of these beasts and many more can be found in a small set of engravings by the Italian Renaissance artist Nicoletto da Modena.
This series of prints was inspired by Nicoletto’s visit to the ancient ruin of Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden Palace), a massive pleasure palace built in ca. 64-68 AD that had been buried after Nero’s death. The Domus Aurea was rediscovered in the Renaissance, and artists such as Nicoletto were lowered into dirt-filled chambers of the palace and found, by candlelight, wall murals of slender painted architectural elements framed or transformed into human, animal, and mythological forms.
Nicoletto’s imagined beasts are distinctive. In one print, the tails of spotted reptilian creatures emerge from the buds of flowers, whose stems coil into acanthus leaves that form the hair of a grotesque head.
In another print beasts with lion and human heads have body parts reminiscent of rams and horses, and bird-like claws.
The monstrous creatures form the framework of a larger story that touches on themes of war, slavery, and peace, and may even be read as a history of the Roman Empire.
These prints by Nicoletto are the first known engravings of grotesques. Although the word grotesque suggests many things in modern language, its origin dates to the late 15th century in Italy, where grottesche translated literally as “of the grotto.” The term was coined to refer specifically to the wall murals that Nicoletto saw at the Domus Aurea. This fantastic style enabled artists to invent creatures that pushed the boundaries of the known world.
These objects and many more grotesques are included in the exhibition Fragile Beasts, which is on view at Cooper Hewitt through January 16, 2016.
Caitlin Condell is the Assistant Curator and Acting Head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.