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“Grotesque Renaissance”: the disquieting masks of Venice

Bell towers, churches and palaces feature scary-looking masks. What did they mean? In which context did they stand?

The term already appears to be derogatory but the gargoyles represented distorted and ugly human heads of men and women with grotesque features. Their primary function was to drive away evil spirits from the place where they were posted.

Mascherone di Santa Maria Formosa

John Ruskin described this mask in his “Stones of Venice” emphasizing above all its deformity.

“A head, – huge, inhuman, and monstrous, – leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant, yet let it be endured for that instant; for in that head is embodied the type of evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline; and it is well that we should see and feel the full horror of it on this spot, and know what pestilence it was that came and breathed upon her beauty, until it melted away like the white cloud from the ancient fields of Santa Maria Formosa”.

Palazzo Labia

If for John Ruskin the mask defined the grotesque typical of the Baroque, for others they were clear examples of indecipherable wit and mystery.

The references to theater and plays are evident and their meaning smacks of demonic.

From the second half of 1500 they are scattered everywhere, along theGrand Canal, the palace of Ca’ Pesaro and the church of the Ospedalettoare some other clear examples of this attitude.

Palace in Campiello Querini

They are also an architectural and sculptural triumph masked under anunclear fate that replaced the representation of the devil, who in the MiddleAges stood for evil. Created by specialized craftsmen, they are noticeablebecause of the animal ears, goats’ beards, or open mouths.

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