Architectural Ornament in Human Forms

The root of the word grotesque is grotta or grotto. Grotta, in turn, comes from the Latin word grupta or crypta, krypte in Greek, which referred to an underground passage or cave. Starting with this clue, we might reason that grotesques are copies of mythical freakish creatures that the ancient Greeks and Romans used as models for the images that decorate caves and sea grottoes. But the origin of the grotesque appears not to have come from an ancient custom, but rather a misunderstanding of ancient ruins.

In the excavations of Roman ruins, particularly those of the Emperor Nero’s Golden House on the Esquiline Hill that were  carried out in 1488, wall paintings of fantastic creatures and plants were found in rooms that were underground because they were covered by later buildings. The paintings inspired a form of decoration called “grotesque” because the buried rooms were assumed to be caves.

Entranced by what they thought they had discovered in the Golden House, the Romans constructed artificial grottos, that became prototypes for those created in the Renaissance in such famous sites as the Boboli gardens. The concept spread throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and to England in the Classical Revival period of the 18th century.

Male and female heads were fashioned after traditional representations of gods, goddesses, heroes, and the typically female personifications of virtues such as justice and truth. The bearded male heads with long tangles locks of hair and fierce expressions may be Titans, the secondary race of gods spawned by Uranus and Gaea and capable of bearing heavy load.

Female heads, sometimes with torsos, often bear garlands of fruit and flowers. They were used on office buildings despite the absence of any ties from the urban world of getting and spending to rural celebrations of the seasons and the bounty of agriculture.

Below we see a weary-looking young woman shouldering a heavy load of fruit and vegetables. She probably represents one of the four seasons, but it is not clear which one. Prosperity and abundance were the commonly used symbols on buildings of commerce and finance. This plaque is one of many terra cotta reliefs produced for the 1926 Hunter-Dulin Building by Gladding McBean, whose terra cotta manufacturing company opened in Lincoln, California, in 1875 and is still in operation.

1 Powell Street

Whatever their provenance, human heads were surely intended to humanize buildings and bring good fortune to their occupants. The designers who created the heads shown below probably modeled them  on their friends.

1347 McAllister Street

1298 Sacramento Street

Real people were also models for the figures personifying electrical energy and its use, as shown below. They appear on either side of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company sign above the arched entrance to its 1925 office building on Market Street. The use of such symbols also conveyed PG&E’s ownership of the buildings to passersby. The sculptor, Edgar Walter, was well known, as were the architects, Bakewell and Brown.

245 Market Street

4 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Meyer says:

    Thank you Sally for this illuminating piece, and for the welcomed reminder to look up and ponder not just the beauty but also the meaning of our built environment. I look forward to my next trip downtown – will definitely have this essay in mind as I keep an eye out for these stone and concrete urban inhabitants.

    And I look forward to your next chapter!

  2. John Ware says:

    A wonderful insight into our urban built texture. So helpful to understand details as meaningful expression of the culture and time that they were built. As modernists we appreciate the function and form of details, but we would be ungrounded without the context and meaning provided by the past.

  3. A brilliant introductory essay and a much overdue topic to be explored by one who has walked the walk! Particularly appropos as places begin to tire of ornament-less architecture and promote its return as “civic art” which tends to be devoid of narrative and often unrelated to location and context. I will be compulsively returning to the site to read the next “chapter.”

    Jay Claiborne

  4. Dan Gregory says:

    A marvelous exploration/explanation of architectural ornament — like a sort of “Tales of the City” in stone and terra cotta! I leaned a lot and especially liked this description of the support figures:

    “Their contorted faces and postures express the discomfort they experience because of their predicament.”

    I want to link to this in one of my own future posts…

    Many thanks.

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