Neuroscience by Caricature in Europe throughout the ages

by Lorenzo Lorusso
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Grotesque and exaggerated heads

The grotesque contains certain aesthetic conventions that transform reproductions of the reality that we know. The characteristic themes of the grotesque (the Plague, the Dance of Death, the masked ball, the Apocalypse) challenge our convention by providing new perspectives characterized by the suspension of logic and regression to the unconscious such as madness, hysteria, or nightmares.

Fig. 1
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Sketches of heads

Leonardo’s grotesque

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Caricature (1487-90). Libretto d'appunti . Codice Trivulziano n° 2162, p. 2. Archivio Storico Civico, Biblioteca Trivulziana, Milano, copyright@Comune di Milano, Italia - all rights of law are reserved.

The first artists to employ the grotesque however were Italians who at the end of fifteenth and during the sixteenth century subscribed to the classical and humanistic ideals of the High Renaissance. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1512) [Fig. 1] and Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) [Fig. 2] drew what are sometimes called caricatures but are more usually referred to as ‘grotesques’.

Leonardo was the artist most closely associated with this type of caricature. According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Leonardo was fascinated by people with "bizarre heads" (teste bizarre) and often followed them around to memorize their features, later copying or exaggerating them in his drawings. Throughout his career Leonardo produced many studies on different types of faces because in a desire to explore human physiognomy. Leonardo created numerous such small drawings of heads, which he called visi monstruosi (monstrous faces). Leonardo elaborated the juxtaposition of two contrary motifs in order to explore and magnify each one; this was a standard classical rhetorical device.

Fig. 2
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Sketches of heads

Michelangelo’s grotesque

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) Grotesque heads and further studies. ca 1524-25, copyright@Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Mein/ARTOTHEK, Weilheim, Germany

Exaggerated faces may produce a comic effect which can be magnified when assembled in a large group. Clustering several faces on a single sheet allowed artists to depict and contrast a range of divergent facial types. The practice of compiling progressions of profiles was practiced by such masters of portraiture such as Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) who drew them with little humorous intent. In the Sixteenth century Northern artists drew not only faces but also bodies which were stretched, shrunk, twisted, and contorted to achieve humorous ends. Artists such as Hieronymus Bosh (circa 1450-1516) and Pieter Bruegel (circa 1525/1530-1569) employed such techniques to represent human pride, vanity, avarice, and gluttony as evidence of the folly that rules the world. Daniel Hopfer's (circa 1470-1536) and Peeter Baltens's (1525-1598) prancing Morris dancers evoke this madness with their jerky movements. In the development of portrait caricature, there were other strands in Sixteenth and Seventeenth century art which were to influence the caricaturists of the Eighteenth century and which helped to widen the range of both subject-matter and graphic style. Caricature gradually became a separate form of artistic activity, recognized on its own terms.


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