Caroline van Eck
The Anthropology of the Florentine Grotesque
Caroline van Eck is Professor of Art History at Cambridge University. She also taught at the Universities of Amsterdam, Leiden, Yale and Ghent. In 2017 she gave the Slade Lectures in Oxford on Piranesi's colossal candelabra and the material presence of Antiquity c. 1800. (OUP 2022). Van Eck's research interests include the anthropology of art, the material reception of classical antiquity, Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Aby Warburg. She was elected to the British Academy in 2020, and in 2013 received the Prix Descartes-Huygens, awarded by the Académie des Sciences, the Académie des Belles Lettres et Inscriptions, and the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences.
Grotesque figuration is a constantly recurring phenomenon, not limited to Europe, but attested across the world, and in all ages, as the collection of the Anthropological Museum in Florence demonstrates so well. Both Polynesian and Florentine shields display them to deter the enemy. A rich diversity of fantastic, composite creatures, at the same time attractive and uncomfortable, have their habitat in situations of liminality, where borders are questioned, boundaries are crossed, and the strange, terrifying and uncontrollable penetrate civilization. Renaissance Florence offers a particularly rich variety, appearing on doorways, windows, roofs and façades and in the framing devices of prints, armour and furniture. While grotesques are often considered as a kind of visual 'meta-discourse' on mimesis, their very constitution and appearance embodies the liminal: they consist of combinations across the species of sea monsters and humans, they morph out of plant forms into human beings or architectural elements. Because of their universality and liminal character grotesques therefore lend themselves very well to an exploration of the border regions where art history and anthropology meet, both from a Cinquecento and a present-day perspective.