From antique to grotesque

When we look at the history of words we often find a deep connection with the history of western culture. A word that really demonstrates this, is the word grotesque. We describe an object as grotesque if it is odd or unnatural in the way it looks, whether that be in its shape, appearance, or character. Something that is fantastically ugly, absurd, or bizarre is grotesque.

Like so many words we picked up grotesque from French. In about 1560 we borrowed it from the Middle French word crotesque. The French, also quite typically, had taken it from the Italian word grottesco, which meant literally of a cave from grotta for cave.

Grottesco was first used to describe the fantastical mythological creatures that were found on murals on the walls of the Baths of Titus in Rome.  The Baths had been built by Titus in 81 AD and restored by Hadrian in 238 AD. The Baths and its wonderful artworks were rediscovered in the early 1600s. The murals were reproduced in engravings that were widely seen. However, the ruins were demolished soon after and the building and materials reused in new churches in Rome and the Vatican.

The old ruined basements were like caves. So the pictures found in them were described in Italian as pittura grottesca or pictures of the caves. Originally grottesco represented something fantastic and fanciful but shifted in meaning to something bizarre and ugly.

Antic, shares the same history. An antic, which is a playful trick or a fantastic, or ludicrous gesture, act, or posture, comes from the Italian antico meaning antique. Antique comes from Latin antiquus for old.

Similarly to grotesque, the Italians used antic to refer to the unusual and strange postures and representations of people seen in the ancient murals at the Baths of Titus. The meaning of antic soon extended to any bizarre thing or behaviour, which is the sense that it brought with it into English.

Thus the English language gains words from descriptions of ancient pictures dug up in Rome more than three hundred years ago. There is nothing grotesque in that.