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Notes on Early Modern Caricature

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop on Early Modern Caricature and Ingenuity organised by the University of Cambridge. The brightest minds of the field gave a talk on one specific image by one particular artist. Although I was sitting awe-struck most of the time, I managed to take some notes to broaden my understanding on what caricature is.

Me and my understanding in gathering new information.

General understanding

The rise of caricature.

The term is derived from the Italian caricare—to charge or load.

When you think about it, even if you don’t know Italian or Latin, you may get the idea. To charge the image is to give an opinion for the created character, to exaggerate the reality for the sake of truth, to deform objects according to one’s wilful thought or meaning.

Talking about the specific term, portrait – caricature was born at the close of the 16th century in the Carracci Academy (1585), the art school founded by the brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci. At the time of Carracci, artists no longer felt the need to imitate nature, but instead aimed at grasping the essence of reality lying behind appearances in opposition and as a challenge to Mannerist artistic practices of that time.

The period when caricature first appears, is marked by a complete change in the artist’s role and his position in society. He was no longer a manual worker, but he had become a creator. Also, the social atmosphere of the beginning of the 17th century is marked by a culture of wit, esprit and an insight into human nature which created the immortal types of Don Quixote and Falstaff [1].

The play with pictures is often supplemented by the play of words.

However, play with words with a comic intention goes far back into history. The expected reason is that pictures in fact play a different role in our minds than do words. Pictures are deeper rooted and more primitive. Whilst words are easier understood as conventional signs which one can play with, alter and change without affecting the essence of the being they signify, a picture remains for us all the time a sort of a double, which we dare not damage for fear that we might injure the person or being itself. Bluntly, picture and person are one, damage done to the picture [1]. Therefore, the shift in this understanding meant the freedom to play with features which caricature displays, and this only happened around 16-17th century.

Caricature as an art form emerged from Italy.

Drawing was the most noble expression of art. The origins of the caricatures depended on the status of drawing in different places. Around 16-17th century, the highest degree of draughtsmanship was reached in Italy.

There was no such a profession as caricaturist in 17thcentury.

Early caricatures came from artists’ workshops, the place where nicknaming and roleplaying were very common. Caricatures were done after working and studying hours, possibly for artists pleasure. Caricatures were found in letters, as visual communication between close people.

Caricature means freedom.

More like pictorial games or exercises, caricature meant freedom of drawing, freedom to be primitive. Artists were free from guilt, practice, commissions. They could freely choose topics, include physical deformities, monstrosity, body, or burlesque.

Caricature means humour.

Is caricature more like honest and uncontrolled belly laugh or satiric smile or evoked act of violence?

The result derives from the degree of artists’ ingenuity in playfully using sharpness, wit to examine nature, characters and essence through mockery, everyday life exaggerations, conceit, grotesque.

Humour comes in many forms, and hyperbolic, ironic, parodic, satirical humour are most commonly found in caricatures.

Caricature is a mode not medium.

To do a caricature means to break harmony of forms. Therefore, caricature is not limited to drawings, prints, but can also appear in architecture, sculpture and other medium. Here, I am focusing on drawn caricature, even if it was etched and printed later.

Fast or slow process of caricature?

The ability to catch in a flash main features of a character you are observing and sketch it so, it becomes recognizable suggest that caricature is a fast process. However, caricature can be compared to the summary of the situation. Once the artist conceives the idea, she/he is able to deliver it on the paper quickly, within one or two lines. On the other hand, the extreme simplification arrives often by stages, thinking on paper, beginning with a lifelike portrait, which afterwards is simplified and some of the features are distorted in the absence of model.

Examining caricatures.

Physical properties of caricature. What’s the size? This might suggest the function and purpose of the image. Is there anything on the other side? Seeing caricatures on display in museums is a rear treat, but to be allowed to examine both sides is almost unimaginable. Digital libraries might provide this option. What is paper quality? Are they any ageing marks? Torn sides?

Composition. What does occupy the main space? What is your attention attracted to? Where the characters are dominant? Is there depth in the image?

Fluency of the line or/and colour blots. Without looking at the characters yet, what can be said about the style of the drawing? Smooth and consistent or looks like done by several independent artists? The drawing can be refined or complicated, rapidly executed, sketchy, simple or overloaded. Confident but not fluid.

Symbols. Caricature is about here and now, topical and allegorical. It is full of historical resources and references of everyday combining into a message to be decoded. Follow the lines, animals to start with.

Space. Indoors/outdoors? Market, streets in town?

Text. Caricature is a language of banter. It is known for early use of language deformation.

Characters and narrative. Earliest caricatures were focused on portraits. Narrative comes into play later (one person in front of the other is already a narrative). Characters were only men, with the exception of old women. Old women were considered to be a naturally created caricature in herself. Characters can be utterly ridiculous and recognizable. Either with specific features or generalized into types. Is caricature targeting specific class in the society? A mixture of high and low can appear in many forms.

Drawings as caricatures

See the list of the early modern caricatures.

Aurelio Luini (1530 - 1593)

Ol compà Digliagòr and Ol compà Braghetògn

Baccio del Bianco (1604 – 1657)


Guercino (1591 –1666)

Mocking of a Village Madman, 1619

Pier Francesco Mola (1612-1666)

Caricature of a Man Defecating

Caricature with Three Figures in a Landscape

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680)

Cardinale Virginio Orsini e Capitano della guardia papale

See more here

Maps as caricatures

One can argue that maps and caricatures share similar idea. Maps and caricatures are both charged representation of three-dimensional world to two-dimensional space. Representation is done through metaphor and significant lines through the principle of deformation.

Maps represent bodies in space, that is, maps embody space, and caricature represents bodies embodied in space. Maps reduce and interpret the world, as well as caricature does the same [2].

Function: map is designed for guidance, and caricature is used to judge.

See the list of the maps with a sense of caricature below.

Unknown cartographer after Jean Garmont II, 1590

Sebastian Munster, World Map, 1550

Carte du Royamede Coquetterie, 1654, (scroll to the bottom to see the first image)

Utopia’s map as a skull, Ambrosius Holbein, included in the 1518 edition

Europa Regina, after Johannes Putsch, 1537

Leo Belgicus, Frans Hogenberg, 1583

Map of England and Wales, Geography Bewitched, Robert Dighton, 1785

Satirical map of Europe, Paul Hadol, 1870

Map of the US in shape of a pig surrounded by pigs representing the different states with notation, 1876

Items with caricatures

How to use images? How to enjoy it? Through the objects that can touched, manipulated, provoking something physical. To catch attention and sustain viewing. Images on the objects might not be skilfully produced sketches (conventional drawings, doodles), but can be grotesque, defining and targeting particular types, made with wit, to be names as caricatures.

See the examples below.

Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634–1718)

Gioco nuovo da ridere e tirare e pagare,1697, boardgame

See more here

Francis Barlow (1626 – 1704)

British museum item

Influences for the artwork above:

Peter Bruegel, The Thin Kitchen, 1563

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593)

Early modern caricatures were a way to express freely everyday observations, free from heavy techniques, free from expectations, but with particular meaning or thought delivered in several lines. Such sublime simplification is only possible on the basis of earlier complexities.

By the end of the day, I still had some questions remained. What is the minimal feature that allows us to qualify a drawing as a caricature? How close is misinterpretation of the particular caricature? Is it possible to appreciate it if you don’t know the reference used and the background of its delivery? What is the function of the caricature nowadays? How relevant is it? It feels that these questions could be dedicated to any artistic field, and the answers might change from time to time.

Read more:

[1] E. H. Gombrich, (with Ernst Kris) The Principles of Caricature, British Journal of Medical Psychology, Vol. 17, 1938, pp.319-42 [Trapp no.1938A.1]

[2] Murawska-Muthesius, Katarzyna. "Mapping Eastern Europe: Cartography and Art History." Artl@s Bulletin 2, no. 2 (2013): Article 3.

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