The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

The Grotesque and the Ceilings of Thorvaldsens Museum

  • Ulla Houkjær,, 1998
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    Ulla Houkjær: ‘The Grotesque and the Ceilings of Thorvaldsens Museum’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 1998, p. 88-97.

    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.


The article is about part of the decorations to the ceilings in Thorvaldsens Museum, viewed in the light of the history of ornaments. It seeks to relate the ceiling decorations to a specific type of ornaments, the grotesque, and to throw light on it on the basis of specific aspects of the tradition of these ornaments. The introduction sketches the origins of the grotesque as interior decoration in Roman architecture from the 1st century AD. The essential stylistic characteristics and primary use of the grotesque are defined. This is followed by an account of the rediscovery of the grotesque during the Renaissance by way of the decorations in Nero’s Domus Aurea, its use in fragmented form in interiors and in decorative art and its subsequent reinterpretation by Raphael and Giovanni da Udine in the Loggia and Logetta in the Vatican. In the centuries which follow the motivic renewal of the grotesque occurs first and foremost in graphic art. It is disseminated via ornamental prints, not least to Denmark, where it is used in decorative art and architecture from the 16th century.

As a result of a nascent interest in returning to the sources, the mid-18th century saw the publication of prints reproducing the grotesque decorations in Nero’s Domus Aurea (i.a. Mirri). In the 1840s, Bindesbøll chose these prints rather than more recent, archaeologically more correct reproductions or the drawings which he himself and others had made during studies abroad, as the models for the ceilings in the Museum. There was, however, no question of a slavish imitation of motifs, but of a personal imaginative treatment of the material. The ceilings were freely composed with a reduction of motif details and the introduction of “national” details based on Danish flora and fauna.

The elegance in the 18th century’s interpretation of the grotesque must have appealed to Bindesbøll and could form a fitting, unobtrusive framework around the interior as a whole. The grotesque decoration in Thorvaldsens Museum’s ceilings is almost all on the first floor. Here the building’s character of a “private dwelling” is underlined both by the use of the rooms for Thorvaldsen’s own collections and by the way in which the corridors act as a loggia guiding the visitor around with a view of the courtyard. In his use of ornamentation, Bindesbøll stands as a clear historicist with a pluralistic view rather than a classicist, and his strong sense of motivic variation and progression in a pattern puts him in line with William Morris’ later ideals.

Last updated 11.05.2017