The word “grotesque” is derived from Italian grotte, ‘caves’, whose adjective is grottesco; the noun being la grottesca. In French we find crotesque being used c. 1532 for the first time; and this form was used in English until it was replaced c. 1640 by grotesque. Its correct technical sense has little to do with its normal usage. It denotes a kind of decorative ornament consisting of medallions, sphinxes, foliage, rocks and pebbles. Because they were found in grottoes they were called grotteschi. The term came to be applied to paintings which depicted the intermingling of human, animal, and vegetable themes and forms. Some of the works of Raphael and Arcimboldo are typical grotesques. It is also used to describe architectural embellishments like gargoyles, hideous diabolic shapes, and, again, the complex interweaving of themes and subjects. An outstanding instance is Radovan’s main doorway of Trogir cathedral.
The extension of the word to a literary context may well have occurred in 16th c. France. Rabelais, for example, uses it apropos parts of the body. But it does not seem to have been used regularly in a literary context until the 18th c., the period of the age of reason and Neoclassicism, when it was commonly employed to denote the ridiculous, bizarre, extravagant, freakish, and unnatural; in short, aberrations from the desirable norms of harmony, balance and proportion.
In art, the use of grotesque effects had been frequent. Outstanding instances are found in the works of such painters as Hieronymus Bosch, the Brueghels, Goya, Gustave Doré, Daumier, Fuseli, Piranesi, John Martin, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali – among many others. It is very noticeable that these artists use the grotesque for comic, sardonic, and exaggerated satirical effects. Much of the comic impact of graphic caricature also depends on the skilful use of grotesque; witness the work, for instance, of George Grosz and Gerald Scarfe.
In a comparable way, the writer employs grotesque for comic and satirical purposes. In literature one is most likely to find grotesque elements in caricature, parody, satire, invective, burlesque, black comedy, the macabre, and what is known as the Theatre of the Absurd. Grotesque is often a constituent of comic relief, the sick joke, sick verse and pornography. Excellent examples of the grotesque can be found in the works by Rabelais, John Skelton, John Webster, Jacques Tourneur, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Tobias Smollett, Lord Byron, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Victor Hugo, E. A. Poe, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Franz Kafka, Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Evelyn Waugh, Mervyn Peake, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and Roald Dahl to name but a few.