Grassy Grottos

#22


maybe stretching the definition of grotto a little but

Myst III: Exile

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#23

For those that like such things, the physical version of Deidia is now $10, same as the electronic.

#24

Whoa what is that last screenshot from

#25

damn it, i tried to get alt text working but it only shows up before the image loads.

it’s one of the outpost areas from Guild Wars (Gadd’s Encampment). the camera is hacked and massively zoomed out for that shot, but you can see the player character on the bridge if you look closely

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#26

Susan Sontag wrote an essay about grottoes which is included in her book of essays Where the Stress Falls. I thought I’d share it here cause it’s pretty good and pretty short.

A Place For Fantasy, 1983

A Place for Fantasy

GARDEN HISTORY IS an enthralling branch of art history, opening onto the history of outdoor spectacles (the masque, fireworks, pageants) of architecture, or urban planning—and of literary history as well. Once mainly a European subject (its scholars were French, English, German), it now flourishes in this country, too. One center of activity is the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, D.C., which possesses superb materials on garden history.

The principal tradition of Western Garden art is inclusive rather than exclusionary, putting human-made constructions—of marble, brick, tufa, stucco, wood—among the trees and plants. And of the many constructions that recur in gardens (statuary, fountains, follies, bridges), none is more fascinating or complex in its history and associations than the grotto. It is a space that is, literally, profound. The human-made recess or subterranean space that is called a grotto is, usually, a space already tamed. Other, less reassuring names for the same kind of space are “cave,” “underground vault,” “crypt”. The grotto in the garden is the domesticated version of a space that is often scary, even repulsive, and yet exercises on some people, of whom I am one, a very strong attraction. I have always been fascinated by grottoes and have gone out of my way to look at them and at constructions that echo them. This curiousity is perhaps no more than dread mastered—but then the grotto seems no more, or less, than a playfulness with morbid feelings.

For grottoes to enter the garden, a place conceived as a haven and a site of recreation, their original functions had to be secularized and miniaturized. Grottoes, mostly real grottoes, were first of all sacred places. The sibyl’s or oracle’s lair, the hermit’s retreat, the sect’s sanctuary, the resting place of the bones of holy men and revered ancestors—we are never far, in our imaginations, from being reminded of the cell and the grave. And grottoes that were artificial had, to begin with, severely practical purposes: like the marvelous vaults the Romans built as part of hydraulic projects. Artificial caves first appear as an element in the garden program in the late Roman Republic. From the latter part of the first century B.C., artificial grottoes, and rooms fitted out to resemble grottoes, became common features of the gardens of the villas of Roman patricians. These caverns, ornamented spaces that alluded gracefully to the old sacred spaces and their mysteries, were partly practical constructions for pleasures and entertainments conducted outdoors—for example, as the backdrop of satyr plays and for banquets. Perhaps the most famous and grandiose, though hardly typical, of those villas whose ruins survive from the ancient world was Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli near Rome, which had a number of grottoes.

Christianity gave the grotto new associations and succeeded in monopolizing grotto imagery for more than a thousand years. Supposedly natural but in fact thoroughly stylized grottos figure in paintings of the Christian narratives—the cave of the Nativity, the sepulchre of the Entombment—and in the lives of Saint like Jerome and Anthony, who are often depicted as praying or being assailed at the mouth of their hermit’s grotto. The revival of the garden grotto—that is, the reconnection of the grotto with the garden—had to wait for the Renaissance, when the grotto could be divested of its principally Christian associations and infused with new, eclectic symbolism(Neo-Platonist, humanist). Although the gardens and grottoes of the classical villas had long since been leveled, descriptions of them—for example, by Ovin and Livy—had been preserved, and were admired. The elaboration of the garden grotto, a principal feature of the new heights attained by the garden in the Renaissance, produced such triumphs as the Grotta Grande in the Medici’s Boboli Gardens in Florence and the many grottoes and hydraulic marvels of Pratolino, so admired by Montaigne and other foreign visitors. The use of the grottoes of ancient villas as banquet sites protected from the sun was replaced in the Renaissance by their employment as backdrops for theatrical spectacles.

The distinctive, complex idea of the garden as a work of art, which has been most prevalent in Western culture—the garden as an “ideal” landscape, including an anthology of architectural elements, and featuring waterworks of various spectacular contrivance—is defined in the Renaissance. Though only one element of the garden program, which in the West has mostly been heterogeneous, the grotto has a privileged place: it is an intensification in miniature, of the whole garden-world. It is also the garden’s inversion. The essence of the garden is that it is outdoors, open, light, spacious, natural, while the grotto is the quintessence of what is indoors, hidden, dim, artificial, decorated. The grotto is characteristically a space that is adorned—with frescoes, painted stuccos, mosaics, or (the association with water remaining paramount) shells.

In the garden history that starts in the Renaissance, the grotto reflected all the turns of taste, all the ideas of the theatre. The grotto as artificial ruin. The grotto as a place for foolery and escapades. (A modern, degraded form of this survives in the fairground’s papier-mĂąchĂ© Tunnel of Love.) The grotto as showcase. The grotto is, as it were, the innately decadent element of the garden ensemble, the one that is most impure, and most ambiguous. It is a space that is complex and accumulative, dimly lit, thickly ornamented. (An appeal to fantasy, and a likely site for the elaboration of bad taste.) At first it was thought to be the most intensively “rustic” space—the imitation of a cave, as in some Roman villas. Eventually it became an elaborately theatrical, encrusted space. The roof and walls of the famous grotto build by Alexander Pope at Twickenham in the 1720s and 1730s were studded with shards of mirror interspersed with shells. (The grotto as camera obscura, in Pope’s phrase.) In the eighteenth century, many grottoes were built by shell collectors principally as a setting to display their treasures. One of the last private grottoes, the Venus Grotto built by Ludwig II of Bavaria at Linderhof in 1876-1877, was itself a theatrical space, the setting of several scenes from Wagner’s TannhĂ€user. Le Palais IdĂ©al du Facteur Cheval, in a small village in central France, could be regarded as the great garden grotto of the beginning of this century—and perhaps the last of the breed. The crypt-like ground level of this astonishing building has the characteristic encrustedness of the grotto interior, the didacticism, and the reach for the sublime. Its builder’s aim is nothing less than to miniaturize, and thereby to possess, the sublime. There are inscriptions, labels, declarations, adages incised throughout on the walls—the whole structure being designed, with something like genius, by the inspired autodidactic village postman who built it single-handedly between 1879 and 1912, as an anthology of world spiritual wisdom. However different in materials and sensibility, Ferdinand Cherval’s grotto-labyrinth belongs to the same family as the grotto of Pope.

Grottoes are places of fantasy, but the greatest grotto buildings are, and always have been, functional: from the cryptoportici of the Roman villas (underground passageways one could take from one building to another to avoid the heat of the day), or that stupendous achievement of Roman engineering, the emissarium of Lake Albano (the subject of one of Piranesi’s most haunting books of engravings), to such modern fantasy lands as the limestone caves, over six hundred feet long, that house the operations of the Brunson Instrument Company in Kansas City, Missouri: or the miles of underground shopping streets in Osaka; or the vast caverns dug in the mountains behind the National Museum in Taipei that store the innumerable art treasures that Chiang Kai-shek made off with when he fled from China to Taiwan in 1949; or the Louvre mĂ©tro station in Paris, several stations of the Stockholm subway system, and, above all, the justly celebrated Moscow subway, especially the Mayakovsky and Dynamo stations. Modern technology has made it possible to build below ground on a scale never before feasible: the great subterranean installations are bound to multiply. Grottoes of art, grottoes of industry, grottoes of shopkeeping, grottoes of war—all these are functional and yet seem the epitome of the poetry of space. In grottoes the functional and the fantastic are anything but incompatible. Perhaps that is why the museum for his art collection that Philip Johnson put underground next to his Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, seems like the famous house’s twin—a house with glass walls demands one that is sunk beneath the ground—but it is not convincing as an example of the grotto in the garden: it is too purely functional, stripped down.

Many tourist-worn sites can supply the grotto experience. The Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the Postojna Caves in Slovenia (near Ljubljana), the Grotte D’Arcy near VĂ©zelay, south of Paris, the Grotte di Nettuno near Alghero on the western coast of Sardinia—such natural caves admired by grotto-buffs like myself serve as well the function of artificial grottoes. For there is no natural cave open to tourists that (if only because of the requirements of safety) has not been turned into into a stage set, or museum, with guides pointing out zoomorphic forms and organ pipes in stalagmites and stalactites with their flashlights to the visitors lined up on the stairs and walkways. (In Postojna, one traverses part of the caves by a miniature railroad.) The cemetery is a garden with—generally inaccessible—grottoes. But some cemeteries, particularly in Latin countries, have mausoleums and aboveground crypts with grilles instead of doors, into which one can peer. Visits to the Etruscan tombs excavated at Cerveteri, near Rome—such as the Tomba Bella, with its relief-encrusted walls—resemble visits to grottoes, as do visits to the catacombs of Palermo and of Guanajuato, whose walls are decorated with upright mummies of artful piles of bones instead of shells.

The garden grotto is not extinct, but it is not to be found in gardens anymore. And it is above ground more than below. While the dominant architectural tradition for half a century was the machine phase of the Bauhaus style, much of the building that contradicted, dissented from, or simply ignored the hyperrational Bauhaus aesthetic precisely tended to have a “grotto” look: the curving line, the encrusted wall surface, the underground mood, in buildings as different as Antoni Gaudí’s Casa MilĂ  and Parque GĂŒell (indeed most of Gaudí’s work), Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau (with its Nibelungen and Goethe grottoes), Frederick Kiesler’s “Endless louse” (he designed a “Grotto for Meditation”), the Rudolf Steiner Goetheanum in Switzerland, and Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport. One of the more flamboyant recent versions is the design developed by John Portman for the Hyatt Hotels. In the first of the hotels, in Atlanta, one goes through an oddly small, unprepossessing entrance to receive the full shock of unexpected height in an enclosed space. The Portman atrium—overdecorated, cluttered, and centered on water, usually a waterfall—is a deliberately coarse transposition of some garden-grotto motifs.

Grottoes affirm the element of fantasy of frivolity, excess in architecture and feeling. Garden grottoes may be, in the sense projected in garden history writing, obsolete. But one can predict an interminable future for this kind of space, for it is a permanent part of our imagination.

A grotto is both a hiding place and a kind of ruin; it is on the border between the scary and the safe, the sublime and the decrepit. It is also a permanent part of our reality. And added to the archaic fears and apprehensions embodied in the grotto is a specific modern scariness. In the 1950s there was considerable pressure on all American house owners to build grottoes in their gardens. They were called bomb shelters.

[1983] Susan Sontag

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#27

Oh, also, a grotto I saw in real life in Munich the other day. The pics aren’t great cause my phone sucks and they were taken hastily.

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