top of page

History of Italian Literature 101: Unraveling the Grotesque in Comedy and Satire


The grotesque domain unveils a complex connection with human belief systems, folklore and “subcultures”, evoking a sense of macabre fascination. Within this series, we shall delve into the deep interplay between grotesque aesthetics and comic discourse, always keeping an eye out for comedy and satire. The captivating evolution of grotesque crosses multiple historical eras, each one bearing distinct comical genres that reflect the societies from which they emerged. By scrutinizing the historical contexts, we aim to discern the pivotal role they play in shaping humorous expressions, with a particular emphasis on the literary grotesque and its association with comedy in folklore. This series belongs to a course of Italian literature. Our focus shall concentrate on Italian comic literature, clarifying its intricate connections to its Latin and Greek origins.

Additionally, we venture into the realm of fables, timeless narratives that transcend cultural boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on our perception of humor. Both folktales and fables contribute to our collective understanding of how hilarity should be portrayed, providing enduring narratives that continue to resonate until now. Our exploration reveals that the quest for laughter remains a universal pursuit, intimately woven into the fabric of humanity and its literary creations.

This 101 series will be composed of seven articles, as follows:

  1. History of Italian Literature 101: Unraveling the Grotesque in Comedy and Satire

  2. History of Italian Literature 101: Classical Era I - the Greek Origins of Comedy

  3. History of Italian Literature 101: Classical Era II - Latin Comedies and Satire

  4. History of Italian Literature 101: Medieval Times - Introducing the Obscene

  5. History of Italian Literature 101: Medieval time - Carnival and Dante

  6. History of Italian Literature 101: The Renaissance - The success of the Commedia dell’Arte

  7. History of Italian Literature 101: The Folk-tale and its figures

History of Italian Literature 101: Unraveling the Grotesque in Comedy and Satire

The concept of grotesque significantly changed over time, as today we tend to associate it to the specifical domain of horror. However, to this article it is important to underline that the specific kind of grotesque we are referring to carries the meaning of paradox and deformity in comedy. Here, the grotesque refers to a stylistic element that involves the portrayal of exaggerated, distorted, or abnormal characteristics or behaviours for comedic effect. It encompasses the use of bizarre, absurd, or unsettling imagery and situations that evoke a sense of unease and provoke laughter. The grotesque in comedy often involves the fusion of what is familiar and what is not, blurring the boundaries between what is considered normal and what is not. It can manifest in various ways, including physical appearance, mannerisms, speech patterns, or exaggerated actions, and often challenges societal norms and expectations by highlighting the flaws, contradictions, and absurdities of human nature and behavior. The comedic effect of the grotesque lies in its ability to disrupt conventional expectations, provoke discomfort and subvert the established norms, ultimately eliciting laughter from the audience.

In the year 1558, Benvenuto Cellini ventured into the caves of Rome. There, in the flickering candlelight, he discovered an ancient roman domus (Eng. lit. “house”) with walls and ceiling adorned with intricate floral and animal motifs. These drawings, hidden from the human eyes for centuries, had remained remarkably intact, retaining their vibrant colors and precise details. Suspended along the connecting lines of these illustrations he found flowers, plants, animals and anthropomorphic figures. In his work La vita di Benvenuto di Maestro Cellini fiorentino (“Benvenuto Cellini’s life", 1558-1566), Cellini referred to them as “mostri” (Eng. “monsters”) from the Latin word “moneo” (Eng. “to warn”) as they looked to be there to warn people from entering the cave, “grotta” in Italian, precisely the word from which “grotesque” comes from. It is relevant to focus on this because of the strong connection that the grotesque has with the deepest and hidden emotions we feel. We might think of the discovery of the grotesque in these caves as a reference to how we perceive the fantastical. Something that fascinates, scares and eventually elicit our laughter in other circumstances and places. So, maybe, outside these caves and put in the right light, we could find funny what we thought was scary.

Only later, during the XVII Century, the word "grotesque" stopped to refer to simple anthropomorphic figures standing guard to the caves and started to represent more deviant figures, such as ghosts, werewolves and demons. Nonetheless, the true meaning of the word “monster” for the Latin culture was referring to the mixture of what is human and what is not. Here, on this contrast, lies the comical aspect we are looking for. We will see throughout this article that what is monstrous or grotesque depends on the circumstance. This prompts us to question why what is grotesque and what is comic may look distant from each other when, in fact, they both stem from a shared collective whole of human emotions and experiences, the perception of breaking the norms or the feeling of transgressive when the rule is broken.

Figure 1: Decoration of a Roman villa, in the style of the "Grottesca" (1556).

The Norms of Laughter

The concept of comic refers to a sensation that is hard to limit within a precise epistemological definition, simply because not everyone laughs at the same things, both from a subjective and cultural perspective. However, this is where the concept of social comedy comes into play, which we will examine further through the lens of Bergson and Freud. Laughter is seen as a social act laden with meaning and it reaches its peak when shared with others within a set of social norms.

The timeless aspects of comedy, such as repetition, plausible fallacies and the transition from sublime pretension to ridiculous reality contribute to its enduring nature as a form of entertainment and social commentary. Comedy often relies on recurring themes, situations and character types that have amused the audience throughout history. The repetition of comedic elements allows familiarity and creates a sense of anticipation, enhancing the amusing effect. This is clear when theatrical masks come into play, as they allow the public to identify themselves with certain characters and to reject others as symbols of something completely opposite to them. Nevertheless, plausible fallacies involve presenting situations that are logically flawed but can be easily accepted within the comedic context. This allows the public to suspend their disbelief and embrace absurdity, enabling the consequent and inevitable laughter to come out. Furthermore, comedy frequently exposes the contrast between sublime pretension and ridiculous reality. It satirizes human follies and their tendency to take oneself too seriously. The juxtaposition of impressive aspirations with the mundane or foolish outcomes evokes a sense of amusement and serves as a reminder of the inherent flaws and imperfections of human nature. This comedic strategy provides a form of social critique by highlighting the dissonance between our aspirations and the reality, often humorous, of our lives (Bachtin, 1984).

Satire, on the other hand, can be seen as a refined form of criticism that operates within the realm of comedy. It employs humor, irony and exaggeration to expose and critique societal vices, follies and injustices. Satire often relies on the use of wit and clever wordplay to convey its message. It serves as a powerful tool for social commentary and holds a mirror to the flaws and contradictions of individuals, institutions and societal norms. To be effective, satire requires a shared set of values and a certain level of cultural and intellectual engagement. Satirical works often rely on the audience's familiarity with the subject and their ability to discern the implied criticism. That is why shared values lay the foundations for understanding and appreciating the satirical intent, allowing the audience to recognize the incongruities and contradictions being presented.

Whenever it comes to social disturbance/agitation, satire can be hidden or made strategically less evident in other literary genres. As its understanding and appreciation depends on a collective agreement on the theme that is being satirized, satire periodically grows and diminishes with the oscillation of people’s common thought. Therefore, comedy encompasses timeless aspects such as repetition, plausible fallacies, and the portrayal of the transition from sublime pretension to ridiculous reality. Satire, as a refined form of comedy, serves as a powerful tool for social criticism and commentary. It requires shared values and cultural engagement to be effective. The enduring nature of comedy and satire lies in their ability to reflect and comment on the complexities of the human experience, providing laughter, introspection, and a catalyst for change.

The Quest for Comedy and Grotesque

The intertwining of comedy and the grotesque holds significant implications for the evolution of cultures throughout the history of humanity. In this series we will focus on the importance it had for Italian literature. This tendency to incorporate archetypal comic elements into various artistic and literary forms can be observed in the emergence of “subcultures” that have influenced the highest realms of creativity. Saying “subcultures” might sound too general, therefore it is important to underline that even the original grotesques found in Roman caves are part of this broad field. The same happens for inscriptions, folk sayings, nursery rhymes, folk songs and other popular traditions. These expressions made their way to the highest forms of literature, which is even more relevant in the comic aspects of theater and also satire.

Figure 2: Roman mosaic representing the masks of comedy and tragedy (2nd Century AD).

The roots of this cultural phenomenon can be traced back to the ancient theaters of Greece and Rome. In these theatrical spaces, the grotesque found a stage to challenge societal norms and beliefs, often through exaggerated and unconventional representations. The comic elements incorporated within these early theaters laid the groundwork for the subsequent development of literary traditions (Guidorizzi, 2002).

As time progressed, the influence of the grotesque continued to permeate literature and art, transcending boundaries and societal divisions. In the Middle Ages, the figure of the jester emerged as a powerful archetype, embodying both comedy and its subgenres. As Ernst Robert Curtius says in his famous book European literature and Latin Middle Ages (1978), jesters occupied a unique position within society, allowing them to freely express opinions and criticize those in power under the safety of pure entertainment. Through their jests and performances, they brought attention to societal issues, often utilizing the grotesque as a means to provoke discomfort and challenge established norms.

Religious circles and poetry also became some of the arenas where the grotesque played a role in shaping cultural expressions. The medieval carnival, for instance, featured performances and festivities that showcased the grotesque through exaggerated masks, costumes, and rituals. These celebrations allowed the temporary suspension of societal conventions, providing a space for the release of tensions and the expression of collective anxieties.

In more recent times, the influence of the grotesque and its connection to humor can be seen in the resurgence of theater with the emerging of the Commedia dell’Arte. This theatrical form, emerged during the Italian Renaissance, featured stock characters and improvisation, blending elements of comedy, satire and social commentary. The performances of the Commedia dell’Arte challenged societal norms, often mocking figures of authority and highlighting the absurdities of the human condition. Through exaggerated physicality and the use of masks, the grotesque was employed to create a sense of unease and to exorcise the anxieties and tensions felt by the population (Giovanardi and Trifone, 2015). The incorporation of the grotesque within these various cultural forms reflects the innate human desire to confront and transcend the boundaries of normality. The grotesque, with its fusion of the familiar and the unfamiliar, evokes a sense of unease and disrupts conventional expectations. It serves as a mirror through which society can reflect upon its values, beliefs, and shortcomings. By embracing the grotesque and integrating it into cultural expressions, societies have sought to exorcise the uneasiness it generates, allowing individuals to confront their fears and anxieties in a controlled and cathartic manner.

Comedy and Satire: Differences and Similarities

Comedies are renowned for their light and humorous nature, as well as for their amusing and entertaining situations, often centered on confusion, masks, misunderstanding and love. These plays typically culminate in a happy ending, providing a sense of resolution to the narrative. In Italian studies, the works of renowned playwrights such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Giovanni Boccaccio exemplify the comedic tradition. Machiavelli’s La Mandragola (The Mandrake, 1524) showcases the comedic elements of deception and pursuit of personal gain through comical mistakes, while Boccaccio's Decameron, written in 1349-1351, features a collection of comedic tales celebrating the human capacity for wit and humor amidst challenging circumstances.

Figure 3: Roman statue of a dancing satyr, the patron of comedy (2nd Century AD).

On the other hand, satire employs humor, irony and exaggeration to satirize society and individuals. It aims to provoke thoughts and stimulate change, using laughter as a means to engage the audience in critical reflection. In Italian literature, Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy stands as a notable example of satirical writing. Through its vivid and imaginative portrayal of the afterlife, Dante uses satire to criticize the societal and political landscape of his time. His biting criticism of corrupt individuals and institutions serve as a reflection of the darker aspects of society and suggest introspection and reflection. Still, despite its title, it does not have a strong comic aspect, except for some cantos which we will analyze. Another example, in this case of folk satire, is to be found in the so-called “talking statues" of Rome, where people could leave anonymous messages on them, in particular on Pasquino’s statue, located in the center of Rome. The reason why people started to hang on his neck the Pasquinades, small satirical poems in roman dialect often expressing disagreement towards figures such as Popes or politicians, is shrouded in mystery. It is a great example of how people could satirize in many forms and perpetuating the Latin tradition of hanging these small poems on statues (Spaeth, 1939).

In terms of meaning, comedies and satires differ in their implied purposes. Comedies focus on light-hearted entertainment and the celebration of human absurdities. They provide temporary relief from the complexities of life and offer a sense of joy and laughter. Comedies often convey a sense of optimism and hope, emphasizing the triumph of love, friendship and human resilience (Civita, 1984). On the other hand, satires delve into the darker aspects of society. They expose societal flaws and satirize individuals or institutions to prompt introspection and reflection. Satires aim to provoke critical thinking and challenge existing power structures, norms and beliefs. They highlight the contradictions and hypocrisies present of society, aiming to bring social change or provoke discussions on important issues, often carrying a moral or political message serving as a vehicle for social and political commentary.

Hence, comedies and satires differ in their technical approaches and implied meanings. Comedies employ humor and wit to entertain and celebrate human foibles, while satires use irony and exaggeration to criticize and challenge societal vices and injustices. Both forms of literary expression have their unique roles in reflecting and shaping the human experience, offering different perspectives and engaging readers through their distinct techniques and messages.

Comedy and Satire: Cultural Differences

As it was already pointed out, comedy and satire need a shared set of values to be understood. Satire and comedy are deeply rooted in cultural traditions and often reflect the distinct sensibilities, social norms and historical contexts of a particular society. Italy and Britain, two countries with rich comedic traditions, exhibit notable differences in their approaches to satire and comedy. Exploring these cultural nuances can shed light on the unique styles and themes that characterize Italian satire and British humour.

The history of Italian satire is long, it dates back to the ancient Rome, when the first satirical poets such as Juvenal and Horace started to write using wit, wordplay and sharp social criticism as main characteristics of this genre. Italian satire often utilizes irony, exaggeration, and humor to expose societal vices, political corruption, and cultural peculiarities. It has a strong tradition in the political field, with famous works like Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince serving as biting critiques of political power and machinations. One distinctive feature of Italian satire is its tendency to use allegory and symbolism to convey its message: it’s not rare that metaphorical characters or situations are used to represent larger social issues or conflicts. For example, the Commedia dell'Arte’s tradition, featured stock characters like the greedy old man Pantalone (Eng. "Pantaloon") and the mischievous servant Arlecchino (Eng. "Harlequin"). These characters were archetypes that satirized various social classes and behaviors, providing social commentary through their exaggerated and comedic actions (Civita, 1984). On the other hand, Italian comedy encompasses a broader range of styles and themes beyond satire. It includes various comedic genres such as the “commedia all'italiana” (Eng. "Italian-style comedy"), which blends elements of satire, farce and social critique. Italian comedy often explores the themes of family dynamics, social class and regional stereotypes, taking inspiration from everyday life and the idiosyncrasies of Italian society. Usually, the ridicule here is directed towards others and at oneself, as it is in British humour.

Figure 4: Giclée Print portraying Harlequin (Hummel, 2015).

In contrast, British humour is characterized by its dry wit, sarcasm and strong use of irony. British comedy has a strong tradition of self-deprecating humor, satire and absurdity as the British have a knack for finding humor in the mundane and in awkward situations, often using irony and understatement to great effect. The use of clever wordplay and puns adds an intellectual layer to the comedy, appealing to audiences who appreciate linguistic dexterity and subtle humor (Tebbe, 2008)

One notable difference between Italian and British comedy lies in their cultural references and comedic perceptions. Italian comedy often relies on regional stereotypes, dialects and cultural nuances that may be less accessible to non-Italian audiences. Cultural differences also shape the boundaries about the acceptability of comedic content. The cultural context and audience expectations play a significant role in determining the appropriateness and impact of comedic content in both countries. Therefore cultural references, comedic sensibilities, and the boundaries of acceptability vary between these comedic traditions, reflecting the unique cultural contexts in which they emerge.

Seeing Laughter from Different Perspectives

In their respective essays, The Uncanny (1909) and Le Rire (1900), Sigmund Freud and Henry Bergson present contrasting views on the nature of comedy, exploring its connection to the grotesque and its deep impact on human experience. Freud delves into the realm of the uncanny, examining the unsettling aspects of existence, while Bergson explores the dynamics of laughter and its role in society. Despite their differences, both theorists shed light on the deep-rooted connections between comedy, folklore and the human psyche. Freud's exploration of the uncanny reveals an intriguing link between the grotesque and comedy. He states that comedy acts as a defense mechanism against the uncanny, enabling individuals to confront and alleviate feelings of unease and discomfort. The grotesque, with its fusion of the familiar (“Heimlich” in German, from the word “Heim” meaning home) and the unfamiliar (“Unheimlich”), plays a central role in Freud's analysis. He suggests that the uncanny arises when repressed or hidden aspects resurface, creating a sense of discomfort. Comedy, in turn, serves as a means to subvert and deflate these unsettling experiences, offering a cathartic release through laughter. The grotesque elements within comedy highlight the incongruities and absurdities of the human condition, allowing individuals to face their fears and anxieties in a safe and controlled manner.

Figure 5: A photograph of Sigmund Freud (1922).

In contrast, Bergson's exploration of laughter in Le Rire centers on the dynamic tension between the mechanical and the un-mechanical concept of laughter, as part of the idea of the “élan vitale" (Eng. “vital force”) as described in his major works. He perceives laughter as a natural human phenomenon arising when there is a deviation from the norm. The grotesque, with its exaggerated and distorted features, often serves as a catalyst for laughter. Bergson argues that the grotesque representation of the human body or behavior highlights the mechanical aspects of existence, enabling individuals to momentarily detach themselves from the seriousness of life, just as it happens with toys. According to Bergson, laughter represents a metaphor for the public and social context, functioning as a form of satire. It allows individuals to criticize and challenge societal norms and conventions, offering a means to expose and examine the incongruities and contradictions of the human experience.

Despite their divergent perspectives, Freud and Bergson agree in their recognition of the deep role played in comedy by the grotesque. A catalyst for laughter and a vehicle for exploring the complexities of the human psyche through its unsettling and unfamiliar qualities. It allows individuals to face their deepest fears, anxieties and repressed desires in a way that is simultaneously entertaining and cathartic. In the article dedicated to Greek theater we will give a deep explanation of cathartic laughter.

Thereby the grotesque acts as a powerful tool for social commentary, satire, and the subversion of established norms. Moreover, the theories we just discussed highlight the enduring nature of comic archetypes throughout history. Whether it is through ancient myths, medieval jesters or contemporary comedies, these archetypes continue to resonate, capturing the universal aspects of the human experience through time. The recycling of these archetypes, with their inherent connection to the grotesque, underscores the enduring power of laughter as a visceral and uncontrolled reaction. It reminds us that comedy, with its ability to address deep and complex issues, holds a significant place in our collective consciousness, transcending time and cultural boundaries.

Figure 6: A great example of grotesque in Western Art: The triptych of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (Bosch, 1490-1510).

In conclusion, after explaining the concept of grotesque and comedy and its origins from a theoretical perspective, we should highlight another important aspect of comedy in ancient times, to which we will dedicate the next article of this series: cathartic laughter. This particular kind of laughter plays a significant role in Greek theater and is intricately connected to the use of the grotesque. Through exaggerated and unconventional representations, the grotesque in Greek theater challenged societal norms and beliefs, provoking discomfort and laughter in the audience. At the same time, we will delve in the origin of satires, as the stories about satyrs, mythological figures half human half goat, have a strong tradition in ancient literature. The influence of the grotesque and its connection to humor began, in Ancient Greece, to permeate literature and art, providing a controlled and cathartic outlet for individuals to face their anxieties and uncertainties.

Bibliographical References

Bergson, H. (1900). Le Rire. Revue de Paris.

Cellini, B. (1985). Vita. BUR.

Civita, A. (1984). Le teorie del comico. UNICOPLI.

Curtius, E. R. (1973). European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Bollingen Series / Princeton Press.

Freud, S. (1919). The Uncanny. Imago.

Giovanardi, C. & Trifone, P. (2015). La lingua del teatro. Il Mulino.

Guidorizzi, G. (2002). Letteratura greca. Da Omero al secolo VI d.C. Mondadori Università.

Spaeth, J. W. (1939). Martial and the Pasquinade. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 70, 242–255.

Pirandello, L. (1908). L’umorismo. Carabba.

Tebbe, T. (2008). The Funny Side of the United Kingdom. GRIN.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Alessandra Cipolloni

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page