For other uses, see Grotto (disambiguation).
"Grotte" redirects here. For other uses, see Grotte (disambiguation).
A Marian grotto in Bischofferode, Germany

A grotto (Italian grotta and French grotte) is a natural or artificial cave used by humans in both modern times, and historically or prehistorically. Naturally occurring grottoes are often small caves near water that are usually flooded or liable to flood at high tide. Sometimes, artificial grottoes are used as garden features. The Grotta Azzurra at Capri and the grotto at the villa of Tiberius in the Bay of Naples are examples of popular natural seashore grottoes.

Whether in tidal water or high up in hills, grottoes are generally made up of limestone geology, where the acidity of standing water has dissolved the rock matrix' carbonates as it passes through what were originally small fissures. See karst topography, cavern.


The word "grotto" comes from Italian grotta, Vulgar Latin grupta, and Latin crypta, (a crypt).[1] It is also related by a historical accident to the word "grotesque." In the late 15th century, Romans accidentally unearthed Nero's Domus Aurea on the Palatine Hill, a series of rooms, decorated with designs of garlands, slender architectural framework, foliage, and animals. The rooms had sunk underground over time. The Romans who discovered this historical monument found it very strange, a sentiment enhanced by the fact that it was uncovered from an 'underworld' source. This led the Romans to give it the name "grottesche," or grotesque.


Grottoes were very popular in Greek and Roman culture. Spring-fed grottoes were a feature of Apollo's oracles at Delphi, Corinth, and Clarus.[2] The Hellenistic city of Rhodes was designed with rock-cut artificial grottoes incorporated into the city, made to look natural.[3] At the great Roman sanctuary of Praeneste south of Rome, the oldest portion of the primitive sanctuary was situated on the second lowest terrace, in a grotto in the natural rock where a spring developed into a well. According to tradition, Praeneste's sacred spring had a native nymph, who was honored in a grotto-like watery nymphaeum.[4]

Tiberius, the Roman emperor, filled his grotto with sculptures to create a sense of mythology, perhaps channeling Polyphemus' cave in the Odyssey. The numinous quality of the grotto is still more ancient: in a grotto near Knossos in Crete, Eileithyia was venerated, even before Minoan palace-building. Even farther back in time, the immanence of the divine in a grotto is seen in the sacred caves of Lascaux.

Garden grotto history and design

The popularity of artificial grottoes introduced Mannerist style to Italian and French gardens of the mid-16th century. Two famous grottoes in the Boboli Gardens of Palazzo Pitti were begun by Vasari and completed by Ammanati and Buontalenti between 1583 and 1593. One of these grottoes originally housed the Prisoners of Michelangelo. Before Boboli grotto, a garden was laid out by Niccolò Tribolo at the Medici Villa Castello, near Florence. At Pratolino, in spite of the dryness of the site, there was a Grotto of Cupid (surviving), with water tricks for the unsuspecting visitor.[5] The Fonte di Fata Morgana ('Fata Morgana's Spring') at Grassina, not far from Florence, is a small garden building, built 1573–4 as a garden feature in the extensive grounds of the Villa "Riposo" (rest) of Bernardo Vecchietti. It is decorated with sculptures in the Giambolognan manner.

The outside of garden grottoes are often designed to look like an enormous rock, a rustic porch or a rocky overhang. Inside, they're decorated as a temple or with fountains stalactites and imitation gems and shells (sometimes made in ceramic); herms and mermaids, mythological subjects suited to the space; and naiads, or river gods whose urns spilled water into pools. Damp grottoes were cool places to retreat from the Italian sun, but they also became fashionable in the cool drizzle of the Île-de-France. In Kuskovo at the Sheremetev estate there is a Summer Grotto, built in 1775.

Grottoes could also serve as baths; an example of this is at the Palazzo del Te, in the 'Casino della Grotta', where a small suite of intimate rooms is laid out around a grotto and loggetta (covered balcony). Courtiers once bathed in the small cascade that splashed over the pebbles and shells encrusted in the floor and walls.

Grottoes have also served as chapels, or at Villa Farnese at Caprarola, a little theater designed in the grotto manner. They were often combined with cascading fountains in Renaissance gardens.

The grotto designed by Bernard Palissy for Catherine de' Medici's château in Paris, the Tuileries, was renowned. There are also grottoes in the gardens designed by André Le Nôtre for Versailles. In England, an early garden grotto was built at Wilton House in the 1630s, probably by Isaac de Caus.

Grottoes were suitable for less formal gardening too. Pope's Grotto, created by Alexander Pope, is almost all that survives of one of the very first landscape gardens in England, at Twickenham.[6] There are grottoes in the famous landscape gardens of Painshill Park,[7] Stowe, Clandon Park and Stourhead.[8] Scott's Grotto is a series of interconnected chambers, extending 67 ft into the chalk hillside on the outskirts of Ware, Hertfordshire. Built during the late 18th century, the chambers and tunnels are lined with shells, flints and pieces of coloured glass.[9] The Romantic generation of tourists might not actually visit Fingal's Cave, located in the isolated Hebrides, but they have often heard of it, perhaps through Felix Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture", better known as "Fingal's Cave," which was inspired by his visit. In the 19th century, when miniature Matterhorns and rock-gardens became fashionable, a gro was often found, such as at Ascott House. In Bavaria, Ludwig's Linderhof contains an abstraction of the grotto under Venusberg, which figured in Wagner's Tannhäuser.

Although grottoes have largely fallen from fashion since the British Picturesque movement, architects and artists occasionally try to redefine the grotto in contemporary design works. Such examples include Aranda/Lasch's Grotto Concept, (2005), Callum Moreton's Grotto pavilion (2010), ARM's post-modern Storey Hall (1995), and Frederick Kiesler's Grotto of Meditation for New Harmony (1964).[10]

Religious grottoes

Marian grotto with a lily pond in San Thome Basilica, Chennai

Today, artificial grottoes are purchased and built for ornamental and devotional purposes. They are often used as shrines in which to place statues of saints, particularly the Virgin Mary, in outdoor gardens. The apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous took place in a grotto that is visited by many Catholics to this day. Numerous garden shrines are modeled after these apparitions, and can commonly be found displayed in gardens and churches, among other places (see Lourdes grotto).

Further reading

See also


  1. OED, s.v. "grotto".
  2. G. W. Elderkin, "The Natural and the Artificial Grotto", Hesperia 10.2 (April – June 1941), pp. 125–137, gives numerous well-known ancient Greek examples, natural and architectural, with some details of their sites.
  3. E. E. Rice, "Grottoes on the Acropolis of Hellenistic Rhodes", The Annual of the British School at Athens 90 (1995), pp. 383–404.
  4. A.R.A. van Aken, "Some Aspects of Nymphaea in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia" Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, 4.3/4 (1951), pp. 272–284
  5. Webster Smith, "Pratolino", The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 20.4 (December 1961), pp. 155–168.
  6. Frederick Bracher, "Pope's Grotto: The Maze of Fancy Pope's Grotto: The Maze of Fancy", The Huntington Library Quarterly 12.2 (February 1949), pp. 141–162; Anthony Beckles Willson, "Alexander Pope's Grotto in Twickenham", Garden History 26.1 (Summer, 1998), pp. 31–59.
  7. Alison Hodges, "Painshill, Cobham, Surrey: The Grotto", Garden History 3.2 (Spring 1975), pp. 23–28.
  8. James Turner, "The Structure of Henry Hoare's Stourhead", The Art Bulletin 61.1 (March 1979), pp. 68–77; Malcolm Kelsall, "The Iconography of Stourhead", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 46(1983), pp. 133–143; Kenneth Woodbridge, "Henry Hoare's Paradise," The Art Bulletin 47.1 (March 1965), pp. 83–116.
  9. Alderslade, Jessica (2014). "An Introduction to the Grotto and Its Place within Contemporary Design". Reinterpreting the Grotto in Contemporary Design. Australia,.
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