What is a grotto?

How many times haven’t I walked past this cave pondering about it’s whereabouts? Very many I would say. Thinking that it looked spooky, damp and raw. That was before I realised this is not a cave, but a grotto. There is a huge difference, not only in the name. Caves are usually natural, grottoes are anything but. They are a human made garden (park) design feature, used since ancient times. So what else is a grotto?

What is a grotto? Garden Room Style
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Grottoes in Europe came about in connection with Greek nymphaeums. Back then appropriate rocky caves with dripping water and an air of mystery were chosen as places to make offerings to nymphs. Artificial nymphaeas later went on to become a staple in ancient Roman gardens.

Inside the grotto @ Keiller's Park, Gothenburg, Sweden.
Inside the grotto @ Keiller’s Park, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Grottoes are not unique to Europe but also featured in, for example, Chinese gardens. Sticking to Europe though, after the Dark Ages, Renaissance garden designers, perhaps out of nostalgic reasons, wanted to re-create the glories of ancient Rome. The 15th-century architect Leon Battista Alberti fancied designing grottoes “because the ancients had them”.

An exterior view of the grotto @ Keiller's Park, Gothenburg, Sweden.
An exterior view of the grotto @ Keiller’s Park, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Italian Renaissance gardens set the standard for the rest of Europe. By the mid-16th century every large garden had one, the more fanciful the better. Design in the 18th- and 19th centuries became more rustic and grottoesque inside and out (just see this example used here!). These days grottoes are not commonly used. Perhaps now considered too grotesque ;-)?