The World Upside Down

Satire, both for fun or as moral censorship, establishes a link between the popular and the erudite universe.

The novels and engravings describing several episodes that are impossible to happen in the real world were often associated with popular culture, carnival parties and a healthy subversive spirit with medieval roots.

The collection of scenes represented in the series of engravings of Il mondo alla riversa, Le monde à rebours and The World Turned Upside Down found favour in various latitudes, from the mid-16th century to the beginning of the 19th century.

The World Turned Upside-Down or The Folly of Man, c. 1790. British Museum.

Despite this continued popularity, it is also true that satire, whether for histrionic purposes or as a moral censure, was also part of scholarly discourse and could even serve as the setting for sumptuous aristocratic parties.

In the words of the famous Portuguese playwright António José da Silva (1705-1739), accused of Judaism and barbarously burned by the Inquisition, the comic theatre, with the staging of burlesque episodes, should approach vulgar language without this constituting a degradation of Art and a threat to the proper taste of the educated public:

The same dispassionate reader will not despise the phrase as less polite, which is required in the context of such works of art since he knows well that Comedy needs an average style. As the representation is an imitation of the events, which naturally happened, the sentence must also follow the same precept, making a difference, that the sublime and elevated style, which the Romans call Cothurno, is only allowed in Tragedies, in which there are absolutely serious things, such as the heroic actions and works of Princes. In Comedy, however, it must be the domestic style, without affectation of the sublime, which calls Socco because they describe feminine plots and amorous actions: Horace indicates these precepts in his Poetic Art.

With similar intentions, on the balcony of Quinta dos Marqueses de Fronteira, in Lisbon, we are surprised by the presence of grotesque human beings with their tails sticking out, defecating next to the flower beds, in contrast to the representation of the Liberal Arts in a prominent place.

The Miller Donkey. Palácio Anadia, Viseu. CM
The Miller Donkey. Palácio Anadia, Mangualde, Viseu. © CM.

In the main room of Palácio Anadia, in Viseu, the tile panels, decorated with beautiful rocaille frames from the mid-18th century, in one of the most coherent decorative programs of civil architecture in Northern Portugal, represent the cities in the sky, the animals hunting and subdue men, children to punish and nurture their parents.

In the play Vida de Don Quixote, António José da Silva imagined that Sancho Panza, to increase his meagre assets when making his will, claimed to have a painting of The World Turned Upside Down. With grace, by depicting the exact opposite of the rules of human society, it reinforces the grotesqueness of an alternative world and the benefits of a “natural” social order.


SANTOS, Diana Gonçalves.  Azulejaria de Fabrico Coimbrão (1699-1801). Artífices e Artistas. Cronologia. Iconografia. Dissertação de doutoramento apresentada na Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto, 2014.

SILVA, António José da. Theatro comico portuguez, ou, Collecção das operas portuguezas, que se representárão na casa da theatro publico do Bairro Alto, e Mouraria de Lisboa. Lisboa: Simão Thaddeo Ferreira, 1788.

Mangualde, Palácio dos Condes de Anadia

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