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Folly lives on

Updated: May 19, 2020

This week I am tracing back the word folly. I t is a noun that popped up during my Italian lesson when I was trying to decipher what "follia" meant in English. An absurd idea was the description, and the word follies surfaced immediately at the tip of my tongue. Follies are architectural fantasy structures to romanticise English and French gardens in the 18th century. However true, I realised though that human-made grottos, cascades, and fantasy towers occurred much earlier.




Close to home in the Boboli garden of Palazzo Pitti in Florence you can find the "Grotto Grande" from Buontalenti made in the 16th century, which was commissioned by Francesco I de Medici.






Worth mentioning is the construction of the Irish famine follies during the great famines in the 18th and 19th centuries.

These follies were not only meant to entertain but provided employment. A good example is Conolly's folly, the rear gate to their estate, in county Kildare, constructed in 1740 to support poor farmers in a dignified way.

The arch with an obelisk on top is out of character in the Irish landscape.



In the 20th century, Agatha Christies' book Greenshaw's folly is a good reference. The setting of the book takes place in the Greenshaw estate. The estate characterised as a labyrinth and awkward, as much as the owner Decimus Greenshaw.


This made me wonder if the Brighton Pavillion also could be called a folly. A Tripadvisor tourist called the Pavillion a hideous folly not worth visiting. This is a matter of opinion of course, but the use of the word does resonate well in this context.

The Pavillion was constructed for George IV during the reign of his father George III aka George the Madness. It fits well with the esprit of the romantic gardens, but my thought that the Madness persé of George III contributed to the eastern looking pavilion is wrong. He fell in love with Chinese art, which was incorporated in the construction.


Folly already appeared in old-English in the 13th century. Folly is not only a physical structure but also can be used in terms of describing a concept, a bad idea, foolishness. More than in British literature or science I see folly appear more frequently in the United States. In ethical, economic and scientific platforms I found titles similar to these: "Mortal follies", The commons: tragedies or other follies" and "Supply-side follies" looking at economic absurdities. The commonality is the negative undertone.


More light-hearted is the reference to theatre or revues. In the UK there is the Christmas pantomime which is a parody on an existing play or fairy tale, whereby the actors switch male and female roles and engage the audience to participate during the performance. I would have thought that calling these performances follies would be more appropriate.

The Christmas pantomimes are fun to watch. Pantomime is accurate in the sense that "panto" means all and "mimos" means dancer in Greek. The dancer performed any role or acted the whole story. The original performance was based on the Greek tragedies, which were quite dramatic rather than witty. The role switching of the actors makes sense, the genre is less obvious.


Folly is also kept alive through other means. The "folly farm" amusement park, including their theatre show, in Wales will be known by adults and kids in the area. More boisterous was the "furious folly" theatrical event commemorating the First World War in the UK from 2016 to 2018*. watch the youtube film below if you are interested.


Other derivations of folly are part of our mainstream verbatim, being a fool, or the adjective foolish. Who doesn't love a bit of madness?


Marleen @englishafirenze.com #English #Englishonline #Englishteacher




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