Folly as defined by the OED has numerous meanings but is most prominently rooted in the state of being foolish, an absurdity. Formally the definition stands as “The quality or state of being foolish or deficient in understanding; want of good sense, weakness or derangement of mind; also, unwise conduct. To act foolishly to an absurd degree.” There are obvious relations to the terms folly and foolish as evidenced by the similarities in the words themselves although the former is a noun and the latter is an adjective. In addition, folly was once defined as a sin, or evil and harm as well as lewdness although this usage is now obsolete and therefore no longer utilized as such in modern society. In the past it also meant “delight” or “favourite abode.” The term, folly derived from the Old French term, folie, meaning “madness, stupidity” in the 12th century and corresponds to Provencal folia, follia, folhia, Old Spanish folia, and Italian follia.In the Middle Ages when morality plays were at the peak of their popularity, Folly was often an allegorical figure in theatre. Folly was represented as an idiotic character, generally dressed as a jester and drawing heavy similarities with appearance of The Fool in tarot cards. Its character’s role primarily revolves around attempting to persuade the protagonist to commit a foolish activity. Many artists also depicted the physical embodiment of folly in Renaissance art pieces as well, for example, the painting ‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time’ by Agnolo Bronzino. Perhaps most famously, the humanist Desiderius Erasmus wrote a satirical narrative called “Morias Enkomion” (In Praise of Folly). In this essay, Folly, a Greek goddess is the central character in the book and is nursed by other allegorical figures, Drunkenness and Ignorance. The essay was Erasumus’ tool to attack the Church’s immorality and demonstrate the folly of theological ideals in his contemporary. It can be seen that the concepts of folly were employed extensively in the past.
Architecturally, folly can be used to describe a costly structure that demonstrated the foolishness of the architect or a building with little purpose that is simply constructed from the whim of its owner. Follies are heavily ornamental and constructed purely for pleasure. They are associated with pavilions and garden structures, which primarily do not have a specific purpose other than its decorative value. An example of a folly is the Folie of Saint James, built in 1781, in which the architect, François-Joseph Bélanger was instructed by Baron Saint-James to “build whatever you like, provided that it is expensive.” There was a surge of folly-like structures in the 18th and 19th centuries. The exact requirements of a folly are vague and in the modern sense, buildings that simply have eccentric qualities and do not conform to any conventional styles may be dubbed as “follies”. The architectural value of follies has been debatable, yet it is undeniable that they present a whimsical and carefree perspective on its creator’s persona.
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