The Palazzo Te, built on the outskirts of Mantua between 1524-1530 for its Duke, Federico Gonzaga II, is one, if not the prime, monument of the brief movement of the Renaissance known as Mannerism. It’s designer was Giulio Romano, one of the major pupils of the High Renaissance artist, Raphael. By the High Renaissance, Italian artists had mastered the classical Greek and Roman concepts of harmonious composition, natural proportion, ideal beauty and rational balance. Beginning around 1520, some began to break those rules for the purposes of surprising the viewer, enhancing drama and stimulating the imagination. Giulio Romano was one of these new, young artists whose work has come to be associated with Mannerism.
As seen in these two photographs, the Palazzo Te shows a building in the possession of a mature grasp of classical design. Its North Façade reveals a well-proportioned Doric order defined by Doric pilasters which support a proper Doric frieze of triglyphs and metopes. Yet the masonry of the wall is rusticated and thus three-dimensional whereas the pilasters are smooth and flat–a reverse of what one would expect. In the West Entrance, the barrel vault with its octagonal coffers reveals a powerful and elegant, classical design, clearly inspired by Roman architecture. However, those “unfinished” Doric columns, whose shafts are rough and too wide in diameter for their height, suggest a different sensibility.
In plan, the Palazzo Te, as we can see, is essentially a large square which defines an inner courtyard (bottom). In the middle, a central loggia opens on to a bridge over a moat and then to a larger open space (top) that once was a garden with an orangerie, a semi-circular exedra at its far eastern end, and some private apartments. The entire complex was situated outside of the walls of the city of Mantua and incorporated the Duke’s stables. Giulio Romand designed it as a suburban pleasure palace for Federico Gonzaga.
Once we look at two more photographs of the architecture of the inner courtyard, I will focus on the fresco decoration of several of the various rooms of the palace, culminating in what is its most famous room–and a tour de force of Mannerist decoration–the Hall of the Giants.
Once more, the basic components of the Courtyard walls are classical. We see Doric columns holding up a Doric frieze of triglyphs and metopes. However, the rhythm is complicated because of the different spacing of each bay, as defined by any set of columns. We also see that the North Wall (to our right) has a totally different rhythm of column and bay, thus challenging the viewer’s expectations of classical regularity. Every courtyard wall, in fact, is slightly different.
Finally, in this detail of one bay of the West Wall, Giulio Romano creates surprising effects and so distorts the classical forms as if to suggest that the building may collapse. The triangular pediment above the niche appears to have been displaced upwards and broken by the keystone just beneath it. Above this, the wall masonry is smooth (ashlar) with the exception of that one protruding and rough (rusticated) stone. Finally, above this stone we see that the triglyph of the Doric frieze has slipped down (as have nine others on this wall face). All these details, and more, speak to a Mannerist aesthetic of irrationality. This aesthetic is a challenge to the logic-based rules of classical design.
This room, and most that follow, have no decoration on the lower walls only because the tapestries and leathers which once covered them are now gone. These wall coverings most likely disappeared in 1630, when an Imperial army of German mercenary soldiers sacked Mantua and looted the Palazzo Te.
Shown here is a fireplace of red Verona marble. Above it is a frieze of separate frescoed panels showing mythological scenes taken from the Metamorphoses of Ovid; these scenes alternate with imaginary landscapes. Among the scenes shown here are the Contest between Apollo and Pan, Maenads Tormenting a Satyr, an Imaginary Landscape and Dance of Satyrs and Maenads.
Here we see a green circle near the top of the fireplace, and in it is pictured a Green Lizard. This is an oft-encountered device in the Palazzo Te because it refers to the Duke’s mistress, Isabella Boschetti, to her kindness and warm bloodedness. The motto (in Latin) accompanying the Lizard states: “what this creature lacks torments me.”
Each Device (or symbolic emblem) is found in those oval frames being held by putti. They embody virtues or moral principles to be associated with the Gonzaga family. Two of the three shown in this photograph are a muzzle and a tower.
The ceiling fresco, done with extreme foreshortening so that the two chariots appear to actually float above us, show Selene (or Artemis, the Moon) rising on our left with Helios (or Apollo, the Sun) setting on our right. It is, of course, an allegory of the passage of time.
At one point, this room and the two we have previously seen constituted one apartment. Guests of the family would first have been shown into this room, then–possibly–ushered into the more private chambers of the Devices and of Ovid.
This larger room served as the venue for the most important ceremonies of the Gonzaga Court and a place to entertain more special guests. The horses, painted illusionistically as if standing in front of Corinthian pilasters, are actual portraits of horses in Federico’s stable–at times, the Duke was known to present a friend or important guest with one of his horses.
Besides the horses and the pilasters, the frescoed wall decoration also includes busts of illustrious men and women above each window and panels depicting the Labors of Hercules (meant to look like bronze reliefs), above the horses.
In this room, a banquet hall reserved for more prestigious court guests, the frescoes of the ceiling and the lunettes directly below narrate the story of Cupid and Psyche as taken from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. Below those lunettes is a banquet scene set in an expansive and continuous landscape. Although here we see Cupid, Psyche and (now) their daughter Voluptas lounging on a bed in the right corner, this banquet scene offers an imaginative culmination to the story, with mythological figures, mere mortals and even animals celebrating the wedding of Cupid and Psyche.
Separating the lunettes from the frescoed wall below (in gold) is an inscription referring to Federico Gonzaga: to his titles, his honors, and also his stated reason for building the Palazzo Te. This reason (here translated from its Latin) is that Federico “ordered this construction for his honest leisure after hard labors to regain his strength in peace.”
The detail of Polyphemus [top photograph] is from the opposite wall and shows the Cyclops (the giant son of Poseidon) sitting and brooding. The reason for his sour mood can be seen below him and to our right: the Nereid, Galatea, with whom he is in love, is embracing her lover, Acis. It is but one of many mythological tales of love depicted in the room (Jupiter Seducing Olympias, Venus and Adonis, Bacchus and Ariadne, Pasiphae and the Bull, etc.). These allude to Federico Gonzaga’s love for his mistress, Isabella Boschetti, even as the main theme of Cupid and Psyche allude to the jealousy felt by Isabella d’Este (Federico’s mother and Marchesa of Mantua) towards the other Isabella.
Taken as a whole, these tales present this Chamber as an embodiment of a life of love and happiness. Moreover, the Humanist guests of Federico, all well-versed in classical literature, would notice that the painted Wedding Banquet is attended by animals, peasants, and mythical figures such as satyrs, but none of the Olympian gods. From this observation, they would conclude, in a typical Humanist conceit, that they were the Olympian stand-ins, with Federico Gonzaga as Jupiter.
The winds which give this room its name are to be found in those relief stucco faces at the center of each of sixteen vaults, five of which we can see in this photograph. The ceiling decoration above those small vaults depicts signs of the zodiac alternating with images of celestial deities. The frescoed roundels, partly framed by and directly below those small vaults, offer scenes and activities that are influenced by particular constellations and star signs.
Astrology guides all the decorative elements of this room. The assumption is that human destiny is influenced by the stars–thus we have an inscription on the entry door quoting Juvenal: distat enim quae sydera te excipiant. As translated, “It depends in fact which stars welcome you” (at birth).
We see the stucco eagles, wings spread, defining the small shell-like corner vaults of this room. The bas-reliefs between the eagles depict classical scenes of abduction, such as Jupiter as a Bull kidnapping Europa, Pluto abducting Proserpina, and Neptune kidnapping Amphitrite. In other words, the main narrative decoration of Federico Gonzaga’s bedroom consisted of rape scenes.
However, as these scenes come from classical literature, scholars today would refer to them as “heroic rapes.” Humanist princes like Federico Gonzaga would understand these scenes both as metaphors for their own political power and for their role in benefitting mankind and the universe. What needs to be stressed is that this decoration was commissioned 500 years before our present age of the #MeToo movement. The early-sixteenth-century Mantuans and Humanists understood these mythic actions of rapes by the gods as embodying positive cultural meaning. They also were definitely not acts to be emulated by living human beings.
Here, a two-tiered frieze of Roman soldiers and other figures circles the room. The barrel vault and lunette above the frieze contain more bas-reliefs of mythological figures. The seated figure in the center in my photograph is (I believe) Mars.
This is not a room but a loggia, an interior space that opens to the exterior. In this case, it opens onto that moat and garden we saw in the plan, above.
In all the previous rooms, no matter how heavily decorated with frescoes and relief stuccoes, the decoration was contained and limited in some manner. It was relegated to a vault, to a set of coffers in a vault or in a flat ceiling, or to a horizontal frieze of some limited height. In one way or another, all the decoration was delimited by a frame, whether painted or architectural. Such was the norm for Renaissance interior decoration.
But, as you will see in the following twelve photographs, nothing frames the frescoes of this next room. There is no separation between ceiling vault above and supporting walls below. The entire room is one, continuous fresco, top to bottom. Even the floor–originally–was a mosaic of irregular river pebbles to make the viewers think they were an active part of the action taking place all around them.
The painting depicts the Battle of the Gods and Giants or, more precisely, the Fall of the Giants, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Giants (the children of Uranus and Gaea) attempt to climb Mount Olympus and take it from the Gods. Their strategy was to stack up two lesser mountains, Pelion and Ossa, to reach the Olympians in heaven. They fail miserably and are crushed by falling buildings and by the stones they used to scale Olympus. The Olympian gods have descended from their domed heaven, led by Jupiter, holding sheafs of lightning bolts, and Juno just below him.
Enjoy the process as you scroll your way down, top to bottom, through the visual opulence of Giulio Romano’s transformativeMannerist composition.
Because some of the graffiti (that we see here on the Giant’s fingers and forearm) date from the sixteenth century, art restorers determined that these marks have historical relevance and so have left them, undisturbed.