Previously I highlighted Mantova as the home of ‘the most beautiful room in the world‘, a Mantegna tour de force commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga. Back into Gonzaga territory, but this time 50 years later under the rule of Federico II, another illusionistic extravaganza, by Giulio Romano, was born. At the opposite end of Mantova to the Palazzo Ducale lay the Isola Te, a small island surrounded by marshes, which was chosen for the location of the Palazzo Te. The first construction here was begun by Francesco II Gonzaga, father of Federico, as a home for his most precious, prized possessions – his horses. When Francesco died, his son decided to transform the stables into a luxurious pleasure palace with vast scenes of Greek gods celebrating lavishly, fantastical leering giants obscuring the reality of a space, and an architecture full of tricks and surprises.
A key theme running through the external architecture and pictorial decoration within is the illusion of ruination or collapsing structures. The inner courtyard of the Palazzo has subtle examples of this, which play on classical architectural motifs of stability. Along the frieze above the columns, which runs around the cortile, some of the triglyphs (stones marked with three lines) appear to have slipped out of position, while others remain in line. It is thought that in classical architecture the three lines on triglyphs may allude to the ends of wooden beams, and so in choosing to set these out of alignment Giulio Romano makes a clear artistic joke about the structural solidity of the building.
Similarly, on the central entrance archway the keystone (at the top of the arch) is unusually cumbersome and prominent. The keystone in an arch is the essential stone which maintains the structure, and so by using such a bulky stone already sitting a little below the line of the arch Romano again plays with gravitational instinct suggesting the stone could potentially crash down upon an unsuspecting visitor.
Romano uses these conceits in a stylised way. He is not intending the viewer to really believe that the structure is unstable, but he is subverting the classical architectural rules of proportion and placement which were rigorously strict and, at that time, known and recognised by most cultured people. Indeed, the whole composition of the courtyard walls is unbalanced by using irregular spacing between pilasters and archways, and occasional blind windows. This unsettles the viewer who looks for the symmetry and rhythm that is characteristic of classical architecture. It is clear this Palazzo Te was not only for physical leisure pursuits such as riding, but also for witty cultural stimulation that, in order to be appreciated, required the viewer to be of a particular academic pedigree, something that certainly would have been attractive to Federico II.
At the same time, the villa was about sheer playfulness and fun. Originally there was a labyrinth in the cortile, which was unnavigable to the visitor. In self-aggrandizing fashion one could only enter the villa if the Duke himself guided the visitor through the maze.
Confusion of Space
Although not executing the interior artwork Romano was responsible for planning the pictorial scheme within. The most famous room of the Palazzo Te is the Sala dei Giganti, which continues the theme of instability seen in the courtyard. On entering the Sala the viewer is overwhelmed by scene of giants and destruction covering all the walls and ceiling. Although perhaps not featuring particularly sophisticated allegorical motifs, the giants’ ruination of the classical temple architecture is a more blunt version of the joke Romano played in the cortile. It also, like Mantegna’s fresco in the Camera degli Sposi, dissolves the real physical space and confuses the viewer. The ceiling is decorated by a scene of the Gods attempted to halt the giants’ destructive rampage and the spiraling clouds and figures give an illusion of height to the domed ceiling. The room itself has no corners so combined with the giants tearing down the solid architecture the viewer’s understanding of space is completely confused. Indeed, originally the floor was undulating, causing the visitor to almost literally feel the architecture crashing around them, the whole world swaying with the mighty forces of giants and gods.
It is interesting to note that Romano’s teacher was the great Renaissance painter Raphael, who revered classical rules and principles. The Palazzo Te was Romano’s first important commission after leaving the workshop of Raphael and his complete disregard and manipulation of classical principles, not least the literal destruction of the epitome of classical architecture (the temple) in the Sala dei Giganti, is a little like a child throwing away his school books as soon as he graduates!
Aside from these more conceptual observations, the viewer can spend a while amusing themselves with the popping eyes and leering grins of the giants, and their melodramatic writhing deaths at the hands of raging Gods armed with lightning.
Pleasure and Excess
Other decorated rooms in the Palazzo Te clearly express the building’s function as a pleasure villa. One of the first rooms the visitor enters is the Sala dei Cavalli, a shrine to the prestigious horses of Francesco II Gonzaga. The beasts pose majestically before idyllic landscapes framed, rather incongruously, by elegant columns and classical statues. Untethered and tranquil their portraits take on the importance of those of a family member, not least because names below the horses are still visible. Naturally this palace was intended to exalt its owner, constructing ideas of his greatness to impress upon visitors. Thus beside these stallions of power we see a scene of Hercules killing a lion with his bare hands (representing the heroic strength of Federico) and two statues of Jupiter and Juno, king and queen of the gods (representing his powerful rule).
The viewer is then faced with a bacchanal scene of feasting and celebration in the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche (1526-28). The scenes are taken from the Metamorphosis by Apuleius, and this sumptuous room was reserved for the most prestigious visitors. On a gold band running around the room separating the walls and the lunettes there is an inscription listing Federico’s titles, honours and the villa’s purpose (for ‘honest leisure after hard labours’). The ceiling coffers tell the story, if a little muddled, of Cupid and Psyche’s love. On the South and West walls below a magnificent banquet is being set up, with Cupid, Psyche and their daughter Voluptas (Pleasure) lying on a bed. Note the ‘credenza’, the white table with a display of crockery, and other mythological characters such as Mars and Venus bathing, Bacchus leaning against the credenza and Silenus, a portly figure who has seemingly already assisted with the wine tasting.
With such scenes of extravagance and excess followed by the gigantesque destruction of rule-abiding classical architecture, there is perhaps a moral message of decadence and downfall amongst all this frivolity. However, in such sumptuous and playful surroundings (there are several other lavishly decorated rooms and a delightful grotto covered in shells) reminders of morality were presumably not sought for by guests.
There is also a cafe where you can order Earl Grey tea in a teapot with milk if you are willing to risk a reprimanding from the bar man. I had to forcibly defend my milk-based principles in the face of a lemon-supporting dictatorship.
NOTE: Do not be confused by the name ‘Te’ (or my article title involving ‘tea’) and think that the Palazzo Te is related to those fortune-telling leaves. Although Wikipedia, font of knowledge, claims there to be a connection, no Italian literature alludes to this, the name Te clearly derives from the name of the island, and ‘tea’ in Italian is spelt ‘thè’! In fact, the explanation provided at Palazzo Te is this: the island on which the palazzo was originally built was named Teieto (abbreviated to Te). This name may have derived from ‘tiglieto’, a place to grow limes, or from ‘tegia’ which comes from the Latin ‘attegia’ meaning hut.