Nature, myths and emblems, Palazzo Te

The northern section of Palazzo Te discover some of the first realized frescoes. They represent two main elements of italian manneirsm: the outline of the huge Gonzaga’s horses, suspended between dream and reality with metaphysical accents, and following scenes illustrating Amore and Psiche’s myth. Art changed, nevertheless some ecoes of Raffaello techniques are still visible.

Chamber of Ovidio
It is a small room decorated with frescoes and stuccoes. The frescoes show mythological episodes more or less inspired by The Metamorphosis, composed by the great Latin writer Ovidio. The episodes are painted inside rectangular frames in the upper part of the room. They nicely stand out against a light background and they are adorned with a particular decoration called “grottesche”. This is a type of pictorial decoration that, starting with Raphael, reflected the discovery of Rome’s ancient houses that were splendidly decorated. Indeed during Renaissance the underground tunnels, so also the Roman ruins being unearthed, were called caves,“grotte”.

Camera delle Imprese
This room, bigger than the previous one, is characterized by two elements. An area decorated by cherubs who are hidden behind leaves, and open their arms to sustain a series of tondos. Painted on these tondos are a series of heroic deeds, a concept, that of endeavour, of deed, that was crucial during the Renaissance period. In this type of representation the image is usually accompanied by a motto that illustrated and sums up a virtue of the Prince, who here is obviously a Gonzaga. The symbolic play was understood at a glance by visitors: the decorative elements not only adorned the walls but created a relationship between the visitors and the rooms of the palace. The protagonists of these scenes were the members of the Gonzaga family and Federico in particular, who commissioned the construction of the palace.

An image of Mount Olympus, which linked the realm of the gods to the earth inhabited by men. The Latin word Fides, visible at the top of the mount, is a reference to faith, which must be strong both in the prince and in his subjects.

It was believed that the salamander’s body temperature was so low that the animal could survive contact with fire. This scene alludes to Federico’s passionate temperament, possessed by the flames of love through which the animal can pass unharmed.

The symbol of the Salamander also appears on the top of the fireplace in the room.

Chamber of the Sun and the Moon
The Chamber, visually very impressive, mixes elements that differ both in terms of style and age. The big rectangle on the ceiling shows a fresco with two stars. On the wall there are a series of eighteen-century stuccoes which imitate the decorations of classical sarcophaguses or some details of the decoration of other chambers. Between the walls and the fresco there is a blue grid with 192 individual frames. These contain stucco figures of mythical animals that date to the sixteenth century. The decoration is a sophisticated reference to ancient Rome, and also reflects the Mannerist taste for contrasts. The compositional balance is very dynamic, typical of the genius of Giulio Romano.

The chariot of the Moon is rising and the chariot of the Sun is falling. The perspective allows to represent the course of the stars and the eternal alternation of darkness and light.

Loggia of the Muses
The Loggia of the Muses was probably the ancient entrance of the Palace. It connects the northern facade to the Cour d’honneur. Here the sixteenth-century reinterpretation of the ancient emblems becomes visible. The traditional association of frescoes and stuccoes is enriched by the classical mythological representation and by the presence of Egyptian sacred figures, surrounded by hieroglyphics. The colours used for the decorations are refined, and are both soft and brilliant, creating a strong effect against the white shade of the stuccoes. Particularly interesting is the fact that the hieroglyphics are not invented but on the contrary were taken from existing Egyptian statues.

This image of the ceiling allows us to admire the geometrical pattern of the images, some of which are a very lively representation of sphinxes. Ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, are referred to here as cultural roots of the sixteenth-century.

One of the stuccoes that decorates the vault of the Loggia. It is a Muse, even if it is difficult to know which one. The nude male character could be Apollo. The feminine figure embracing him has been identified as Terpsichore but also as Erato.

In the fresco on the east wall there is a lunette, the scene inside it depicts a tub with overflowing water. A head with a laurel wreath appears from the tub. It is Virgil; paintings and prints from the fifteenth-century confirm this. The great Mantuan poet draws his knowledge from the waters of the river Mincio and spreads his poetry across his native land. A young woman is leaning against the tub, she is the personification of the city of Mantua. The viewer, seeing the fresco, had the feeling of being in a place that was source of creation and art. This is also highlighted by the presence of Apollo, who appears on the same wall. The Gonzaga coat of arms is painted under the lunette, and is surrounded by two cherubs, leaving no doubt as to who the owners of the palace were.

Hall of the Horses
The Hall of the Horses is adorned with frescoes that display the highest pictorial quality of the entire building. The author of these paintings is not mentioned in any documents; they have been attributed to Giulio Romano, who’s pictorial talent here reached its peak. The room owes its name to the beloved horses of the Gonzaga stables, depicted in the decorations, the way the dogs are painted in the Bridal Chamber by Andrea Mantegna, although here there are no human figures. Each one bears its name, four in particular stand out: Morel Favorito, Glorioso, Bataglia, Dario.

The genius of Giulio Romano is visible not only in the representation of the individual horses, that here are depicted in a position of rest, yet seem to be vibrating. They are standing against openings inside which a painted landscape is visible, and the city of Mantua, with its classical architecture. The entire Chamber, which is embellished by a fireplace made with Istria marble, becomes a fake loggia, that enters into an imaginary dialogue with the Camera Picta, where the Gonzaga family is portrayed inside a large pavilion, beyond which we see some villages. Giulio Romano’s ability to add new elements to the Chamber is evident also if we look at the series of fake painted bronzes in which the labours of Hercules are depicted. The contrast between the calm horse and the twisted body of the hero is magnificent.

In the Hall of Horses there are also real windows which disturb the overall rhythm of the composition, but also show Giulio Romano’s ability in taking advantage of obstacles to create a perfect mix of artifice and reality. The decoration on the walls is completed by large statues of divinities which probably allude to Federico and his lover Isabella Boschetti. Under the magnificent ceiling there is a slot with vegetal motifs and cherubs playing around grotesque masks.

The wood ceiling – one masterpiece inside another – is divided into a series of squares. Inside these the two heroic deeds, the scene of Mount Olympus and the story of the Salamander, are represented. They are enclosed by geometrical and vegetal motifs.

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Mount Olympus, which ideally connects the gods to men, that is also an allusion to the solidity of the Gonzaga lineage, is rendered in a plastic way by the golden rocks that stand against a blue sky.

It is not of fundamental importance to determine whether here the painting depicts a lizard, a salamander or a gecko. What is significant is the contrast between the cold skin of the animal and the fire of passions tormenting man. The Latin motto that refers to this scene reads: “Quod huic deest me torquet”, which means “That which she misses torments me”. The heat, unknown to the Salamander, forces the heart of men to suffer the effects of passion.

Chamber of Psyche
The chamber of Psyche, the most sumptuous room of the palace, is decorated with erotic frescoes. The walls and the ceiling illustrate the tale of Psyche, narrated by the Latin author Apuleius in his work The Golden Ass. From the initial Neoplatonic theme of the journey of the human soul towards the union with divine love, we move towards a colourful representation which culminates in a festive nuptial banquet, where everyone celebrates the happy ending of the tale. The painting adorning the chamber is a celebration of the Mannerist conception of art, of which Giulio Romano is champion: here he takes inspiration from the Loggia in the Villa Farnesina in Rome. Ten years after these frescos were painted – they were condemned by Michelangelo – Giulio Romano was able to create a new captivating palace, in which none of the represented figures is the real protagonist; the two main characters seem to be lost in the vortex created by the fast paced scenes.

The story of Cupid and Psyche is forms a sort of labyrinth in the eight octagons of the vaults surrounded by golden stuccoes and in the twelve lunettes of the Chamber; the story ends in the central frame, where Psyche, after having completed a series of difficult tasks, is finally allowed to enter the Olympus, where she becomes immortal and can marry Cupid. The various steps of Psyche’s journey have lead her to discover the dark side of the divinity, such as when she is forced to reach the infernal river Styx to steal some of its water.

The walls are painted with frescoes that illustrate some famous love stories, starting with Venus and Mars. We also find Baccus and Ariadne, Pasiphaë in Crete, Jupiter and Olympias, as well as a magnificent representation of the Cyclops Polyphemus, who is in love with Galatea, who in turn is in love with the shepherd Acis. The meaning of the painting is clear: Love reigns undisturbed over every being, be it man or God. The most important section is the nuptial banquet, where men, women and animals celebrate the love between the two protagonists, who are lying on a Roman triclinium.

A small table at the centre of the southern wall: on it an abundance of dishes and plates, under a trellis covered in vegetation, between an elephant and a camel. We are on the island of Venus, where everyone leads a joyful life.

The scene unfolding around the table on the western wall shows a group of satyrs chasing sensuous girls. The painted figures enter into dialogue with the guests that took part in the banquets organized by Federico. The sixteenth century visitors being entertained here were offered a pictorial representation of the joys of life.

In the beautiful lunette at the bottom, Psyche, dressed in green, is leaning forward to to touch the water of the river Styx. Under the lunette, in the octagon on the right, her story begins: she is the daughter of a king, so beautiful that people give her many gifts and presents, honouring her as if she were a goddess. In the octagon on the left we see the second episode of the story: Venus, angered by this, orders her son, Cupid, to punish her: he must hit her with an arrow that will make her fall in love with the most horrific being in the world. An episode that inspired Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The scenes painted on the walls seem to share the same magnificence of the ceiling, geometrically divided into squares.

To the left of the large table on the western wall is a landscape where a river, or a lake, a hint to the lakes around Mantua, not far from the villa. The Earthly Paradise here represented has nothing to do with the Christian one. It is however worth noting that despite this difference, the series of paintings revolve around the motif of the initiatic journey, that the guest would have embarked on in a quest for true wisdom.

Beauty and desire come together in this masterpiece by Giulio Romano.

Chamber of the winds
In a relatively small space a fast paced narration illustrates how the destiny of men is influenced by the planets and the Gods, by the zodiac signs and the constellations. The twelve zodiac signs are represented with their symbols. For example, here we see an animated episode in which some fishermen capture monsters from the bottom of the sea. From an artistic point of view, the Chamber, although it is adorned with painting and stuccoes like the other rooms, is more similar to a cave, in which the stuccoes become fake bronzes, and the frames create a sort of chaotic dance, defined by the harmonic development of the different areas. The massage seems to be that the future of mankind is in the hands of celestial powers, that do however act in harmony in order to ensure a just outcome.

The details of a stucco representing a satyr, who pretends to be holding up one of the arches of the Chamber.

Chamber of the Eagles
The small room, which was used as a bedroom by Federico, is full of mythological quotes, starting from the central octagon in which the figure of Phaethon is represented. The decoration and the painting are both extraordinary. The frescoes are certainly the work of Primaticcio (Bologna 1504, Parigi 1570). In the numerous mythological episodes, it is important to highlight the battles on the side, which give the Chamber a chaotic movement. The marble of the fireplace is also very refined, the hood is decorated with a wavy motif, and the marble of the doors is the same used for the Holy Door in Rome.

Palazzo Te
The Palazzo Te is a historic and monumental building in Mantua. a fine example of the mannerist style of architecture, Built between 1524 and 1534 on commission by Federico II Gonzaga, it is the most famous work of the Italian architect Giulio Romano. The complex is now home to the civic museum and, since 1990, the International Center for Art and Culture of Palazzo Te which organizes exhibitions of ancient and modern art and architecture.