Photographs and text by Robert Grudin

In June, 1995, I visited the Palazzo Te in Mantua and was granted permission to photograph the interior. The images that follow are a small sampling of the abundant art work that covers the walls and ceilings of the palace. This art was either painted or supervised by Giulio Romano over the years 1526-1534.

In my design project (published as Design and Truth in 2010), I describe the Palazzo as follows:

...Giulio’s greatest achievement was a blend of architecture and painting. By 1526 he began the work that would become Federico Gonzaga’s pride and joy: a massive pleasure palace outside the city where the ruler might indulge in fancies less decorous than those allowable in his urban residence. Graced with civic honors and in control of an army of artists, assistants and laborers, Giulio spent eight years creating the Palazzo Te, a brilliantly decorated architectural tribute to pagan antiquity and sensual indulgence. Because the entire building, which still stands intact today, was executed either by Giulio’s own hand or to his express intention, the Palazzo Te can be seen as one of the largest singly-authored works of art ever completed.

The Palazzo is also the world’s most capacious expression of the Renaissance artistic style known as Mannerism. Though the term Mannerism (from the Italian maniera, “style”) has been applied to artists as diverse as El Greco, Michelangelo, Cellini, Arcimboldo, Anguissola, Breugel, Perugino and Bronzino, it is Giulio himself who deserves pride of place for diverging from the more precise representations of his teacher Raphael to artistic performances that combine technical expertise with humor, self-consciousness, trickery, deliberate exaggeration, mixed genres and fanciful conceptions. Unlike earlier Renaissance art, which fixated on its relation to nature, Mannerist art could comment on itself, invade other disciplines and playfully enlarge on its relationship to the viewer.

Among the Mannerist extremes that characterize the palace – including painting pretending to be sculpture, stucco preteznding to be stone, extravagant eroticism and symbolic rustications – the most arresting is the Sala dei Giganti (“room of the giants”) a large chamber whose walls and ceiling double as a single panoramic painting. The painting relates, in epic style, a violent conflict between Heaven and Earth. From the ceiling Jupiter hurls thunderbolts down on a tribe of rebellious giants at eye-level, who are depicted as being crushed under the divinely-shattered roofs, walls and columns of their den. There is political allegory at work here: with Jupiter Giulio pays tribute to Emperor Charles V, who would be awed by his visit to Te and who would consequently promote Federico to Duke of Mantua. But the Sala functions on two deeper levels of meaning as well, and to understand these two levels is to appreciate the sophistication of Giulio’s design:

First, the Sala is psychologically destabilizing. Entering a room that seems to be in the process of collapse is something of a shock, especially to those viewers aware that the whole palace, situated in a marsh, is not built quite as solidly as it appears to be. Vasari, who had difficulty containing his rapture for the Sala, waxes eloquent on this point:

So let no one think ever to see any work of the brush more horrible and frightening, or more realistic, than this; and whoever enters that room and sees the windows, doors and so forth all distorted and apparently hurtling down, and the mountains and buildings falling, cannot but fear that everything will; crash down upon him,…

The Sala, in fact, functions as the inner sanctum of a variety of miscellaneous shocks and disorderings that make up the whole palace. The purpose of all these – the design goal of the Palazzo de Te in general – is a displacement of sensibility, a deliberate bewilderment that separates the observer from everyday common sense realities and relocates awareness in a new world of fantasy and license. Nowhere more profoundly than in Giulio’s palace can one sense an architecture of intoxication, a poetics of arousal.

Second, the Sala may be read as a designer’s declaration of independence. You would think at first that the giants’ crumbling edifice is an ironic joke at the designer’s own expense, implying the ultimate frailty of his or any other human handiwork. But it can also be seen as quite the contrary: a manifesto of artistic prowess so refined and self-conscious that it can dialogue with its own destruction. This second interpretation is far more conformable to the wit, will and excess of Giulio’s vision as a whole. If Pedro Berruguete’s Urbino portrait is art in the service of philosophy, Giulio’s Sala dei Giganti is art that overreaches philosophy in its quest for self-knowledge and expansive consciousness.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Duplicates of the original 35 mm. slides have been donated to the libraries of the University of Denver and the University of Oregon. Queries may be addressed to me at rgrudin@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2006 Robert Grudin