MARGINALIA

 

Giulio Romano's Palazzo Te may be one of the most convincingly all'antica buildings of sixteenth-century Italy. Far from being subversive of the classical tradition, Giulio exploited art and architecture's potential to tell a convincing, all-encompassing story.

GIULIO ROMANO AND THE PALAZZO TE

On the Relationship of Painting and Architecture

 

excerpted from David Mayernik's chapter "The Winds in the Corners" in the book Aeolian Winds and the Spirit in Renaissance Architecture (Routledge)

see additional images at the Research  page

 

While perhaps obvious, it still bears saying that the Sala dei Giganti can only be properly understood in light of its context: the adjacent frescoed rooms, the Palazzo Te itself, its architecture and its site, and the humanist allegorical reading of the event. The latter, dependent upon a literate approach and access to textual sources, implies either the role of an iconographer or a learned artist, or both. That Giulio, despite a lack of a formal humanist education, can be inferred from the subject matter of his fresco oeuvre and his interests in ancient coins to have been at least as learned as Raphael, seems beyond doubt. Whether he had help with the iconography of the Te is an open question.

Of course, it is also impossible to understand Giulio’s approach to the project without recourse to his precedents and the culture of virtuosity that demanded he exceed them; indeed, Mantua had attracted important artists and architects at least since Alberti’s activity in the city half a century earlier....

This implicit challenge to Giulio’s virtuosity was no doubt formative for his desire to find an opportunity to exceed the challenge, and the subject of his response would require a theme invested with dramatic interest and allegorical relevance to the rest of the Te. In the Fall of the Giants a broad theme which other artists had embraced before—the impudent challenge to the gods by lesser beings, like Marsyas competing with Apollo—had elicited several elegant solutions (recall Raphael’s Flaying of Marsyas on the ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura), but The Fall offered greater numbers of figures and thundering action. Indeed, the Palazzo Te’s version, enveloping the spectator both laterally and vertically, literally overwhelmed any competing version of the theme....

The Sala dei Giganti is found in the southeast corner of the Palazzo Te, paired about the central east west axis with the Sala di Psiche in the northeast corner; it is also adjacent to Federico’s ball court. The ball court would have provided an appropriately resonant racket to stand for Jupiter’s thunder, while the Giganti’s geographic position might have sustained the frescoes’ illusion for a knowing visitor: the Fall itself took place in Thrace, a setting more or less southeast of Mantua, in the region that was home to Constantinople (whose connection with Mantua extended from Pius II’s ill-fated Congress to win support for a new crusade, held in Mantua in 1459, to Federico Gonzaga’s on and off again interest in marrying a member of the Paleologa family, whose surname evoked the Byzantine Emperor who attended the ineffective Council of Florence in 1439).

 That the room flanked the Sala di Psiche about the Loggia di Davide suggests a parallel of meaning, and a clue to the linked reading can be found in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (a book from which Giulio profited throughout the Palazzo). There Poliphilo, having emerged from “that odious, dark and frightful cave” is welcomed by Queen Eleuterylida (whose name means “free will”); richly attired, around her neck she wears an oval, etched diamond, “scintillating and of monstrous size,” whose iconography is explained to Poliphilo later on in the text...

The fact that Poliphilo was enlightened by Logic to this recondite meaning contained in an ancient gem would have appealed especially to Giulio Romano, an expert in numismatics with a not insubstantial personal collection of coins and gems. Coins provided him sources for arcane imagery as they would for Pirro Ligorio and later for Poussin; that this one implied a kind of Herculean choice between Virtue and Vice would have accorded well with an emergent tradition of garden iconography that read choice of direction as a moral choice: in a symmetrical palace-villa, like a symmetrical garden, the choice of left and right could take on allegorical significance that would influence the imagery in sculpture and fresco which accompanied it. Here at the Te the Banquets of the Psyche room would stand for Jupiter’s right hand and its cornucopia, while his left and its flame of fire naturally suggests the Fall. Jupiter as a type of Moral Nature provides humanity a choice of gifts or punishments based on their desires....

There are numerous ways in which the fictive world engages the real experience of the Palazzo: within the cortile the illusionistic landscapes painted in the Loggia delle Muse on the north side are paralleled with a view of real nature to the south through a similarly-framed arch; like Cardinal Gonzaga’s fifteenth century garden in Rome, the cortile of the Te may have had a maze that was a corollary to a frescoed scene (in the Mantovan case the scene in the Sala di Psiche was Pasiphaë Entering the Cow, a story whose “consummation” was the Minotaur, inhabitant of the maze of King Minos); the frescoed banquets of Cupid and Psyche have been interpreted as taking place on the Island of Cythera as described in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and to make that reading explicit Federico intended a statue of Venus to occupy the room’s center....

If Giulio blurred the boundaries between the walls and ceiling (and therefore between the zones of the frescoes) in that room by rounding the corners as Vasari describes, and linked the real fire in the fireplace with the painted flames above while relating the flood sweeping away the Giants with the water visible through the room’s eastern windows, it surely is not beyond his imagination to involve the whole Palazzo in the experience, to see its architecture as an extension of the painted illusion as much as the painted illusion extends the architecture.

 

buy from Amazon