There was a simple explanation for the long, motionless queue in front of the Palazzo Te in Mantova: there had been a power cut, so it was momentarily impossible to print tickets. Paying by card was also not an option as long as the problem had not been fixed. Fortunately the staff of the palazzo did not sit on their hands. Several employees were going down the queue to check COVID passes; our visit to the Palazzo Te took place in the summer of 2021, and the COVID pandemic that had hit Italy so hard was still anything but over. In the end, power was restored and we could go and explore the beautiful sixteenth-century villa, the summer residence of the Gonzaga family. The Palazzo Te was built in 1525-1535. Two famous men were chiefly responsible for its construction. The first was the man who commissioned it, Federico II Gonzaga, marquess (1519-1530) and then duke (1530-1540) of Mantova. His family had been ruling over Mantova since 1328. The second man was the architect and painter Giulio Romano (1499-1546). He had the skills to turn Federico’s dream into a tangible reality.
Federico II Gonzaga was the son of Francesco II Gonzaga and Isabella d’Este. He was just eighteen years old when his father died of syphilis in 1519. The young marquess soon began eyeing a small island south of the city. The island was called Tejeto, a name that either refers to the type of linden tree (tiglieto) that grew there, or to a word for a hut (tegia). The Gonzaga family had made use of Tejeto since the middle of the fifteenth century. At the beginning of the sixteenth century Francesco II Gonzaga had ordered the construction of stables there, as breeding and riding horses was a favourite pastime of the family. Federico’s dream was to build a summer residence on the island in the best tradition of the Italian Renaissance villas, which were in their turn inspired by the Roman villas from Antiquity. While searching for the right architect, his attention was drawn to a man named Giulio di Piero Pippi de’ Iannuzzi from Rome, alternatively known as Giulio Romano. Giulio was about 25 years old and worked as an assistant to the great Raphael. In October of 1524 he arrived in Mantova to share his ideas about the construction of the Palazzo Te with Federico. Building activities commenced in 1525 and the project would take about ten years to complete.
The Palazzo Te was intended as a place of leisure and pleasure. In the Sala di Psiche (Hall of Psyche), which will be discussed in greater detail below, Federico’s intentions are explained on the walls. In Latin it says:
HONESTO OCIO POST LABORES AD REPARANDAM VIRT[VTEM] QVIETI CONSTRVI MANDAVIT
(Free translation: “He ordered the construction for well-deserved pleasure after hard work, to gather strength again in peace and quiet”)
The building could be used for large receptions with eminent guests. A good example is the visit of Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, in 1530. On that occasion Federico was promoted to duke of Mantova. The Palazzo Te was also a pleasure zone in the sense that Federico – who was not yet married at the time – used it to meet with his mistress Isabella Boschetti. She had already borne him two children. Ultimately, in 1531, Federico married Margherita Paleologa. Seven more children were born from this marriage before Federico passed away in 1540, from syphilis, just like his father. He was just forty years old.
Of course Giulio Romano did not work in splendid isolation when building the Palazzo Te and embellishing it. For this gargantuan task he had employed many talented craftsmen and artists. One of the most famous among them was probably Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570) from Bologna, after whom the road leading from the car park to the palazzo is named. Other artists that can be mentioned are the local painters Rinaldo Mantovano (see Mantova: Sant’Andrea) and Giovan Battista Mantovano (1503-1575). The team led by Giulio Romano created a square palace with four wings and a large courtyard (cortile). The old Gonzaga stables were incorporated into the new building. The Palazzo Te was renovated at the end of the sixteenth century and in the first half of the seventeenth. The garden east of the villa, with the exedra at the outer end, for instance dates from one of these renovations. In the second half of the eighteenth century more important renovations were carried out under the direction of Paolo Pozzo (1741-1803). Lastly, it is important to note that the Palazzo Te is no longer situated on an island. The area surrounding the palazzo was drained long ago. The only bridge visitors have to cross nowadays is that connecting the courtyard to the garden.
Exploring the Palazzo Te
The rooms in the Palazzo Te are all beautifully decorated with stucco work and frescoes. The frescoes were painted in a style called Mannerism. This is the term commonly used for the last phase of Renaissance painting. Mannerist compositions are usually rather unnatural, and human figures are often not very elegant and somewhat out of proportion. The critical evaluation of Mannerist paintings has not always been kind, but it is hard to deny that the frescoes in the Palazzo Te can be counted among the highlights of the style. Let us therefore now embark on a brief exploration of the various rooms in the palazzo.
In the room adjacent to the ticket office there is a wooden scale model of the Palazzo Te on display (see the image above). Here we also find a portrait of Giulio Romano that was painted by the great Venetian master Titian (ca. 1488-1576). Titian also painted a splendid portrait of Federico II Gonzaga, currently in the Prado in Madrid. We move on and get to the next room that is worth a visit, the Camera del Sole e della Luna, or room of the sun and moon. A special element of this room, which is a salotto or living room, is the ceiling. It consists of 192 diamond-shaped and triangular decorations, executed in stucco, and a central fresco of the solar and lunar chariots. Although written evidence is lacking, the fresco is usually attributed to Francesco Primaticcio. The fresco grants us a glorious view of Phaeton’s private parts, Phaeton being the man in the solar chariot. Luna, the goddess of the moon, is dressed far more chastely.
Then there is the splendid Sala dei Cavalli, the room of the horses. It was intended as a reception room and was named after the noble four-legged animals painted on the walls. As was already mentioned above, the Gonzagas were great horse lovers. Two of the painted horses even have a name, Morel Favorito and Dario. On the walls we also find painted statues and busts of deities and famous men and women, but the most conspicuous decorations are the labours of Hercules, executed in reddish brown. This was done to make them look like bronze reliefs. We see, among other things, how the Greek hero tames the hell-hound Cerberus and wrestles the Nemean lion.
The Sala di Psiche is an absolute masterpiece. It too was intended as a reception room. In 1526-1528 the story of Cupid (or Amor) and Psyche from Graeco-Roman mythology was painted on the walls and ceiling of this room. The story was taken from the novel The Golden Ass by the Roman writer Apuleius from the second century. It is about the impossible love between an immortal god and a mortal woman. It is sometimes assumed that the story symbolised the love between Federico and Isabella Boschetti, which was also impossible because of the class difference between the two. As he had been Raphael’s assistant, Giulio Romano must have been well acquainted with both the story and the theme it explores. After all, in 1517-1518 Raphael and his assistants had painted ceiling frescoes about Cupid and Psyche in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, and young Giulio was almost certainly involved in this project. In the room we also find other mythological stories. The giant one-eyed man with the club between the windows is, for instance, the cyclops Polyphemos. To the right of him the nymph Galatea and her lover Acis have been depicted, though much smaller. Polyphemos and Galatea are also present in the Villa Farnesina.
Next we get to the Camera dei Venti, which is all about the wind directions. These have been executed in stucco, as have the signs of the Zodiac. The latter have again been painted to make them look like bronze decorations. Astrology is an important theme in this room, which also has conspicuous frescoes of the Olympian gods.
The Camera delle Aquile was Federico’s bedroom, and we may assume that Isabella Boschetti used it too, at least until Federico’s marriage with Margherita Paleologa. The name of the room derives from the four tough-looking stucco eagles in the corners. The painted decorations in the room are wonderful. See for instance the ceiling fresco with a depiction of the fall of the aforementioned Phaeton from the solar chariot. Many of the works in the Camera delle Aquile are attributed to Francesco Primaticcio.
The Loggia of David, on the east side of the palazzo, is decorated with stucco work and frescoes from 1532-1534. The central story in the loggia is that of David and Bathsheba, as told in 2 Samuel. David falls in love with Bathsheba when he spies on her as she is taking a bath. Regretfully she is already married to Uriah, a Hittite and soldier in David’s army. But her marital status does not prevent David from having intercourse with Bathsheba, which leaves her pregnant. David then gets rid of Uriah by positioning him in the front ranks during a battle. This is the most dangerous position on the field, and the unfortunate man is killed in action. Bathsheba subsequently gives birth to a child, but it dies after a couple of days, which is no doubt a punishment from God. Thereupon David marries Bathsheba and she bears him his son and heir, the famous Solomon. In the loggia various episodes from the story have been depicted, including David slaying Goliath, David playing the harp and Bathsheba spied upon while taking a bath. The story of David and Bathsheba has been compared to the tale of Federico and Isabella Boschetti. Isabella’s husband died in 1528 under suspicious circumstances, but there is no evidence that Federico was involved and he does not seem to have had a real motive for murder either.
The Camera degli Stucchi is, of course, all about stucco decorations. Along the walls we see a procession of Roman soldiers and horsemen passing by in two registers, one above the other. The procession is over sixty metres long and comprises some 500 unique figures. In the Camera degli Imperatori we subsequently find images of famous emperors and generals from Antiquity, including Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, Alexander the Great and Alexander’s father Philippus. The central ceiling fresco recounts the story of Caesar who, after his victory over Pompeius at Pharsalus (in 48 BCE), ordered his defeated enemy’s letters to be burned. These letters would have implicated many of the senators still in Rome, and Caesar wanted to keep them out of trouble. Two other stories are told in the smaller tondi: Alexander the Great storing a captured copy of the Iliad and the magnanimity of Scipio Africanus. In exchange for Roman friendship and auxiliary forces for the Roman army, this Roman general allowed a gorgeous young girl that had been taken prisoner to return to her fiancé.
In my honest opinion the Sala dei Giganti is the highlight of the Palazzo Te. On the walls and ceiling we see how the Gigantes or Giants, the children of Gaia and Ouranos, stage an attack on Mount Olympus. Zeus, Hera and the other Olympian gods manage to repel the attack and defeat their adversaries, with Zeus using his famous bolts of lightning. Giulio Romano’s inspiration came from the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovidius. The painter truly outdid himself when creating these amazing frescoes. People looking up will probably experience the same dazzling sensation as when they look at Correggio’s equally impressive dome fresco in the cathedral of Parma. I personally had a feeling of being sucked up by a vortex. Especially now that the frescoes are so awesome, it is highly lamentable that they were defaced by Austrian soldiers in the eighteenth century. In 1708 Ferdinando Carlo di Gonzaga-Nevers died, the last duke of Mantova. The Habsburg Austrians now took control of the city. The Palazzo Te was used as a barracks for a while, which led to the art in the palazzo being vandalised. Several soldiers scratched their names into the walls of the Sala dei Giganti. We also see several years, such as 1736, 1769 and 1775.
The municipal museum of Mantova is housed on the top floor of the Palazzo Te. The collection of the museum is rather eclectic, to put it mildly. Apart from a collection of Gonzaga coins and paintings by Federico Zandomeneghi (1841-1917) we find an Egyptian collection started by Giuseppe Acerbi (1773-1846) and a Mesopotamian one by Hugo Sissa (1913-1980). I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of a painting by Titian representing Venus blindfolding her young son Cupid (or Amor, or Eros). Two nymphs on the right are about to hand the boy his bow and arrows. The boy leaning on Venus’ shoulder is quite likely Cupid’s brother and playmate (called Anteros in Greek). The painting is actually part of the collection of the Galleria Borghese in Rome, but apparently it was on loan to the Museo Civico in Mantova at the time. As Titian immortalised both Giulio Romano and Federico II Gonzaga on canvas, I thought it appropriate to conclude this post with another work by him.
- Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 25-26;
- Trotter travel guide Northwest Italy (2016), p. 427;
- Palazzo Te – Fondazione Palazzo Te (centropalazzote.it);
- Palazzo Te – Wikipedia.