One of the finest and most historical buildings in architecture resides in the city of Mantua, yet most people have never even heard of the city! The Palazzo Te was built as a vacation villa for Marquis and later Duke of Mantua, Frederico Gonzaga II, the son of Francesco Gonzaga II and our favorite heroine Isabella D’Este. While it may appear commonplace from the outside, the interiors and history of this fantastic building prove itself time and time again to be one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring sites I’ve ever visited.
The Gonzagas were one of the most powerful noble families in all of Renaissance Italy and their villas are nothing but solid proof of their wealth and stature. Constructed nearby to their prize horses’ stables, this collection of public and private rooms, complete with a central courtyard and a secret garden, displays the ornate elegance and affluence with ease. Reminiscent of an ancient Roman villa, architect Giulio Romano constructed this manor between 1525 and 1535. Equipped to house anyone from hunting parties to Emporers, Gonzaga and Romano ensured that each room served a distinct purpose, whether for practical needs or as an exhibition of power and grandeur. The palace is thematic, with rooms specially designed for each suitor, and a wing dedicated to house Gonazaga’s mistress and supposed love of his life, Isabellla Boschetti. Each room is elaborately decorated, some full of images of his award winning horses, or of Isabella, or the most imposing of all, of the gods’ fall from Olympus in the La Sala dei Giganti.
Previously, I had heard of the Sala dei Giganti, or the Giant’s Room, and had mentally prepared myself to be wowed. This is not the approach I generally take; once I’m looking forward to something, I find myself more frequently disappointed than impressed. In this instance however, I was more moved and affected then I could have ever expected. No photos are allowed inside of the walls of the Palazzo, which they are actually quite serious about, so I had only seen promotional shots of the interior walls. The Sala dei Giganti is a cold, large, cavernous room with every inch of the walls covered in paint, showing the fall of the gods. At first I was nonplussed, some interesting figures done in an ornate Renaissance style in Italy, nothing shocking. But the longer I sat on my little cement bench, surrounded by silence and these grotesque domineering figures, the more a chill began to creep over my body. The faces show utter defeat. They exude fear, disgust, mistrust, treachery, horror, and failure. I followed the lines of sight, trying to discern what each figure was looking at, and the more I discovered the creepier the room became. While not necessarily overly violent, especially not by today’s standards, this room froze me in its hopelessness, in it’s overt emotionality. Undoubtedly, once any man of power saw this room, which led into the Emperor’s chambers of course, one certainly feels small and vulnerable.
After the earthquake hit Emilia Romagna in May of 2012, Palazzo Te was closed for a short period for minor restorations, which is certainly luckier than its sister Palazzo Ducale, where the majority of rooms are still undergoing major reparations to this day. I am beyond excited to revisit both of these monumental sites with the Leonardo’s Swans tour, along with the aid of Visit Mantua’s Lorenzo Bonoldi and his broad knowledge of art history and opening doors which otherwise remain closed. Let’s see if Palazzo Te’s immense weight in my memory will still hold true!