August 16: when weird is good

2012/08/16 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1328 the House of Gonzaga seized power in the Duchy of Mantua.

The Gonzaga immediately built new walls and gates around the city and undertook several renovation projects but did not seem to be very inspired builders, at all, for centuries, right through the eighteenth century when the family’s rule was snuffed out.  (The Gonzaga ruled Mantua until its leader chose the wrong side in the War of Spanish Succession; Mantua was gobbled up by the Habsburgs in 1708.)  That is, except for one bright moment that is so good, it makes up for four otherwise dim centuries.

The short-lived Federico II (1500-40), the family’s first duke, had the good sense to recognize the talent in painter Giulio Romano (1499-1546), who had worked with Raphael at the Vatican and Villa Farnesina.  Romano was in need of work outside of Rome after the Sack of 1527, and found it in Mantua where he was commissioned to design a new lodge for the family to provide certain accustomed comforts when they were tending to their fine horses.  Neither truly a palazzo or quite a villa, the singular Palazzo del Te was the result.  An odd, squat squarish plan connected to a geometric garden, its architecture is a famous example of Mannerism.  Odd things show up here and there–fuzzy, grotto-like columns in an entryway, triglyphs that appear to be slipping out of place.

But none of the architectural weirdness can be as delightfully unsettling as the frescoed oddities which abound in this painter’s architecture.  There is no other place like the Sala dei Giganti, in which the battle of the Titans and Gods is played out.  Here, just at the eve of the Baroque period, the moment of highest drama is played out in an illusionistic hemispherical room: in the crown of the ceiling Jupiter raises a thunderbolt against his enemies; the other gods rain down their fury and the Titans desperately try to make amends or simply run for cover as their world–our setting too–comes tumbling down on their heads.  Louis XIV would use this kind of art in the next century as a warning meant to make his courtiers shake in their beadazzled boots; here in Mantua, it’s all a part of a good day’s fun out on the horse farm.

Image: Sala dei Giganti (from this source)

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