Visitor's Guide to Mantua's Spectacular Te Palace
Here's the ultimate visitor's guide to the spectacular Te Palace in the hidden gem town of Mantua Italy. Te Palace is one of the world's most unique and beautiful buildings, a wildly inventive and theatrical feat of both architecture and decoration.
Te Palace was designed and built by Raphael's best pupil, Giulio Romano, between 1525-35. The palace is a must visit destination in Italy for art lovers.
The extraordinary Palazzo was built on a small island connected to the Mantua mainland via a bridge. It's a low slung geometric structure built around a square courtyard, giving the illusion of being a massive complex.
Te Palace is all about love. Or lust. It was the bling-y summer palace of the Gonzaga family. It was intended to convey the authority of the Gonzaga and exalt Federico and his heirs as divine rulers, virile lovers, and powerful leaders.
Frederico II Gonzaga
Frederico II was the pleasure loving son of Isabella d'Este. She was an influential art collector and influencer in her own right. Frederico was born in 1500. He was the fifth marquise and later Duke of Mantua.
Originally a land owning gentry, the shrewd Gonzaga seized power in the 14th century. Over time, the Gonzaga received honorifics from the Holy Roman emperors that catapulted them to lords, marquises, cardinals, and dukes.
Frederico was inculcated in Renaissance ideals during a sojourn in Rome in the court of Pope Julius II. Julius II was the pope who ordered Michelangelo to paint his otherworldly frescos in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican Museums.
Frederico took back Renaissance ideals and culture to Mantua. He wanted to recreate the relationship his grandfather had with court artist Andrea Mantegna from Padua. Mantagna's masterpiece is in Mantua's Ducale Palace -- the Camera degli Sposi.
To make his dream come alive, Frederico brought an artist back from Rome. That artist was the most gifted student of the revered Raphael, Giulio Romano.
Raphael was then well known for his erotic paintings in the Villa Farnesina, which was the first Renaissance pleasure palace or suburban villa. The purpose of these out-of-the-way villas was pure hedonism for wealthy aristocrats.
Overview and History of Te Palace
In 1524, Frederico and Romano embarked on building Te Palace. Romano served as the global artistic director. He designed everything from the architecture, rooms, and frescos. The palace became famous throughout Europe.
Te Palace is an example of Mannerist architecture. Mannerism is a sort of sub-category of the High Renaissance. In a jazz-like fashion, Mannerist architects and artists intentionally broke the rules of classical art and architecture. Their innovations led to the Baroque period.
Te Palace was built with stucco over brick. It has a rusticated textured surface, a characteristic of the period and many palaces in Florence. There are Doric order columns with broken pediments. The arches have oversized keystones. Every facade is slightly (and irrationally) different.
Frederico used Te Palace as an escape pad -- to get away from his wife, his mother, and the restricted court life of Mantua's Ducal Palace. It was a private retreat from court life, where he could indulge his obsessions and enthusiasms.
The boy had a thing for horses, sex, love, and astrology. Frederico fancied himself a Renaissance era Dionysis type. In Te Palace, he let his fancy run wild, blinging up the palace with sybaritic tongue-in-cheek frescos. Every detail was designed to delight the viewer.
Perhaps it's not surprising the Frederico died of syphillis at just age 40.
What To See At Te Palace: Must See Masterpieces
1. Loggia of the Muse
From the courtyard, you enter into the Loggia of the Muse, the official entrance. It connects the northern facade to the Cour d'Honneur (courtyard).
The loggia is a hallway dedicated to the muses -- the goddesses of art, literature, and science. They're frescoed in pale colors in the bas reliefs of the vaults and in the lunettes.
One muse represents Mantua, lying near a fountain topped with a crown of laurels. It refers to the poet Virgil.
The ceiling is decorated with a geometrical pattern of the images, some of which depict sphinxes. The images are a reference to the Greco-Roman culture that inspired Renaissance artists. Using the trompe l'oeil technique, Romano eschewed the cool classicism of the past. Instead, he used wildly distorted perspectives, a pastel color palette, and esoteric symbols.
2. Chamber of the Sun and Moon
The walls of the Chamber of the Sun and Moon feature a series of 18th century stuccoes that imitate the decorations of classical sarcophaguses. The walls also echo details of decorations in other chambers.
The walls are decorated with a baby blue grid containing 192 individual frames. The frames contain stucco figures of mythical animals from the 16th century.
Look up and you see Romano's Sun Chariot fresco. It's an impressive illusionistic fresco. The figures look like they're standing on a plate of glass. You look right up into the private parts of the charioteer. The back sides of his horses are also in view.
3. Hall of Eagles
The Hall of the Eagles is Frederico's bedroom. The ceiling hangs like a canopy. Lunette curves encrusted with seashells frame paintings of classical stories.
The decoration is quite extraordinary. The mythological frescoes are by Primaticcio. The depiction of battles on each side imbues the bedroom with a sense of movement. The marble of the fireplace is also very refined. The marble of the doors is the same used for the Holy Door in Rome, which represents Jesus and the Good Shepard.
Aside from these spaces, there are three absolutely must see rooms in Te Palace. They're filled with lavish, almost mind-blowing, Mannerist frescos executed by Romano in 1525-35.
4. Sala of Psyche | Hall of Cupid and Psyche
The Hall of Cupid and Psyche is the palace's most opulent room. It's filled with erotic paintings bordering on debauchery. Not coincidentally, the fleshy frescos were close to Frederico's bedroom, perhaps mirroring the seduction inside.
The licentious frescos depict Cupid and Psyche and the theme of their forbidden and tormented love. This was the theme of Rome's Villa Farnesina as well.
The story dominates the entirety of the ceiling and the upper portion of the walls. On the ceiling, within wood frames, you see rather dark images in a tenebrist style.
The story goes like this. Psyche was the beautiful daughter of a king worshipped by men. Her looks aggrieved the jealous goddess of love Venus. Venus decided to have Psyche marry the most venal man in the world. She dispatches her son Cupid to pull his arrow and trap Psyche.
Unfortunately for Venus, Cupid was also smitten with Psyche. But Cupid forbids her to look upon him, to avoid being outed as a real god. When Venus disobeys him, Cupid flees.
Poor Psyche then has to perform a series of near impossible tasks to satisfy a vengeful Venus. When Cupid can bear Psyche's torture no longer, he pleads their case to a council of gods.
The gods grant Cupid's wish. Psyche becomes immortal. The happy couple are married in heaven. And everyone lives happily ever after.
The mythological pair are a stand in for the forbidden love of Frederico and his mistress (also named) Isabella. They show man's struggle to rise above human weakness and be transformed into a transcendent deity.
The figures and gods cavort and flirt with abandon. There's the elaborate wedding of Cupid and Psyche and nude women being led away for a romp. The marriage scene is a reference to the oculus in Mantagna's Camera degli Sposi.
Then, you look at the walls. They are very explicit, almost obscene. The figures are naked, not nude. This isn't Ancient Greek statues. The picture of Venus and Mars at their Bath is a rather lurid example.
When you turn the corner, it gets kinkier with a scene of beastly love. You see Zeus taking the form of a serpent about to ravish Olympia. There's a river god fornicating with a swan.
In another scene Plyphemus holds a phallic club. Next to that is a scene of Parsiphae, who falls in love with a bull. The result of this relationship was the Minator. Frederico expected his hand picked elite guests to be well versed in mythological legends.
5. Sala dei Cavalli | Hall of the Horses
The Sala dei Cavalli, or Hall of the Horses, is the Gonzaga banquet hall. It's the largest room in the palace.
The illusionistic architectural elements frescoed on the walls give you the feeling of being inside a giant loggia. Within the niches are fake painted bronzes depicting the labors of Hercules.
The Hall of the Horses is where the Gonzaga wined and dined their guests, followed by dancing. The hall is decorated with paintings of the Gonzaga's favorite prize-winning horses, who raced all over Europe.
The images of the horses are an homage. They're actual portraits of the Gonzaga horses, not from Romano's imagination. Their names are even there. It's very unique. Patrons didn't usually employ famous artists like Romano to paint horses.
Gray and brown horses stand in profile, looking almost 3D. They're almost life size, set against faux marble walls and landscapes. The horses are at rest, yet seem alive.
The wood ceiling is a hand carved and gilded coffered ceiling. It's divided into a series of squares, enclosed by geometrical and vegetal motifs.
Inside the squares is a repeated motif of a gold salamander. The translation of the motto was "what this thing lacks, torments me." The salamander lacks heat, which Frederico II obviously had in spades.
The Hall of Horses was featured in the Netflix series The Medici. It was, as I recall, a stand in for a palace in Milan.
6. Sala dei Giganti | Hall of the Giants
The staggering Salle dei Giganti, Hall of the Giants, is Palazzo Te's grand finale. It's an extraordinary space. Every inch of the famous grotto-like hall is decorated with colossal scale figures. It's almost an alternative Renaissance virtual reality.
Once you're inside and the doors are shut, you become merged with the painting. You can't see where one wall begins and the other ends. Above the door, a large giant rests his hand on a stone above the door lintel.
In this fantastical fresco cycle, Romano portrays the fall of the titans. It's a disaster story from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Polyphemus and his ugly comic-book face giants dare to climb Mount Olympus.
The gods take revenge on Polyphemus and his giant beings. Jupiter and other gods destroy the giants for committing such a heinous and feckless sin. You can see the columns (the same as in the courtyard) collapse and come crashing down on them. You may feel like you're about to be crushed.
In what seems like a storm, the gods fling down pillars and lightening bolts. Buildings topple. The giants cringe and scream at their terrible fate. The frescos are pulsating, powerful, and rhythmic.
In person, the Te Palace frescos are akin to visiting the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.
7. Chamber of the Winds
The Chamber of Winds is a relatively small space. In it, a fast paced narration illustrates how the destiny of men is influenced by the Gods and Astrology. The twelve zodiac signs are depicted via their symbols.
For example, a fishermen captures monsters from the bottom of the sea. The chamber has the feel of a grotto. The message is that humankind is in the hands of celestial powers.
8. The Zodiac Room
This room was the bedroom of Guglielmo Gonzaga. It has a rather psychedelic astronomical fresco painted by Lorenzo Costa in 1579.
It depicts a pregnant Diana’s chariot being pulled by a pack of dogs among the constellations. The room also served as Napoleon’s bedroom during the Napoleonic Wars.
Practical Information & Tips for Visiting Te Palace in Mantua:
Address: Viale Te, 13, 46100 Mantova MN, Italy
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 9:00 am to 7:30 pm (summer). Monday 1:00 pm to 7:30. In winter, the palace closes one hour earlier.
Tickets: € 12
Pro tip: Some of the rooms are off limits to those under 18. The palace isn't that big. You should plan on 1-2 hours.
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