Palazzo Te, Mantua
Modern computer engineers, in their hubris, think that they invented virtual reality. If you want to see an example from nearly 500 years ago then you must go to Mantua. The Marquis, later Duke, Federico II Gonzaga commissioned Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael to design and fresco a small palace on the outskirts of the town to be used for entertainment. The result is the Palazzo Te, a sumptuous example of the style known as Mannerism.
Sadly, the rooms today are bare, the palace having been sacked in 1630 by the army of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II. What remains are the fabulous frescos. Some are simple to interpret, others require a little more thought. In the Sala di Psiche, the seduction of Olympias by Jupiter is one such but it tells an interesting story. Olympias was the wife of Philip II of Macedonia and mother of Alexander the Great. The painting shows her being seduced by the King of the Gods who is thus the father of Alexander. However, the interest is in the detail that Romano has included. The legs of the God are shown as snakes, a symbol of the cult of Dionysus, to which, according to Plutarch, Olympias was an adherent. In the background is an eagle – this is certainly Jupiter in the form in which he appeared to Ganymede. In his claws is a thunderbolt, his traditional weapon, which he is using to blind Philip to the seduction of his wife. Thus the story is complete together with the obvious flattery that Romano intended that the Marquis was another Alexander.
The most amazing room though is the Sala dei Giganti, The Room of the Giants, The frescoes illustrate one of the earliest stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses when the race of giants who populated Earth before mankind attempted to reach heaven by piling up mountains but were foiled and ultimately destroyed by Jupiter who buried them under the ruins of their construction. To stand in this room is to stand in the moment when Jupiter brought their world crashing down around them. All four walls and the ceiling play their part in surrounding you with falling rocks and masonry and the desperate figures fighting for their lives as their realm crumbles. Truly, it is an unforgettable experience.