“The story of metamorphoses at Palazzo Te leads us towards the recognition of an essential experience concerning time and the unpredictable sense of the human as part of it. We are suspended between the impermanence of the moment and the eternal duration of forms inherited from the past, ancient forms that live in the present, regenerating themselves in an act in which art is science, memory and erotic play, archetypal models, freedom and transformation, chaos and law, violence and the desire for justice.”

Metamorphosis implies risk, instability and at times even pain, and it is hardly reassuring.
Transformation can be frightening, and we are inhibited not so much by the fear of making a mistake, choosing without due consideration, or changing for the worse than by a general dread of the unknown.
Thinking about metamorphosis today – in a time of rapid, dramatic, and often uncontrollable transformation – means not only asking ourselves what and how we should change as individuals and as a community but also how to deal with the experience as a permanent, inevitable condition of contemporaneity.
Thinking about metamorphosis means allowing ourselves to embrace change and accept it as a necessary and positive state, open to creativity despite its frightening aspects.
This is the message at the heart of Palazzo Te. Conceived as a cabinet of wonders and a labyrinth of metamorphoses, it draws inspiration from Ovid (43 B.C.-17 A.D.), who described the making of the ancient world in his 15-book Metamorphoses. Ovid used myth to explain the secrets of nature and their relationship with the gods and humanity.
Inspired by Ovid, Giulio Romano arranges fragments from the poet’s immense repertoire as if in a grand theatre:

– Venus/Aphrodite and her son Eros are the stage directors. As the goddess of harmony and vision, Venus dances with the Charites and rages with desire as she holds the visible knowledge of the world and its corporeal longing in precious yet unstable equilibrium. She ignites change through her offspring, provoking contrast and desire, and triggering drama;

– the leading characters are the gods. Above all Jupiter, who is called to action at times by the whims of Eros, at others by human errors or heroism, or by the threats of intermediaries such as the Giants. The gods participate in the change brought about by Venus, but they also ensure a happy ending, introducing authority and pacification, wisdom and order;

– the future, the passing of time and the moon chasing the sun in the age-old statuary dictate the rhythm of a palazzo that remains suspended between stark changes and classical forms indicating duration and eternity;

– the overall atmosphere of the palazzo stems from the wonder that bounds from room to room, the nature of the walls and objects. It is the philosophy at the heart of the entire project and still today its greatest gift.

The story of metamorphoses at Palazzo Te leads us towards the recognition of an essential experience concerning time and the unpredictable sense of the human as part of it. We are suspended between the impermanence of the moment and the eternal duration of forms inherited from the past, ancient forms that live in the present, regenerating themselves in an act in which art is science, memory and erotic play, archetypal models, freedom and transformation, chaos and law, violence and the desire for justice.
The present marks a pressure to change, reflecting the evidence that everything, even time and space, is suspended in a network of intrinsically unstable relationships, where metamorphosis is the quintessential condition of the present.
This experience challenges our intimacy, and our ability to form worlds, recollect them, examine language poetically, and grasp the meaning of life and how to narrate it, even at the cost of exploring its limits.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses dominate the architecture of Palazzo Te from the very first room of the private apartment, known as the Chamber of Ovid, inspired by the antiquarian Jacopo Strada.

The poem, which illustrates more than two hundred and fifty myths, had become hugely popular by the end of the 15th century when the translation of classical poets into the vernacular began to establish itself as a widespread phenomenon in the Italian publishing world. Homer, Virgil, Statius and especially Ovid were freely rewritten and adapted for the enjoyment of a wider audience. Printed editions of the Metamorphoses multiplied in Italy from 1471. Giovanni Bonsignori’s vernacular translation of Città di Castello is accompanied by a series of figurative scenes for the Venetian edition of 1497. Its detailed iconography remains the basis of other editions, such as the one by Niccolò degli Agostini (1522), accompanied by 72 woodcuts. In the 16th century, the poem was re-interpreted in the metre of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso.

The book by Agostini, whose name appears in the library collection of the Gonzaga court, together with Bonsignori’s earlier version, provides the basis of Giulio Romano’s iconography. This is why some figures in the frescoes can only be explained by Agostini’s account, often more complex than Ovid’s.

Merging stories of defiance and love between humans and gods, the first room introduces the concept that the building unfolds like a labyrinth of ancient myths and tales, images of heroes and love stories, in a crescendo in which wonder, harmony, poetry and magic merge into one another. It is the labyrinth that inspires the ‘noble’ man, who, educated by antiquity, is capable of actions that make life worth living.

  1. Orpheus in the Underworld: love and death

Orpheus the poet is able to go to the world of the dead and return to life. He is the shaman of Greek art who enchants animals with his music. Eurydice is the love of his life and his bride. As Virgil tells us in the Georgics, Eurydice is forced to escape the amorous fury of the shepherd Aristaeus and as she flees, she is fatally bitten by a snake. Orpheus sings of his grief over the death of his beloved and, moved by compassion, the gods of Hades allow Eurydice to return to Earth. There is only one condition: Orpheus must never turn to look at her throughout the perilous journey from the world of the dead. At the very end of the quest, frightened by a noise, Orpheus turns around and his bride is lost forever.

The fresco shows Orpheus menaced by the dog Cerberus while playing and singing for Pluto and Proserpine. Charon is seen taking Eurydice to them, with her wrists bound. Cerberus does not appear in the Ovidian version but in that of Niccolò degli Agostini (Venice, 1522), while Charon is mentioned only after the death of Eurydice.

  1. The torture of Marsyas: daring the impossible

Along his way, the satyr Marsyas finds a precious double-reeded musical instrument known as the aulos. The goddess Athena had thrown it away and put a curse on it. Captivated by the instrument’s magnificent sound, Marsyas unwisely challenges the god Apollo to a musical competition. Inevitably defeated, the satyr suffers a terrible punishment and is flayed alive.

In Giulio Romano’s fresco, tied to a tree where a syrinx hangs, Marsyas is flayed by Apollo, shown on the left with two figures, one of whom carries his lyre. On the right is Midas in tears, with Olympus, a pupil of the satyr, carrying a bucket. The scene is influenced by the Contest between Apollo and Pan, both in terms of the exchange of musical instruments and the presence of Midas.

Apollo does not intervene directly in the Ovidian original but appears in Giovanni Bonsignori’s version of the Metamorphoses in the vernacular (Venice, 1497). The presence of Apollo as executioner and Marsyas hanging from the tree appears in the 16th-century vernacular version by Niccolò degli Agostini.

  1.  Bacchus and Ariadne: love among the stars

Daughter of Crete’s King Minos and Pasiphae, Ariadne falls in love with Theseus after helping him out of the labyrinth by defeating the Minotaur, the metamorphic monster half bull and half man. Although she saved his life, Theseus abandons her on the beach at Naxos to continue his exploits. The young woman’s weeping attracts the god Bacchus, who consoles her and fascinated by her beauty, takes her as his wife. To afford her immortal fame, he pulls off her tiara and hurls it into the sky: changed into radiant flames, the gems of the crown become fixed in the firmament, creating the Northern Hemisphere’s Corona Borealis.

The scene in the Giulio Romano fresco emphasises the eroticism of the two lovers lying in the centre next to Eros, whose hair the young maiden caresses. A satyr with a lit torch appears on the right, and in the foreground, a female figure personifies a spring representing fertility.

  1. The contest between Apollo and Pan: music and the challenge to the gods

Pan challenges Apollo to a musical duel, to be judged by the mountain-god Tmolus. The event is watched by King Midas, who has given away his wealth and lives in the woods with Pan. When Tmolus awards Apollo the victory, King Midas objects, and the god punishes him, giving him donkey’s ears.

Giulio Romano’s fresco illustrates the moment of the contest and highlights the musical instruments of the two protagonists: the lyre played divinely by the god Apollo, and the flute played by the human music of Pan. The elderly figure in the background with cloak and staff represents the genius of the mountain-deity Tmolus.

The scene is a combination of the myth of Marsyas, already present in the room, and Pan. The Winged Victory on the left crowning Apollo, and Minerva on the right do not appear in Ovid’s version but are traditionally linked to the musical contest. The appearance of Tmolus in the centre, disguised as an old man with his right hand raised in Pan’s direction, seems drawn directly from Niccolò degli Agostini’s version, as does Minerva.

The quotations are from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Einaudi, Turin, 2015

Orpheus and Eurydice: art challenges death

In the Loggia of the Muses, with its fresco and stucco-decorated vault, are the seven female deities, daughters of Mnemosyne, surrounded by Egyptian and hieroglyphic-inspired motifs, possible references to ancient hermetic wisdom. Once the main entrance, the loggia declares how Palazzo Te is first and foremost a place where art dominates: art with its mystery and the muses with their enigmatic presence. Here Giulio Romano depicts the Ovidian story of Orpheus and Eurydice on the frescoed wall, now unfortunately in very poor condition. Large landscapes are painted in the side arches to include two bucolic mythological scenes: on the left, the death by snakebite of the nymph Eurydice as she flees the attentions of the shepherd Aristaeus; and on the right, Orpheus who sings so movingly among the animals that he convinces Pluto and Proserpine to bring his beloved bride back to life.

The Hall of the Horses is housed in what once were the historic Gonzaga stables, where Federico II’s ancestors bred their prized show horses. Giulio Romano’s art transformed the stables into a palazzo and this room into a reception hall for distinguished guests. The horses are wittily depicted amid a triumph of frescoed scenes, among which the Labours of Hercules. Two of the horses are named and look towards the spectator: Morel Favorito, the grey horse on the south wall; Dario, the lighter one on the north wall.

Painted above Federico II Gonzaga’s favourite steeds, six monochromes made to look like bronze bas-reliefs illustrate the Stories of Hercules. In addition to the episodes of Hercules and Antaeus and Hercules and Deianeira are four of the twelve Labours: The Nemean Lion, The Dog Cerberus, the Hydra of Lerna and the Cretan Bull. These could be interpreted as the two metamorphoses of the river god Achelous during his struggle with the hero.

Before the 18th- and 20th-century restoration work, the room still boasted gold and red leather wall hangings, while the original floor was terracotta.

The Labours of Hercules: the deification of the hero

Jupiter grants immortality to Hercules after he has atoned for his family’s death by performing the famous twelve labours, four of which, also narrated by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, are represented in this room.

Madness leads Hercules to kill his wife and children. Desperate, the hero withdraws into solitude. Tracked down by his cousin Theseus, he agrees to travel to Delphi, where Pythia tells him to go to Tiryns and serve Eurystheus by performing a series of feats. This marks the beginning of his journey of atonement and initiation.

  1. Nessus and Deianeira

The son of Ixion and Nephele, Nessus is a centaur who lives on the banks of the river Evenus and ferries travellers from one side to the other. When he meets Hercules and his wife Deianira, the centaur refuses to ferry them across. He is attracted by the young woman and tries to abduct her. To save his wife, Hercules wounds Nessus with an arrow. Before dying, Nessus passes on to Deianira his poisonous blood, suggesting she spread it on her husband’s tunic to gain his eternal love. Driven to jealousy by a rival, Deianira follows the centaur’s advice. This proves fatal for the hero, who falls ill and dies.

Giulio Romano’s fresco shows Deianeira on the back of Nessus, while Hercules is to the right holding his bow and arrow.

  1. Hercules and Antaeus

The king of Libya, Antaeus, son of Poseidon and Gaea, is a sixty-armed giant. He dwells in a cave in the valley of the river Bagrada near Zama. He feeds on lion flesh and is invincible as long as he remains in contact with Earth, personified by his mother Gaea. Hercules defeats him by lifting him off the ground, as appears in the Giulio Romano fresco. According to another version of the myth, Hercules first lifts him into the air and then beats him to death with his club.

  1. Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna

The Hydra, the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, related to Cerberus, Orpheus and Chimera, is a poisonous monster capable of killing with its breath, blood or even contact with its footprints. Described as a sea serpent with six or nine heads which grow back every time they are cut off and of which the middle one is immortal, the monster is slain by Hercules, unique among all humans.

Giulio Romano’s fresco shows the Hydra in the moment of combat, with Hercules wielding his club.

  1. Hercules and the Nemean lion

The Nemean lion is named after the city of Nemea in the Argolis valley, the present-day Peloponnese. As its skin is proverbially impervious to weapons, it cannot be wounded by iron, bronze or stone. Defeating the lion therefore requires the strength of a man’s hands. According to Hesiod, the lion is the son of Orthrus and Chimera, brother of the Sphinx; according to Apollodorus, he was sired instead by Typhon; while for Hyginus, he is the son of Selene. After trying to kill the lion with a bow and arrow, Hercules uses his club to trap the animal in a cave, where he chokes it to death with his bare hands, as depicted in Giulio Romano’s fresco. Afterwards, Hercules skins the beast and wears its fur. Jupiter adds it to the signs of the Zodiac.


The Room of Cupid and Psyche, which hosted a banquet for Emperor Charles V in 1530, has the most complex and refined decorations in the palazzo. Its narrative is divided into three different moments: the main tale of the love between Psyche and Cupid, from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses; the lustful tales of Polyphemus and Galatea, Venus and Adonis, Mars and Venus, Bacchus and Ariadne, Pasiphae and the Bull, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the scene of Jupiter and Olympias, inspired instead by Plutarch’s Life of Alexander.
Exemplified fully by Apuleius’ fable, the mystery of Cupid, the god of desire, triumphs throughout the room. Psyche a young mortal of exceptional beauty, whose love is reciprocated by Cupid, faces obstacles due to the jealousy of Venus. According to psychoanalyst and philosopher James Hillman, Psyche represents the soul that falls in love with falling in love, encountering formidable trials that ultimately end happily, with marriage and her ascent to Olympus.

Apuleius’ fable, extensively studied and interpreted for its initiatory and archetypal significance, serves as a celebration of the profound longing for love, a creative force inherent in humanity. It portrays humanity’s capacity for both madness and transformation, ultimately making it worthy of the divine.

Cupid and Psyche: the divinisation of the soul

Inspired by Ovid, Apuleius wrote his Metamorphoses between 160 and 180 A.D. The work is also known as the Asinus aures (Golden Ass), by which Augustine first refers to it. In the story, between Book IV and Book VII, the protagonist Lucius, already transformed into a donkey, is taken by some brigands to a cave guarded by an old woman. The next night, the brigands also take the young Carite there, where she is held as ransom. To console the girl, the old woman tells her the tale of Cupid and Psyche, to which Giulio Romano dedicated the cycle of frescoes on the walls and the maze of scenes on the ceiling.

The quotation is from the Giunti edition, Florence, 1993.

Love and Metamorphosis

  1. Venus and Mars Bathing

Venus falls in love with Mars and betrays Vulcan, her husband, in their bridal chamber. Apollo discovers her adultery and tells Vulcan, who takes revenge by constructing an invisible net to bind the two lovers. Caught in the act, Mars and Venus are mocked by all the gods.

The fresco shows the lovers Mars and Venus as they bathe. On the left is Cupid, a teenage boy with a quiver over his shoulder, hurrying towards Mars to dry him off with a towel. In the right-hand side of the fresco is the goddess, assisted by cherubs pouring water from a vase or handing her perfumes. One of the putti is getting ready to dry her back. Surrounded by this merry-go-round of attendants, the goddess gazes at her lover as she emerges from the water, her long hair falling about her shoulders.

  1. Bacchus and Ariadne

Out of her love for Theseus, Ariadne suggests the hero unravels a thread through the labyrinth, to find his way out after defeating the Minotaur. Setting sail for Athens, the ungrateful Theseus, however, abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Bacchus comes to the rescue of the bereft princess, enveloping her in a loving embrace as depicted by Giulio Romano in the fresco. To immortalise her with a constellation, he pulls off her diadem and throws it into the sky. The jewels in her crown are transformed into stars to become part of the firmament between the constellations of Hercules and Ophiuchus.

  1. Mars, Venus and Adonis

Adonis is one of Venus’ lovers, born from Myrrha’s incestuous relationship with her own father Cinyras, king of Cyprus. Having discovered how she had tricked him, Cinyras tries to punish his daughter, but the gods decide to save her by transforming her into a myrrh tree, from whose bark Adonis is born. The beautiful young man is raised by the Naiads and Venus falls in love with him when she is unintentionally struck with an arrow by her son Cupid. One day, on a hunting trip, Adonis is killed by a boar sent by the jealous Apollo. As seen in the fresco, anemones grow from the dying young man’s blood, and red roses sprout from that of the goddess, wounded in the brambles as she runs to rescue him.

Giulio Romano shows Mars overcome with jealousy, as he bursts into the domain of Venus and draws his sword to strike Adonis.

  1. Jupiter and Olympias

In the guise of a serpent, Jupiter seduces Olympias, wife of the Macedonian king Philip II and mother of Alexander the Great. Her husband spies the scene from his hiding place behind the doorway, but Jupiter’s eagle punishes the king’s curiosity by striking his eye with the thunderbolt it holds in its talons. Although not in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story is told by Plutarch in the Life of Alexander and it successfully depicts the metamorphic and erotic transformations of the god and his omnipotence.

The quotation is taken from the UTET edition, Turin, 1996)

 Polyphemus, Acis and Galatea

In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells of the relationship of the Cyclops, Polyphemus with Galatea, a sea nymph, who is in love with the handsome shepherd Acis. Attracted by Galatea’s beauty, Polyphemus hopes to seduce her by playing the flute but is rejected. When he finds the two lovers on the seashore, driven by jealousy, he kills Acis with a boulder of lava. Galatea, desperate at the loss of her beloved, transforms the blood into a spring to keep their love alive. In the fresco above the fireplace, Giulio Romano depicts the Cyclops as a giant with one large eye on his forehead, holding a syrinx and a club. The small bear in the hollow of the rock alludes to a gift for his beloved Galatea, depicted with Acis on the bank of the river named after him.

Pasiphae and the bull

Poseidon sends Minos, king of Crete, a very white bull to be sacrificed in his honour. The king, however, disobeys the god and sacrifices another animal. Divine vengeance is not long in coming: Queen Pasiphae develops such a mad passion for the bull that she ardently desires to mate with it and, determined to satisfy her impulse, she asks Daedalus for help. The inventor builds her a hollow wooden cow which she enters to consummate the relationship, as depicted in Giulio Romano’s fresco. Fertilised by the bull, Pasiphae gives birth to the Minotaur.

The Chamber of the Eagles, originally to be the bedroom of Federico II Gonzaga, has elaborate stucco decorations, frescoes, Roman busts and historiated marble. In the centre of the ceiling is the Fall of Phaeton according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Less centrally located are frescoed scenes and stucco decorations, including two famous abductions of young maidens.

  1. The fall of Phaeton: daring and failure

The myth of Phaeton tells of a spectacular disaster. The son of Clymene, wife of the Ethiopian king Merops, and the Sun god, the young Phaeton is dared by his friend Epaphus to prove his divine parentage. His father reluctantly agrees to allow him to drive the Sun chariot for a day. Despite the warnings, Phaeton lets the horses go too fast. He loses control and plunges dramatically downwards, setting forests on fire and drying up the lakes and rivers. To stop him, Jupiter strikes him with a thunderbolt, and he falls into the Eridanus River. Phaeton drowns, mourned by the Heliades who, out of despair, turn into poplar trees and their tears become amber.

     Ardent abductions  

  1. Rape of Europe

    Jupiter, the king of the gods, often becomes infatuated with mortal women and must practise deception and undergo various transformations to avoid arousing the wrath of his wife Juno. One day he falls in love with princess Europa, daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre, and decides to abduct her. To approach the young girl without frightening her or arousing suspicion, he transforms himself into a white bull that blends in with the animals grazing freely on the shores of Tyre. Europa, reassured by the animal’s docility, approaches and climbs onto its back. Jupiter flees with the terrified young woman who, as she clings to the beast, turns her sad gaze towards the land from which she has been separated.
  2. Rape of ProserpineThe abduction of Proserpine is the Greek myth at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, Proserpine is the queen of the underworld, and she passes to and from the world of the dead. Her periodic journey ensures the fertility cycle is maintained and the earth regenerates. Upon learning of her daughter’s abduction, the grieving Ceres wanders through the land, causing crops to die and bringing drought. Determined to free her daughter from the realm of the dead, she begs Jupiter to intervene. Acting as a mediator between Ceres and Pluto, he divides the year into two equal parts so that Proserpine becomes a deity shared by the two kingdoms. Orpheus later vainly retraces Proserpine’s steps to save his beloved Eurydice, creating the connection between the Eleusinian Mysteries and Orphism.

Gigantomachia: the battle for peace

The Chamber of the Giants is considered the heart of the palazzo, as reported by one of its first visitors, Giorgio Vasari. It depicts the terrible battle between Jupiter and the Giants, born from the blood of Uranus (who later gave birth to Venus) after he was castrated. The Giants were archaic beings who besieged Olympus to avenge the historic defeat of the Titans.
A powerful drama unfolds before our eyes. The collapsing mountains burying the Giants symbolise the desperate challenges that accompany Charles V’s ascent to the imperial throne. Allied with the Gonzaga family, the Habsburg king is seeking peace in Europe through diplomacy. This causes him to make several trips to Italy, including Mantova, which he visits in 1530 and 1532.
The narrative begun in the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche culminates in the Chamber of the Giants and is likely linked to the dynamic movement and instances of collapse and fragmentation already shown in the architecture of the Courtyard of Honour: the court of Federico II Gonzaga participates in the great adventure of humanity that, transformed by Cupid and under the guidance of Charles V (represented as Jupiter), defeats the menacing Giants.
Niccolò degli Agostini’s 1522 translation into the vernacular of the Metamorphoses helps explain some of the central mythological elements in the room that do not appear in Ovid’s version: the depiction of the Giants with human features and not with the feet of serpents or a thousand arms, the presence of Pluto, the Furies and above all the monkeys, born from the blood of the Giants struck down by Jupiter (according to a misinterpretation of Ovid, whose version Agostini refers to).

The loggia opening onto the gardens is an elegant space with three arches and decorations on the walls and vault. Episodes probably dedicated to human destiny appear in the ceiling and lunette frescoes. The southern wall tells the stories of Bacchus and Ariadne; the central band shows the Wedding Procession of Peleus and Thetis; above and below are the heraldic emblems of Mount Olympus and Boschetto.
Laid out in around 1531, the garden originally had painted landscape perspectives decorating its walls, of which vague traces remain. Excluding the tomb of Federico II’s little dog, the niches are alternately frescoed or decorated in stucco with Aesop’s fables. Among those still visible are: The donkey and the dog; The lion and the mouse; The fox and the crow; The fox and the stork; The horse and the lion; The fly and the bald man; The dog with a piece of meat; The wolf and the carved head; The lion and the shepherd; The shepherd and the wolf.

Built after Giulio Romano’s work, the grotto was completed in the 1590s. A document from 1595 describes it as the fontana dela grotta del the. The entrance is rustic and made of stalactite-like rocks to simulate the naturalistic effect of a real cave. Leading into the grotto are three steps which symbolise the original idea of the Babylonian labyrinth, a kind of diaphragm separating the living and the dead. The interior space, divided into two communicating parts, was once richly decorated with shells and coloured stones that glimmered amid rich plays of light. In the niches are the devices (heraldic emblems) of the Crucible, the Crescent Moon, the Phoenix and the motto ‘Non mutuata luce‘. Stories from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso appear in the smaller room: Alcina fishing, Alcina welcoming the knights and Alcina fleeing with Astolfo. Ariosto, who owes much to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, visited Mantova in 1532 as part of Emperor Charles V’s retinue.
The grotto is a place of fable and symbolism, where the four elements are brought together. It became the cavern of the alchemists searching for the philosopher’s stone for Vincenzo I Gonzaga.

The quotation is taken from the XXXX edition