“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.

“O gods who rule the world beneath the earth, the world to which all those of mortal birth descend—if I may speak the truth to you,
without the subterfuge that liars use, I’ve not come here to see dark Tartarus, nor have I come to chain the monster-son Medusa bore, that horror whose three necks bear bristling serpents. This has brought me here: I seek my wife: she stepped upon a viper, a snake that shot his venom into her young body, robbing her of years of life. I’ll not deny that I have tried: I wish that I had had the power to resist.
But Love has won; to him I must submit.”

  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.

“When he (whose name I do not know) was done, and all had heard what happened to those Lycians, another was reminded of a Satyr who had contended with Latona’s son: a contest on the flute (one of the sort Minerva had invented): he who won— Apollo—punished him. The Satyr cried: “Why do you tear me from myself? Oh, I repent! A flute is not worth such a price.” He screams; the skin is flayed off all his form, and he is but one wound; upon all sides, his blood pours down; his sinews can be seen; his pulsing veins glow with no veil of skin; you could have tallied up his throbbing guts; the fibers in his chest were clear, apparent. The country Fauns, the woodland deities, his brother Satyrs, and Olympus (he whom Marsyas—even in his death throes—loved) mourned him, as did all those who, on those slopes, had shepherded their woolly flocks and herded horned cattle. And the fertile soil was soaked with tears that fell; and these, Earth gathered up and drank them deep into her veins; then these she changed into a watercourse and sent into the open air. From there the river, within its sloping banks, ran down to sea: it is called Marsyas—Phrygia’s clearest stream.”

  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.

But at the third return of those nine years, the beast was killed by Theseus, Aegeus’ son. He, helped by Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, was able to retrace his steps: she gave a thread to him, which he would then rewind, and so he found the entrance gate again— a thing that none before had ever done. Without delay he sailed away to Naxos. He’d taken Ariadne with him, yet he showed no pity: on that shore he left the faithful girl. And Ariadne wept till Bacchus came; that god was warm and fond, and he embraced the girl; through him she won a place in heaven as the Northern Crown— Corona—an eternal constellation; for from her brow, he took her diadem and sent it up to heaven. Through thin air, it flew, and in its flight, its gems were changed: they blazed as flames—but its crown-shape was saved. Now Ariadne’s diadem is placed between the Gripper stars, which hold the Snake, and those that show the Kneeling Hercules.”

  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.

“There, one day, while Pan was charming tender nymphs with melodies and light cadenzas piped on shepherd’s reeds held fast with wax, he dared to scorn the songs Apollo sang, if set against his own. Too rash, he now was matched—unequally— against Apollo. Tmolus was to be the judge; and so that tutelary god was seated on his ancient mountaintop. To hear, he shook his ears free from the trees. To wreathe his dark green hair, he wore oak leaves; around his hollow temples, acorns hung. Then, facing Pan, the shepherd-god, he said: “This judge is ready for you; go ahead.” And Pan, upon his rustic reeds, began to play, entrancing Midas (who by chance was there) with his barbaric shepherd’s airs. When Pan was done, the sacred Tmolus turned his face toward Phoebus’ face; and as he turned, his forests followed him. The god-of-Delos’ fair hair was wreathed with laurel of Parnassus; his mantle, steeped in purple dye from Tyre, was long enough to sweep the ground. His lyre, inlaid with gems and Indian ivory, was held by his left hand; and in his right he held the plectrum. Even in his stance he seemed a master artist. With a thumb adept, consummate in its craft, he plucked the strings; and Tmolus, moved by notes so sweet, declared defeat for Pan and his rude reeds. And all approved the sacred mountain-god’s decision. Only Midas—no one else— protested, said the verdict was unjust. Apollo cannot suffer that affront: he can’t allow such stupid ears to vaunt their human shape; and so he made them longer, and added gray and shaggy hair as cover, and made them, at their base, unstable, loose, so that they could be moved. But just that part was changed: all else retained its human cast. This was the only punishment of Midas: to wear the ears of a slow-moving ass. He had to hide his shame, his horrid blot; and so, around his temples, Midas wrapped a purple turban. But the slave who cut the king’s hair when it was too long, found out. He did not dare reveal what he had seen; yet he was keen to speak of the disgrace— he was not one to keep it to himself. So, leaving Midas, he went off to dig a hole within the ground; and into this, he murmured—all his words were soft and low— what he had learned. Then, covering that hole, he buried what he’d said; that done, he stole away in silence. But above that hole, a stand of swaying reeds began to grow; and when a year had passed, those reeds stood tall, and they betrayed the servant who had sown his secret there; for as the soft south wind stirred them, they spoke his buried words, made known King Midas’ shame—the ass’s ears he’d grown.”

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 start was sad—and sadder still, the end. The bride, just wed, met death; for even as she crossed the meadows with her Naiad friends, she stepped upon a snake; the viper sank its teeth into her ankle. Orpheus wept within the upper world; but when his share of long lament was done, the poet dared to cross the gate of Taenarus, to seek his wife among the Shades consigned to Styx.”

“Such was the grove that gathered round the poet. In that assembly of wild beasts and birds, the Thracian singer sat. He tried the chords: he plucked them with his thumb; and when he heard that, although each note had a different sound, it stood in right relation to the rest, he lifted up his voice.”

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.

“In fact, while Hercules, the son of Jove, was heading back to Tiryns with his bride, he reached the rapid flow of the Evenus. The river, swollen by the winter rains, had risen; eddies swirled—impetuous— defying any who might dare to cross. As Hercules, with no fear for himself but anxious for his bride, stood on the banks, the centaur Nessus, sturdy and adept at fording such a stream, drew near and said: “O Hercules, I can take care of her and get her safely to the other shore, while you—whose daring can’t be matched—swim over.” And Hercules entrusted to the centaur fair Deianira; she was trembling, pale, afraid of the Evenus and of Nessus. The Theban, although he was weighted down with both his quiver and his lion’s skin (for he had tossed his club and curving bow onto the other shore), cried out: “It seems that I am destined to contend with streams; then let me conquer this one, too.” He plunged; he did not try to find the calmest point— and spurned whatever help the current might have offered him.
Latin [96–117] And now he had just reached the other shore; as he retrieves the bow that he had thrown across, he hears outcries— it is his wife, for he can recognize her voice; and he sees Nessus sneak away; he’s carrying off the girl; he has betrayed his trust. And Hercules cries out: “You beast, where do you think your feet can carry you? It’s you I’m talking to—you biform Nessus! Hear what I say: don’t prey on what is mine! And if you’ve no respect for me, remember the ever-whirling wheel that chains your father, the price Ixion paid for his adulteries! In any case, however much you trust the half of you that is a speeding horse, you will not get away: I’ll wound you yet— not with my feet but with this fatal shaft!” His action fit these final words: he shot an arrow and it caught the fugitive right in the spine—and drove deep, coming out through Nessus’ chest; and as the centaur wrenched the barbed tip out, blood spurted from both wounds— the front, the back; and in that blood was mixed the Hydra’s venom—Hercules had dipped his arrows in that poison after he had killed the beast of Lema. Nessus knew of this, and to himself he murmured: “I shall not die unavenged.” And then he gave his tunic soaked with his envenomed blood to Deianira as a gift; he told the girl whom he had tried to carry off that his hot blood would serve to spur the love of Hercules, if it should ever wane.”

  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.

“Is it for this that I have killed Busiris, who desecrated all the shrines of Egypt with strangers’ blood? That I deprived the fierce Antaeus of his force by lifting him up from his mother Earth? For this that I, in Spain, was unafraid of Geryon, the shepherd with three heads—and did not fear your three heads, too, o Cerberus? My hands— were you the hands with strength enough to bend the horns of the stout bull that Neptune sent, the hands that cleansed the stables of Augeias, Stymphalus’ marsh, the woods of Mount Parthenius? The golden girdle of the Amazon— who won it on Thermodon’s shores? Who won the apples guarded by the sleepless dragon? Am I the one whom neither centaurs nor the boar that savaged Arcady could conquer? The man who made it useless for the Hydra to grow anew with every blow, to show redoubled force? And when the king of Thrace, who fed his horses human flesh, had filled their bins with butchered corpses, did not I cleanse all those feeding bins and kill both him and his stout stallions? These are mine—the arms that choked the giant lion of Nemea; and mine, this nape that has sustained the sky.”

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.

Even the one who guides and shepherds all with glowing light—the Sun—has been enthralled Latin [145–70] by love. His loves are what I now shall tell. The first to witness the adultery of Mars and Venus—it is said—was he; for he’s the god who is the first to see all things. The Sun was shocked, and he told Vulcan— the son of Juno, and fair Venus’ husband— the when and where of all those furtive meetings. And Vulcan’s mind and hands gave way: he dropped what he was working on. But once the shock was over, he began, with subtle care, to fashion slender chains of bronze—so thin, the net and snare they formed could not be seen. There was no fine wool thread, no spiderweb that hangs down from a ceiling, that could be compared with his thin net’s transparency. The slightest touch, the least of movements, was enough to set the web to work. And then, around that bed, he draped it cunningly. When Venus and her lover went together— to bed, they both were soon entwined by that amazing trap and Vulcan’s craft: the net had caught them in the act—the pair had clasped. At once, the god of Lemnos opened wide the ivory doors, so that he could invite the other gods to see that obscene sight, such shame enchained. At this, one deity, not given to solemnity, said he would hope and pray that such obscenity and shame might be his lot. His wish provoked the laughter of the gods: all heaven spoke, for many days, of this—told and retold.”

“On her light chariot, Venus, who was drawn across the middle air by her winged swans, had not reached Cyprus yet; she heard, far off, the dying boy—his moans. She turned around her white swans and rode back. When, from the heights, she saw him lifeless there, a bleeding corpse, she leaped down to the ground. And Venus tore her hair, and—much unlike a goddess—beat her hands against her breast. She challenged fate: ‘But destiny does not rule all. Adonis, your memory will live eternally: each year they will repeat this final scene— your day of death, my day of grief, will be enacted in a feast that bears your name. “‘I shall transform your blood into a flower. If you, Proserpina, were once allowed the metamorphosis of Mentha, when you changed that nymph into a fragrant plant— the mint—can anyone begrudge me if I change the form of Cinyras’ dear son?’ That said, she sprinkled scented nectar on his blood, which then fermented, even as bright bubbles form when raindrops fall on mud. One hour had yet to pass when, from that gore, a bloodred flower sprang, the very color of pomegranates when that fruit is ripe and hides sweet seeds beneath its pliant rind. And yet Adonis’ blossoms have brief life: his flower is light and delicate; it clings too loosely to the stem and thus is called Anemone—‘born of the wind’—because winds shake its fragile petals, and they fall.”

  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.

“Cyclops, pursuing Acis, heaved a massive rock, a piece of mountain that he had torn off. Only the merest edge touched Acis, but the corner of that rock was quite enough to bury him completely. And the only thing fate permitted me was to restore Acis to his ancestral powers. Blood flowed crimson, dark, down from the mass of rock; but soon its crimson faded; it became the color of a stream that early rains have swollen; then the torrent slowly gained more purity. The rock that Cyclops cast now split wide open, and a tall green reed rose through the crack; the hollow opening within the rock resounded. Waters leaped and—suddenly—a young man stood, waist-deep, up from the waves; his new-sprung horns were wreathed with supple rushes. That young man was Acis. Though larger now, and with a dark-blue face, Acis had certainly not been erased: a river-god—that was his newfound shape— a river that retained his former name.”

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.

“As soon as Minos, disembarking, touched the soil of Crete, he sacrificed to Jove the hundred bulls he owed; his palace walls were soon adorned with trophies, spoils of war. But now the foul obscenity that shamed the family of Minos grew: the strange half-human and half-beast, the monstrous child of Minos’ queen, the living proof of vile adultery. And so the king decides to place the shame that stains his marriage far apart from Minos’ house: he wants to hide the monster in a labyrinth, where blind and complicated corridors entwine.”

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.

“And as the flames devour his ruddy hair, young Phaethon plummets down; he pivots round his burning body, trailing in the air the sort of track that one can sometimes see when—through clear skies—a star will seem to fall but then, in fact, does not. And he lands far from his own country; in another part of the earth’s span, the waves of the great Po now bathe the boy’s scorched face.”

     Ardent abductions  

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.

“Agenor’s daughter stares at him in wonder: he is so shapely, so unthreatening. At first, however, though he is not fierce, she is afraid to touch him. Then she nears, draws closer, and her hand holds flowers out to his white face. Delighted, as he waits— a lover—for still other, greater joys, he kisses her fair hands—no easy test to check his eagerness, delay the rest. And now the great bull sports along the grass, and now he stretches snow-white flanks along the golden sands. Her fear has disappeared, and now he offers to the girl his chest, that she might stroke him with her virgin hand; and now his horns, that she might twine them round with garlands. At a certain point, Europa dares to sit down upon his back: the girl is not aware of what he is in truth. And then, as casually as he can, the god moves off, away from the dry sands; with his feigned hooves, he probes the shallows, then advances even farther; soon he bears his prey out to the waves, the open sea. Europa now is terrified; she clasps one horn with her right hand; meanwhile the left rests on the bull’s great croup. She turns to glance back at the shore, so distant now. Her robes are fluttering—they swell in the sea breeze.”

Rape of Proserpine

The 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.

“In that grove Proserpina was playing, gathering violets and white lilies. She had filled her basket and, within her tunic’s folds, had tucked fresh flowers, vying with her friends to see which girl could gather more of them. There Pluto—almost in one instant—saw, was struck with longing, carried that girl off— so quick—unhesitating—was his love.

But Saturn’s son could not contain his anger any longer: he spurred his terrifying stallions, whirled his royal scepter with his sturdy arm. He struck the very depths of Cyane’s pool. The blow was such that, down to Tartarus, earth opened up a crater: on that path he plunged to darkness in his chariot.”

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).

“They say the Giants, striving to gain the kingdom of the sky, heaped mountain peak on mountain mass, star-high. Then Jove, almighty Father, hurled his bolts of lightning, smashed Olympus, and dashed down Mount Pelion from Mount Ossa. Overwhelmed by their own bulk, these awesome bodies sprawled; and Earth soaked up the blood of her dread sons; and with their blood still warm, she gave their gore new life: so that the Giants’ race might not be lost without a trace, she gave their shape to humans whom she fashioned from that blood. But even this new race despised the gods; and they were keen for slaughter, bent on force: it’s clear to see that they were born of blood.
When Jove, the son of Saturn, saw this scene from his high citadel, he groaned; recalling Lycaon’s recent monstrous meal (a feast the other gods had yet to hear about), his heart was filled with anger such as Jove can feel—a giant rage. And he convoked a council of the gods; they came at once. On high there is a road that can be seen when heaven is serene: the Milky Way is named—and famed—for its bright white array; to reach the regal halls of mighty Jove, the Thunderer, the gods must take this road. On either side there range the homes of those who are the noblest of the gods, the most illustrious and powerful: their doors are open wide; their halls are always thronged (the lesser gods have homes in other zones). And if this not be too audacious, I should call this site high heaven’s Palatine. And now, within the marble council hall, the gods were seated. Throned above them all, and leaning on his ivory scepter, Jove— three times and then a fourth—shook his dread locks and so perturbed the earth and seas and stars.”

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