The Sala dei Giganti is located in the south wing of the Palazzo Tè–the private retreat of Federigo II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. The palace and its decoration were overseen by Giulio Romano who was appointed court artist in 1524. This was the last room decorated in the palace. Giorgio Vasari discusses Giulio’s construction of the room which required robust foundations on marshy ground. Furthermore, Giulio built thick masonry walls that, in effect, created a domed room that allowed for a continuous painted surface–uninterrupted by corners and seams. Giulio provided the design and cartoons for the painting (see Powerpoint) which was carried out by his workshop of artists.
Little can prepare you for the riotous events that unfold on the walls of this room. Here, Giulio Romano brings Ovid’s account of the Giants attempting to overthrow Mount Olympus into vivid reality. According to legend, the giants attempted to overthrow the gods by stacking Mount Pelion on top of Mount Ossa to scale Olympus. In the dome of the room, Jupiter descends from his throne wielding lightning bolts that he hurls into the room. The pantheon of gods are supported on a balcony of clouds as they watch in fascination and horror at the battle occurring below. Along the walls of the room, the giants are crushed by massive boulders and crumbling architecture. The illusion is all-encompassing and completely immersive. There is no beginning or end to the tumultuous narrative. Rather, when you enter the room, you are thrust into the middle of the battle. The experience is purposefully disorienting and takes a few moments to recognize what is happening. Vasari provides a rich description of the room (see Primary Source Reader) that speaks of Giulio’s technical innovations to achieve the visual effect which would have been even more pronounced than it is today. According to early descriptions of the room, the floor was originally paved with large boulders that blended completely with the painted walls. Similarly, there was originally a large fireplace between the two windows (the faint outline is still visible in the fresco surface) which is conflated with Aetna where Vulcan and the Cyclops forged Jupiter’s lightning bolts. The effect would have created a completely immersive virtual space that transported the viewer to Mount Pelion to witness its destruction.
Inventory records indicate that this room had no expressed purpose and is located in the section of the palace that was dedicated to recreation. We can speculate that the room served as a conversation space or perhaps a reception room. The imperial imagery is in keeping with Federigo’s own political ambitions.
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© Comune di Mantova, Musei Civici
Giulio Pippi Romano (b. Rome, ca. 1499; d. Mantua, 1546) was an accomplished Italian painter, architect, and draftsman. Apprenticed as a boy to the illustrious painter, Raphael (1483-1520), Giulio quickly rose to prominence in Raphael’s roman workshop and was his brightest protege. Upon Raphael’s death in 1520, Giulio was responsible for the completion of many of the master’s commissions, inducing the Sala Constantino at the Vatican palace. Romano clearly absorbed Rapahel’s interest in classical subjects and appreciation for antique forms, however, distinguished himself as a preeminent Mannerist artist. From his teacher, Giulio also learned how to manage a successful workshop, supervising a company of assistants who completed commissions. In 1524, Baldassare Castiglione (Mantuan ambassador) convinced Giulio to leave Rome and accept an appointment as court artist to Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Under the duke’s patronage, Giulio completed his pièce de résistance, the construction and decoration of the Palazzo Tè, the private villa retreat for the duke and his mistress, Isabella Boschetti (c. 1501-1560). Giulio remained in Mantua until his death.
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Paula Carabell, “Breaking the Frame: Transgression and Transformation in Giulio Romano’s Sala dei Giganti,” Artibus et Historiae 18, no. 36 (1997): 87-100. JSTOR
Egon Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 37-38.
Frederick Hartt, Giulio Romano, 2 vols (New York, Hacker Art Books, 1981), pp. 152-159.
When standing in the middle of the room, the viewer becomes the target of Jupiter’s lightning bolts. As much as we spectate we are also being watched.
Vulcan is shown in the ceiling looking down toward the fireplace.