I am very excited to be writing my first post for the ArtSmart Roundtable which is a group of brilliant bloggers who write once a month on a topic or theme, each interpreting the monthly subject in their own way. You can see what the other members selected to write about at the end of this post.
This month’s theme is Art Worth Travelling For and immediately I harked back to my days of studying art history in Italy and specifically my presentation in Mantova, Italy. Before departing Canada, my art history professor gave each student a list of works from which we were to blindly select one masterpiece and write a presentation to perform on site. Terrified of public speaking I unknowingly chose a massive room that became one of the most important presentations of my student life and the best interaction with an artwork I’ve ever had.
-Sorry, pictures are a little scarce of the interior because of the No Photo Rule, but that didn’t deter me as you’ll see-
The Sala dei Giganti is a room located within the Palazzo del Te in Mantova, Italy. Mantova may sound familiar since it’s where Romeo was exiled from fair Verona in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. It may not sound like an obvious choice as an artistic hidden gem but when Shakespeare wrote his play Mantua was a swamp land.
The Palazzo del Te was built in 1526, commissioned by Duke Frederigo II Gonzaga and designed by Giulio Romano. The Palazzo itself is an embodiment of Gonzaga’s desire for love and struggle for power.
It was built in two phases – the first phase of the Palazzo is rife with frescos of passion, love and a whole lot of naked gods and goddesses. It was in these rooms where he would probably make believe he was as well endowed as Zeus and play out the sexual scenes with mistresses, of which he had many. There is also an entire room with frescos of horses because the Gonzaga family were famed for their excellent horse breeds.
The second phase was built in 1530 and in those 4 years Duke Gonzaga got his priorities in order. This time he meant business and aligned himself politically with Charles V – Holy Roman Emperor, aka Charles I King of Spain. This is where the Sala dei Giganti comes in. Some say this room was built to symbolize the growing power of the Duke – having aligned himself with a powerful figure, being appointed a military leader and looking to expand his domain – while others feel it symbolizes the power of Charles V – having become Zeus-like in his triumph over Italian princes, the Turks and heretic reformers (a long story you can check out here).
I remember entering the room for the first time, sneaking away from my class so I could get a moment alone. I had read so much about it and spent 2 months researching this one room I just had to experience it before everyone else. As one of my fellow classmates stumbled on about the exterior architecture of the younger second phase I made my escape inside.
The Sala dei Giganti is as close as one could get to 3D back in those days.
Immediately as I entered the square doorway I felt like my eyes were not big enough to take it all in at once and I was a pebble, a blip in the universe of Giulio Romano.
I found myself in a realm of titans and gods, reality and illusion. The walls and ceiling are shaped as an egg with the corners made into smooth curves. Painted upon the surface, from floor to ceiling, are ugly titans being toppled by the wrath of the gods and goddesses who are perched high above the viewer.
Giulio Romano, the architect and artist, knew the immediate response of the viewer would be to have their eyes fixated on the art around them so that they wouldn’t watch where there feet were heading. This is why the floor is uneven and made of pebbles. As you walk through the room and realize what you are seeing – titans falling as the gods rain down their lightening bolts and wind – you too will feel as though you are falling with the uneven floor. Your equilibrium is further thrown off balance because the room is thought to have special acoustics being the hollow egg shape that it is. The slightest of noise is thought to ricochet off the walls so that even a whisper would be made audible.
With sound, sight and equilibrium involved I felt as though I was part of the scene unfolding upon the walls.
My classmates eventually joined me inside the room and it was then that I stabled myself, put away my nerves and delivered one of my best presentations I have ever given to date.
You may ask why I chose The Palazzo del Te and the Sala dei Giganti as artworks worth traveling for.
Well..besides the impressive creativity, art and history of the room, it was because I was able to have a moment ALONE with an epic work of art that is 483 years old. I can’t say I was at all emotionally impacted by the Sistine Chapel in the same way, on the other hand. Because I was being shuffled through the chapel like cattle as guards yelled “No Photos! No Photographia!” every 5 seconds.
You do not want to be stuck in the Sistine Chapel when claustrophobia sets in with an angry mob who went through 30 minutes of single file narrow corridors just to get hauled out as fast as you can say Evolution.
You might think my experience in Mantova was a one time kind of thing. Unique. Unrepeatable even. You’re so wrong!
There are plenty of intimate moments like this to go around if you are willing to travel outside of the typical sight seeing checklist, especially in Italy. There are so many small towns with important works of art, architecture and home to historic events. As I toured Italy the most memorable travel moments were held in small towns full of character and unexpected places.
Art worth traveling for is art that you can comfortably sit within its presence and contemplate its existence as well as your own.
For more on the Sala dei Giganti:
More Art Worth Traveling For
Jeff at Eurotravelogue – Traveling for the Love of Art
Christina at Day Dream Tourist – A Day in Medieval Europe at the Cloisters, New York City
Kelly at Travellious – Richard Serra’s Band Sculpture
Erin at A Sense of Place – Wait, You Want Me to Go to Liverpool to See Art?
Leslie at Culture Tripper - Mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Jenna at This is My Happiness – Art Exhibitions in 2013: Art Worth Traveling For