PRINT February 1990


Giulio Romano

THE SUCCESS ENJOYED BY THE Giulio Romano exhibition held in Mantua from September to November of 1989 was more than deserved. Indeed, the undertaking was a unique look at an artist and architect of paramount greatness, whose work flowered during the decisive period of transition between the Renaissance and what came to be called Mannerism, in the first half of the 16th century. Eminent scholars have contributed to the vast monograph Giulio Romano, published alongside the exhibition by Electa in Milan. And the research of these authors and of the show’s organizers, like that which led to the 1984 Raphael exhibition in Rome, and to the book Raffaello architetto (edited by Christoph L. Frommel, Stefano Ray, and Manfredo Tafuri, and also published by Electa), reflect a much larger program of exploration into Renaissance architecture, revolving in part around the Biblioteca Hertziana in Rome and the Centro Andrea Palladio in Vicenza. Giulio Pippi, called Giulio Romano, who was probably born in 1499 and died in 1546, was Raphael’s favorite student and the most original of his followers. Thus it is logical that many of the scholars involved in the Raphael project have found themselves collaborating again in Mantua, under the honorary presidency of Ernst Gombrich, and coordinated by Tafuri and Amedeo Belluzzi.

Giulio worked for many years at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, and his principal monuments in the city—both buildings and the large fresco cycles of the Palazzo Te and the Palazzo Ducale—were carefully restored for the exhibition. This complex project, in fact, was exemplary in many respects; its effects will be felt over time. The curators were able to create a dialogue between Giulio’s existing in situ work in Mantua, from 1525 on, and what was brought together for the occasion from museums and archives throughout the world. This was particularly noticeable on visiting the Palazzo Te, with its amazing frescoes and truly marvelous architectural solutions, completely restored—an exhaustive introduction to the vast collection of paintings, drawings, objects, and models on temporary exhibit there. At the Palazzo Ducale the tapestries made from the artist’s cartoons were featured. Outside the exhibition an entire city and its territory, a center of humanist culture, could be seen in a clear sectional view, thanks to the magnifying lens represented by the work of an artist who knew how to interpret, in the most original and surprising manner, the life and the culture of one of the most important courts of Renaissance Italy.

An established art-historical tradition, to which Gombrich and Frederick Hartt have made definitive contributions, has led to a widely accepted view of Giulio’s work as unfocused, too prolific, too impatient to achieve the language of Renaissance “perfection.” In modern interpretations that still refer to the criteria laid down by Vasari, Giulio has been considered essentially a great craftsman—a typical exponent of Mannerism. This art-historical concept, in a discourse whose exponents include Erwin Panofsky and Gombrich, has implied an idea of historical movement as mechanistically evolutionary and has allowed the complexity of the past to be “arranged” so as to explain the present. Through this sort of category-making (which at times still conditions some of the essays in the monograph, if subtly), Giulio would appear a precursor of the Baroque, if not precisely a forerunner of Neoclassical “exhaustion.” But a different Giulio Romano emerges from the most significant essays in the book.

The most interesting task, undertaken by Belluzzi, Howard Burns, Kurt W. Forster, Sylvia Ferino Pagden, and Tafuri, deals with the reevaluation of what the tradition from Vosari on has taken as the fundamental limitations of Giulio’s talent. The sprezzatura (nonchalance), the irony, the strong but not paralyzing relationship with antiquity, the pleasure in linguistic mixes—these hallmarks of Giulio’s architecture and painting we now see as original and extremely lively expressions of a “Latin,” “Lucianesque” spirit. (Tafuri correctly speaks of the “Plautuslike mentality” of the artist’s cultural and personal inclinations.) Irony was already strong in Raphael, and it explodes in Giulio’s work—for example, in the deliberately diverse architectural vocabularies spread through the compositional scores of the Palazzo Te, and in the frescoes of its various halls. The spirit with which Giulio decorated, in the broadest sense, the life of the court that offered him hospitality, using a different syntax for every new situation, can be compared to that of Rabelais. Born into a culture that made a cult of antiquity, yet fascinated by the non finito, and intolerant of the narrow architectural codes derived from Vitruvius, Giulio was inclined to a free artistic language that could liberate him from the boredom of canons. In an Aristotelian sense, he saw that grace could never be separated from dissonance.

Thus Giulio Romano presents a figure celebrated not for his place in a predetermined historical chain, but according to his own talents. Like Bramante, Giulio was a student of antiquity, but he knew that the norms of the past were not received laws for the present, and that in the end, every model was destined to remain out of reach, a knowledge reflected in the sly fragmentations of his composition for the interior facade of the Palazzo Te, for example, or for the facade of the Rustica in the Palazzo Ducale. In both, Giulio juxtaposed a classical order and a “ruin,” favoring a combination of visual extremes such as highly polished and rusticated surfaces, and pushed the device to the bizarre end of the spectrum. His taste for play, serious play, was admirably suited to life in the Gonzaga court. And play was not the only way he found to express his culture: he tended to take advantage of chance, the exception, the unexpected. For instance, in the Palazzo Te, small architectural elements seem to succumb to gravity, sliding or dropping downward and disrupting the “order” of the facade. It is as if the building had been subjected to an intense horizontal compression, causing vertical displacements in odd places along the exterior.

Yet all Giulio’s eccentric variations and inventions are saturated with erudition. Furthermore, there is a profound sense of grandeur in the Trojan hall in the Palazzo Ducale. While in the Palazzo Te, the Sala dei Giganti, the Hall of the Giants, is disturbing and terrible, the complex narrative structure of the hall of Psyche recalls the splendor of Raphael. Calling attention to the paradoxes of the world that surrounded him, Giulio thus interpreted the different requirements of his patrons, from Federico Gonzaga to Giovanni Matteo Giberti, men whose lives were marked by the impossibility of harmoniously uniting public duties with the experiences of private citizens.

Giulio Romano also proves valuable for its scientific contributions, clarifications, and new attributions. (One of the most fascinating hypotheses would attribute to Giulio the original idea for the extraordinary palace of Charles V in Granada.) It is impossible to discuss the book in depth here, but it is worth noting that those who adopt a typically modern view of Giulio’s architectural projects, expecting from them a hypothetical, unitary concept of the form of the city, will be disappointed when they visit Mantua. What Giulio built is disparate and the result of contingencies. It does not pretend to offer itself as the product of a desire to give the city a unified look. (This is an irremediably contemporary ambition.) It is wrong to interpret Giulio’s Mantua work as some kind of projection, through the creation of an overall context, of how his culture would develop. Instead, walking in the streets of Mantua, one assumes a different stance. The writer Ernst Jünger has compared the cities preserved for us over time to the coral reef: passing through them, we are offered the same kind of spectacle that the sea reveals as it draws back from the geologically stratified constructions built so slowly beneath the tide. Similarly, the work of Giulio Romano, in its virtuosic referential play on architectural history, reveals the stratifications that compose the city, bares the fiber of its modeling by time—that unique great architect who controls its form.

Francesco Dalco is the director of the architecture section of the Venice Biennale and a professor at the University of Venice.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.