Sala di Psyche: Palazzo del Te and Neoplatonism


The architect and painter Giulio Romano (1499-1546) created the entire edifice of Palazzo del Te on behalf of Federico Gonzaga, Marquis and later Duke of Mantua. The name Te comes from the word "Tejeto", which was the name of the islet on which it was built in the first half of the 16th century. The name of Palazzo del Te, which still prevails nowadays, was first uttered by Vasari (Palazzo Te English version, 2022). The room this article will focus on is decorated with elements related to the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The myth was associated with Neoplatonism and its allegories were a common feature within artworks.



Figure 1: Palazzo del Te.

Romano began his artistic creations in a Renaissance environment, but did not reach his peak until the third decade of the 16th century, when he collaborated exclusively with the Duke of Mantua Federico Gonzaga. He worked during the transition from High Renaissance to Mannerism, which is why he beautifully combined classical art with emotional intensity. Being a student and friend of Raphael, his early pieces are associated mainly with this great painter, with whom he completed the loggia of Eros and Psyche in the Villa Farnesina in Rome. The theme of this project was quite similar to the one the artist engaged with for the Palazzo del Te. After the death of his teacher in 1520, his reputation grew, with the result that Federico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua at the time, tried to hire him as an architect in his service. Therefore, in lasting1524, Romano travelled from Rome to Mantua to work for Gonzaga. An extremely close partnership developed between them, as they proceeded to shape the area.


The first project that Romano was commissioned for was the conversion of an area that housed stables for the Gonzaga house into a villa (Vasari & Bull, 1971). The project gradually evolved from a small villa, incorporating the already existing structures, to a decorated and imposing palace. The construction and full decoration of the Palazzo del Te took about a decade. The rooms that exist in the central block of the Palazzo were intended as dining rooms or apartments. The Chamber of Cupid and Psyche is in the northwest corner of the square (Forster & Tuttle, 1971). This room was completed during the first construction phase of the Palazzo del Te, with the frescoes dating from 1526-1528. The creator is Giulio Romano, alongside Benedetto and Mantovano who contributed as his assistants (Vasari & Bull, 1971). This room was designed as a recreational room for the Duke's distinguished guests.


Figure 2: Ceiling of Cupid and Psyche Chamber.

The pictorial theme in the Hall of Psyche is related to the eponymous myth of Eros and Psyche. The myth first appeared in Ovid's Metamorphoses and was also recounted in The Golden Asse written by the philosopher and poet Apuleius in the 2nd century A.D. (Apuleius, 2021). In this work, consisting of 11 books, the protagonist Lucius is on a journey when he comes into contact with various myths. The most familiar to us is the one of Cupid and Psyche, which concerns books 4, 5 and 6. This myth was an inspiration for Romano and the commissioner, Federico Gonzaga. Consequently, it was chosen as the main theme for the Chamber of Psyche.


This room is one of the most spectacular in the Palazzo del Tel and usually prompts a sentiment of awe from its visitors. The telling of the myth of Eros and Psyche is mainly depicted on the hall's impressive ceiling, which includes all the events from the beginning to the end. The scenes are defined by a gilded band of stucco that divides the ceiling into a central square, four semi-octagons, eight octagons, twelve sail-like triangles, and below the twelve drums. The technique adopted by the artist is characterized as fresco, a type of wall painting in which the colours are placed on the wet surface of the wall (Vasari & Bull, 1971).


The way the artist narrates the myth of Cupid and Psyche creates a need for the viewer to observe the ceiling thoroughly. In general, no particular order is followed (Verheyen, 1972). The narrative starts from the octagons and ends in the centre of the ceiling with a fresco, which comes to be the absolute centre of the room in the way it has been placed in the composition. The labyrinth created through the narrative particular sequence, in addition to Gonzaga's coat of arms, is also symbolic and relates to Neoplatonism, according to art historian Egon Veryehen.

Figure 3: View of Sala di Psyche (north and west walls)


According to the myth of Eros and Psyche, Psyche was the third daughter of a wealthy family. People all over the Earth were so mesmerized by her beauty that they neglected the goddess Aphrodite. Consequently, Aphrodite was enraged and decided to take revenge on Psyche. She ordered her son Eros to pierce the girl with an arrow and make her fall in love with the most pitiful man. However, when he witnessed Psyche's beauty, he was instantly dazzled and aimed the arrow at himself.


Psyche and her family were worried that she would never be able to find a husband. Indeed, because of her beauty, no man dared to ask her into marriage. Her father received an oracle from a clairvoyant of Apollo, according to which she should go dressed as a bride to the top of a hill, where she would marry not a man, but a hideous serpent-like monster. Psyche followed the instructions and went to a steep hill, from where the wind Zephyr carried her to a forest. There, she found a luxurious palace, where she was served by an invisible staff. At night, as she fell asleep, an invisible lover came into the darkness. It was the god Eros, who, from that moment, kept visiting her on the condition that she would never see his face so that his divine form would not be revealed. One day, Psyche convinced him to let her sisters come to the palace, since they wanted to meet her. When they found themselves in the palace, jealous of all the luxury, they persuaded Psyche to see who her secret lover was. Being tempted, she lit a candle at night, as her husband slept, and witnessed the handsome Eros in her bed. Suddenly the candle dripped on Eros' shoulder, who woke up and lost his temper .


Eros returned to Aphrodite, who, infuriated with him, decided to punish her son for falling in love with the woman who had sown the seeds of her discontent. Meanwhile, Psyche travelled far and wide to find Eros, without success. When she met Demetra on one of her travels, she begged her for help, but the goddess refused. Psyche continued to search for Eros, while not even goddess Hera, whom she asked for help, was willing to come in her aid. This constant journey of hers was also the reason why Aphrodite could not find her to punish her. Hermes was thus sent on a quest for Psyche.


Figure 4: First test of Psyche.

After Hermes' announcement, Psyche decided to surrender herself. When one of Aphrodite's maids recognized her, she was finally led to the goddess. She was beaten, her clothes were torn, and she was given instructions to sort through an immense number of seeds to prove herself worthy. The ants took pity on her and helped her by sorting all the grains for her. Aphrodite then ordered her to bring a tuft of wool from some golden-haired wild sheep. This time, a reed growing on the river bank helped the desperate girl.


Aphrodite was not satisfied that Psyche succeeded in her second feat. Therefore, she ordered her to climb to the top of a mountain and fill a vessel with black water from a spring that came from the river of the Underworld, the Styx. As Psyche climbed the mountain, she was attacked by dragons. At that point, an eagle, who was a friend of Eros, come to her aid and brought the water on her behalf. At that point Aphrodite ordered Psyche to fill a box with the beauty cream used by Hades' wife Persephone as a fourth feat. Psyche descended into the Underworld and met Persephone. The goddess immediately filled the box with the balm and Psyche returned safely from the realm of the dead. However, she could not overcome her curiosity and opened the box. As a result, she fell into a deep sleep.


Figure 5: Psyche appealing in vain to Juno.

Meanwhile, Eros had recovered from his burn. Filled with lust for Psyche, he escaped from the room his mother had imprisoned him in, found his beloved and helped her carrying out her mission. He then flew up to Zeus to beg him to approve his marriage with Psyche. Zeus agreed to Eros' request and called the gods together to inform them of his decision. He made Psyche immortal and blessed the marriage. Eros and Psyche remained married and had a daughter, Voluptas.


In the centre of the ceiling of the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche, Zeus is presented uniting the two spouses, surrounded by all the heroes of the myth. Vasari praised Romano for this fresco, both for his use of light and the perspective he gave to the scene. He pointed out how the artwork manages to trick the eye of the beholder and looks like something real. Undoubtedly, this fresco reveals the artist's ability to manipulate light and perspective in a quite complex composition with many characters (Vasari & Bull, 1971).

Figure 6: Wedding of Cupid and Psyche.

In the Chamber of Cupid and Psyche, the composition is more complex and lyrical. In addition, the main subject is often projected into the background, shifting the action elsewhere and creating a sense of confusion. However, although Romano's style is considered more mannerist, the connection with the Renaissance is made through the use of the myth of Eros and Psyche, which has a central place in Neoplatonic philosophy (Hartt, 1950). Apuleius was a Platonist, so his myth acts as an allegorical and moral tale, reaching Neoplatonic philosophy. This philosophy is mainly captured through the narration, with the path of the labyrinth followed by Psyche, which represents the human soul. While she is in an intermediate state in the world of ideasrepresented by the octagonsshe falls with Eros and the material body. Only through much effort does she manage to reach the top, in the centre of the ceiling, achieving eternal immortality. Such an interpretation is also given by Christianism, with the example of Adam and Eve who were expelled from Paradise.


The paradox is that while both Romano and Gonzaga certainly knew this philosophy, the Chamber of Psyche was created with a different kind of allegory in mind. According to the sources, the room, like the entire Palazzo del Te, was dedicated to Isabella Boschetti. She was the daughter of a courtier of the Gonzaga house, with whom he had a secret bond. Their love was forbidden since, as a Marquis, he was forced to marry for political reasons, and Boschetti did not have a high position, so his mother, Isabella of Este, did not approve this relationship. Gonzaga married three times, thanks to which he became Duke of Mantua and acquired additional land. Nevertheless, this element of the life of the customer, Federico Gonzaga, was symbolized through the myth of Eros and Psyche. He was Cupid, Isabella Boschetti was Psyche, while his mother was depicted as Aphrodite, who forbids the two lovers to be together. The happy ending of the myth, depicted in a bucolic landscape, is what the benefactor desired for his own story. The reason why the Chamber of Psyche was created was to be dedicated to his secret desire. After all, his mother was an educated woman who had an excellent collection of artists' works in her Studiolo in Mantua, including mythological and allegorical content, such as Cupid and Psyche. Therefore, it is almost certain that Federico Gonzaga himself could have had access to them or other Neoplatonist ideas.


Figure 7: Second test of Psyche.

In conclusion, the Chamber of Psyche located in the Palazzo del Te in Mantua is a room capable of enchanting anyone who sees it. Giulio Romano worked closely with his client Federico Gonzaga to create the architecture and the rooms that make it up. At Palazzo del Te, rooms have been created, each with its style, conveying a distinct message according to the intended purpose. The Chamber of Psyche is one of the most special, prominent room, which served as a recreational room for the important guests of the Duke of Mantua. It is a space that exudes eroticism and can preoccupy with its decoration for those who enter and stay in it. The myth of Eros and Psyche was one of the most beloved subjects of Neoplatonism, in terms of its allegories, for this reason, it was known to many people of the upper class.


Bibliography:

Primary Sources: Apuleius. (2021). The Golden Asse. OTB eBook publishing. Vasari, G. & Bull, G. (1971). The lives of the artists. Penguin. Secondary Sources: Erbesato, G. (1987). Guide to Palazzo Te. Edizione Moretti. Forster, K. & Tuttle, R. (1971). The Palazzo del Te. Journal Of The Society Of Architectural Historians, 30(4), 267-293. https://doi.org/10.2307/988701. Hartt, F. (1950). Gonzaga symbols in the Palazzo del Te. New York University. Hartt, F. (1958). Giulio Romano. Yale University. Palazzo Te English version. Fondazione Palazzo Te. (2022). Retrieved 1 July 2022, from https://www.centropalazzote.it/language/en/palazzo-te-home-english/. Verheyen, E. (1972). Die Malereien in der Sala di Psiche des Palazzo del Te. Jahrbuch Der Berliner Museen, 14, 33. https://doi.org/10.2307/4125695.

Visual Sources:




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Leonidas Michailidis

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