by Roderick Conway Morris

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Palazzo Te, Mantua
Detail of frescoes by Giulio Romano in the Amor and Psyche room at Palazzo Te, Mantua

Giulio Romano and the Erotic Revolution

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA 3 December 2019


For a brief period in the second and third decades of the sixteenth century, the rediscovery of ancient Roman art by Italian artists, intellectuals and connoisseurs stimulated an astonishing proliferation of erotic images. In the vanguard of this revolution was Giulio Romano, who began his career in Raphael's studio and moved after his master's death to Mantua, a city he transformed both architecturally and artistically.

Mantua is now the venue of two fascinating exhibitions devoted to the artist: Giulio Romano: Art and desire at Palazzo Te, which he designed, built and adorned with an unparalleled cycle of erotic frescoes; and, at the city's old Ducal Palace, where he also left his mark, 'Con nuova e stravagante maniera': Giulio Romano in Mantua.

The excavation and re-assessment of Roman remains led, in more cultivated circles, to an acceptance of the nude in the depiction of ancient gods and goddesses, which then legitimized artists' more widespread adoption of the nude in historical, mythological and biblical settings. Raphael's Roman studio was a leading exponent in the use of male and female nude models for life drawing, which underpinned so many of its productions. The Roman-born Giulio, who joined the studio in around 1514, proved himself the most outstanding of all Raphael's many able apprentices and played a significant role in realizing most of his master's major projects, both before and after Raphael's untimely death, in 1520, attributed by Giorgio Vasari to excessive sexual activity.

As Raphael's designated heir, Giulio inherited Raphael's highly efficient studio system, which had enabled the master to deliver a plethora of commissions. Raphael had come early to appreciate the appeal of prints to collectors and their role in spreading his fame, and the production of superb prints, by a team headed by the pioneering engraver of genius Marcantonio Raimondi, became an integral part of the activities of his studio. After inheriting its management, in around 1524, Giulio produced I Modi ('The Positions'), a series of sixteen exquisitely executed drawings – virtuoso exercises in the representation of human bodies from every angle – of couples copulating in various configurations, entirely devoid of any of the usual mythological trappings.

Raimondi's engravings of the 'Modi' were eagerly snapped up by other artists and connoisseurs, as was a subsequent edition with the addition of obscene verses by the literary bad boy of the era, Pietro Aretino. The ensuing scandal led to the imprisonment of Raimondi, the destruction of the plates and all the printed copies that could be seized. This censorship was so efficient that only fragments of the originals now survive. Consequently, the only edition available to the current Palazzo Te exhibition is a much cruder set, and drastically reduced in terms of size, of fifteen woodcuts of the original 'Modi' with Aretino's verses, from around 1556.

However, as the show amply illustrates, the impact of the 'Modi' and the impetus they gave to other contemporary artists to produce more risqué works was incalculable. The poses from the 'Modi' and variations on them turn up again and again during this period not only in drawings, paintings, and prints, but in luxurious decorative works, such as tapestries and maiolica. In the late 1520s, Erasmus fulminated against the ubiquity of classical and erotic images favoured by Rome's elite. But, after the Sack of Rome (1527–8), a new puritanism took hold, with censorship of the erotic codified by successive Councils of Trent from 1545 onwards.

Another of Raphael's students, Perino del Vaga, clearly drew on the 'Modi' for his toned-down prints of 'The Loves of the Gods' of around 1527, but tellingly these prudently put their amorous scenes firmly back into mythological settings. Nonetheless, even the great Michelangelo was not above drawing on Giulio's 'Modi', as witnessed by his 'Leda and the Swan' of the 1530s. The poses even inspired those of some of the figures in his 'Last Judgement' of 1541, in the Sistine Chapel, whose nakedness attracted opprobrium – possibly fuelled by some of his clerical critics' familiarity with Giulio and Raimondi's original prints – that led to the subsequent veiling of the fresco's nudes with drapery.

Giulio Romano left Rome in 1524, around the same time the 'Modi' were first published. He was fortunate in having found a patron in Mantua finely attuned to erotic art: Federico II Gonzaga made him master of all the state's works, a post the artist held until his death in 1546. Giulio's masterpiece, both architectural and artistic, was his creation, for Federico, of Palazzo Te, a suburban villa inspired by ancient Roman models and also by the contemporary buildings the artist had worked on with Raphael, notably those now known as the Villas Madama and Farnesina. Below the gardens of the latter were some of the finest surviving ancient erotic frescoes, which Giulio and his colleagues, it is clear, had studied closely long before they were excavated in the nineteenth century.

Palazzo Te was Federico's special resort to enjoy the company of his life-long mistress Isabella Boschetti – and the Amor and Psyche room contains a panoply of erotic images in classical guises. The most startling of these features Jove as a sea-god, prodigiously endowed and visibly aroused, about to penetrate Olimpia, the mother of Alexander the Great. This almost certainly alludes to Federico's passionate relationship with Isabella, who had borne him a son, Alexander, in 1519.

In his 'Lives of the Artists' of 1556, Vasari wrote of Giulio that, of all Raphael's pupils, none was 'more well-grounded, intrepid, assured, fanciful, expansive, prolific and universal'. In 1541 the Florentine had the opportunity to appreciate Giulio's works at first hand, writing admiringly of the beautiful proportions of Palazzo Te and of his spectacular decorations of its vaults 'con nuova e stravagante maniera' ('in a new and extraordinary manner') – a description from which the second exhibition, at the Ducal Palace, takes its title.

Vasari also had the opportunity to study Giulio's drawings, praising him as an absolute master of 'disegno', a concept that then embraced both invention and execution. The Louvre now has the largest collection of Giulio's graphic works, representing every stage in his career, and an exceptional loan of over seventy of these (with additional pieces from other collections) offers a vivid, immersive picture of the infinite variety of his imagination and of his skills as a draughtsman.

Nor was Vasari was the only commentator of the era to highlight speed in drawing as a sign of excellence, indeed it echoed the notion of 'sprezzatura', that recklessness, élan and panache that characterized the natural aristocrat. But in Giulio's case speed was clearly a matter of necessity, since he was responsible for so many projects simultaneously. Indeed, although his drawings came to be valued even during his lifetime as artworks in themselves, Giulio appears to have regarded them as above all a means to an end. However, they are also records of his most intense moments of invention and creativity, which lends them an unusual immediacy and vibrancy even to this day.

'Giulio Romano: Art and Desire' is at Palazzo Te, and 'Con nuova e stravagante maniera: Giulio Romano in Mantua' at the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, both 6 October 2019 - 6 January 2020

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023