Public property, accessible
Foto Luigi Briselli
In the southern part of the city, not far from Palazzo San Sebastiano, stands Palazzo Te, a splendid suburban villa, built between 1524 and 1534 by Giulio Romano for Federico II Gonzaga, considered a jewel of Italian late Renaissance culture.
The building, which is municipal property, is today a museum and venue of the Palazzo Te International Art and Culture Centre; square plan and low, it consists of four bodies characterized by façades decorated with fake rustication with giant pilasters and columns, arranged around a central courtyard, and a large back garden enclosed by an exedra; green spaces and areas are dotted around it.
The complex is now part of the city's urban fabric; originally, however, the vast area was an island, the island of Teieto, surrounded by the waters of Lake Paiolo, a privileged place of court leisure, just outside the town walls close to Porta Pusterla which allowed it direct access. The prince’s family went there for pleasure and rest, often accompanied by guests entertained by hunting opportunities. Here, Francis II created a vast rustic complex with stables for his most precious horses and mansion, later incorporated into the villa wanted by his son Federico as a haven for leisure, a noble residence dedicated to festivals, ceremonies, large receptions, a function that was perfectly inaugurated with the sumptuous welcome of Emperor Charles V in 1530, to an incomplete palace.
Interpreting the tastes and desires of Federico II, Giulio Romano, the unique and ingenious creator, knew how to combine eccentrically, provocatively and unexpectedly the elements of the spatial and architectural composition with the splendid decorative frescos, the stuccoes of refined workmanship, the friezes in the creation of a work that, in keeping with the image of the ancient Roman villa reinterpreted by Renaissance painters, were in tune with the surrounding landscape. From the very beginning the palace and the context were seen as one: the design and interior decoration and gardens were accompanied by the reorganization of the greenery over the whole island, creating a rich and complex configuration, updated to the taste and fashion of the time in a mix of typologically diverse solutions, from the secret garden to the labyrinth, from the representative spaces to the productive areas.
Of the complex and articulated system of gardens and green areas that characterized the interior and surrounded Palazzo Te, there are still boundaries, shapes and traces that remind one of the ancient splendour. Even today, the impressive, solemn and bright Loggia di Davide looks over the great Garden of Esedra, the main garden beyond the ponds, where today the parterres are kept as simple lawns, recall a space conceived as the hortus conclusus of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, with the widespread presence of fruit trees between flowers and ornamental shrubs; a space limited by the exedra, realized during the seventeenth century as the fifth perspective but at the same time a link between the interior space of the garden and the wide surrounding expanse, long enjoyed by the court and then by the citizens as an agreeable contour to the villa.
On the sides of the exedra stand the apartment of the Secret Garden, or of the Grotto, wanted by Federico as a remote appendage of the villa dedicated to "honest idleness", and that of the Gardener where, albeit altered, a vegetable garden or a covered garden came up to us. In the Secret Apartment built in the early thirties of the sixteenth century, the loggia, entirely decorated with naturalistic elements, opens onto a small garden whose layout resembles that of the nineteenth century but restores nature to the place, a space dedicated to meditation, to the witty quotations from classical sources, to be shared with intimate friends and chosen visitors. Privacy inside the walls meant protection from outside looks, but did not want to divert the visitor's pleasure of the outside view. Fake architectural perspectives, views, pictorial or plastic images of accentuated naturalism allowed the eye to overcome physical barriers towards broad, realistic or fairy-tale horizons. The loggia that brought a miraculous effect to Federico’s small secret space, also included a small, elevated loggia still today featuring a Venetian window from which one could contemplate the picturesque expanse of exterior gardens, that have now partially disappeared or have been greatly altered.
(From U. Bazzotti, I giardini di Palazzo Te e dell’isola del Teieto, in I giardini dei Gonzaga 2018, pp. 288-305; P. Carpeggiani, Il labirinto di verzura sull’isola del Teieto, in I giardini dei Gonzaga 2018, pp. 305-307)