‘This credenza…is adorned with festoons of verdure and flowers, and all covered with vines laden with bunches of grapes and leaves, under which are three rows of bizarre vases, basins, drinking-cups, tazze, goblets, and other things of that kind in various forms and fantastic shapes, and so lustrous, that they seem to be of real silver and gold…’
(Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists)
Giulio Romano. La Forza delle Cose at the Palazzo Te, Mantua, examines Giulio Romano’s work as a designer of metalwork under the patronage of the Gonzaga court from 1524 to 1546. A large number of his drawings have been gathered here, as well as his rarely-loaned portrait of Alexander the Great (Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva) which I stumbled across in Geneva in 2019.
Designs for decorative objects by Michelangelo and Francesco Salviati have also been included for extra context, contrasting their emphasis on the human figure with Giulio’s inventive approach to animals and plants. 11 sheets from the Strahov Codex (Strahov Monastery, Prague) reveal the extent of his commissions; it contained many drawings for projects by Giulio’s workshop, and was sold by his son to Jacopo Strada.
The exhibition’s unique charm is the reconstruction of five table silverware designs by Giulio into physical objects – a salt shaker supported by goats licking the salt, a pair of duck-billed tongs, etc. – none of which are known to survive, possibly melted down in desperate times. These have been brilliantly facilitated by Factum Foundation.
Another highlight is the reunion of Charles V’s parade shield (Real Armería de Madrid) with Giulio’s original drawing (Teylers Museum, Haarlem), the only known case where both objects have come down to us. This is part of a section on arms and armoury, whose ornamented repertoire with scrolling leaves and grotteschi added greater vivacity to luxury objects.
Set within the frescoed halls of the Palazzo Te, this seemingly immersive exhibition breathes life into an underappreciated genre of Renaissance art, one that captures the imagination with whimsical creations designed to entertain the upper classes and imbue the ruling class with the illusion of power.