Palace of Te at the Finger Tips

by Loretta Secchi

Study and achievement of accessible itineraries in the city of Mantua, at the Palace of Te and the San Sebastian Palace.

For some months, in Mantua, an imposing project on museum accessibility has been taking place, under the full care of the Institute for the Blind Francesco Cavazza, and dedicated to the Palace of Te, a Gonzaga dwelling which preserves one of the most valuable fresco cycle of Italian mannerism, and in the Mantua's City Museum, hosted in the San Sebastian Palace. These two outstanding venues will host from now on a permanent exhibit designed for a broad range of users, specifically thought for people living with vision loss. The exhibit will be fully integrated to the traditional visit. The Palace of Te is a classic example of the Renaissance architecture, an ancient villa designed to be a luxury countryside residence dedicated to the regeneration of the spirit and the Prince's leasures. It is important to recall that it was designed and decorated for the Duke Federico II Gonzaga by the well-known architect Giulio Romano.

Picture of a painting by Andrea Mantegna: The Lamentation over the Dead Christ - Brera Picture Gallery in Milano

The objective of the research, which combined theory and practice, was to make accessible the fresco paintings of this important artist and those of his School. It required a precise evaluation of the criteria which would translate the painting into an aesthetic equivalent perceptible to the touch and intellectually comprehensible, creating a project centred on breaking down sensory barriers. The study led to the permanent location, in eight rooms of the Palace, of bas relief perspectives which translate some of the most significant fresco scenes taken from the decorations which embellish the Renaissance dwelling. At the entrance, two visual and tactile maps, developped with the CiVis method, guide visitors who are blind and visually impaired, providing orientation information about the noble rooms, the functional location of bas relief representations and a map of the city of Mantua. The fresco cycle of the Palace of Te is a whole project ingeniously developed through rooms and halls, portraying mythological, biblical and astrological subjects of great cultural value and strong emotional impact. To fully appreciate the aesthetic meaning, it was necessary to recreate descriptive cards and an audioguide respecting the autonomy and enjoyment of visitors living with vision loss and their cognitive requirements. For this reason, the use of various levels of thematic depth, supporting the tactile exploration of the aids along with the training of reception staff and tour guides.

Through the study of the aesthetic values and the stylistic variations of the frescos in the halls, it was possible to plan and create the different bas reliefs which allowed for the understanding of the spatial and expressive composition of the Renaissance mannerist paintings, the creations, the audacious perspectives, the visual narration. The hall of Ovid or the Metamorphosis, where the visit begins, presents the famous scene of the intercession relating to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, that will allow the experience of touch because of the bas relief in the same room translating the lyrical fresco. In the same way, the strength of the Imprese, emblems of the Gonzaga Court formed by a body, corresponding to the imagination, and by a soul, corresponding to the saying, will be understood through the tactile exploration of two symbolic images dedicated to the themes of romantic passion and faithfulness.

Picture of a tridimensional translation in bas relief of the painting by Mantegna - At the Anteros Tactile Museum at the Cavazza in Bologna.

The tour goes on through the Camera del Sole e della Luna, where two charriots, metaphore of the day and the night, are chasing each other standing out on a window that introduces the zenithal vision from the bottom and to the perception of movement, sign of the unceasing passage of time. The Sala dei Cavalli shows life-size portraits of some of the Gonzaga horses, a representation of the Morel Favorito steed with a rural landscape as a background. The esthetic translation of the glorious horse will make all children happy to stroke the proud profile. The Camera di Psiche moves the visitor with the tale of Apuleius, in the narration of the Nymph who, thirsty for knowledge, inquisitiveness and heedlessness loses and finds Eros: the selected scene, translated into a tactile model, could not be anything else but Psyche Discovers Eros. The Camera dei Venti, a complex and imaginative representation of the ancient astrological doctrine, presents an inscription in Latin taken from Juvenal: DISTAT ENIM QUAE SIDERA TE EXIPIANT, indicating It depends on what stars will welcome you (at birth) or: Since it has not been decided what stars can get hold of you. The belief for which the astral influence would be determinant in the constitution of the character, the attitude, the behaviour of people explains the presence of sixteen medallions illustrating how human life is under the influence of the constellations of the Zodiac.

Picture of a relief exhibited in the San Sebastian Palace in Mantua

Picture of a tactile map of the city of Mantua

Picture of a tactile reading of the relief Fall of the Giants

Picture of a detail of the dome vault of the Camera dei Giganti - Palace of Te in Mantua

One of the these sculptures in the round was done in bas relief so that it could be perceived by the touch and penetrated in its complex symbology. La Loggia Di Davide reminds the visitor of the depth of biblical teaching for which force is the understanding of the opponent, never haughtiness, and here is the tridimensional translation offered of the scene in lunette: it is the image of David Killing Goliath.
The tour ends with the Camera dei Giganti. An extendable tactile model masterfully reproduces the architecture and complexity of decoration while a bas relief in perspective presents, with extraordinary efficiency, the evocative scene of the Fall of the Giants. In the tactile exploration of the model, it seems that one is immersed in a space that envelops and stuns the visitor, suggesting sensations of collapse decreasing only when close to the olympic throne in the centre of the cupola. The reading of the Fall of the Giants, historical and political metaphore linked to the Gonzaga adventures, is still today a tormenting representation indicating the finality of things and of the need for human redemption which has always been pursued through art.