Artibus et Historiae no. 36 (XVIII)

1997, ISSN 0391-9064

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PAULA CARABELL - Breaking the Frame: Transgression and Transformation in Giulio Romano's Sala dei Giganti

Described by Giorgio Vasari (Vite, 1568) as a "fearsome and terrible sight", the Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo del Tè in Mantua derives its power from its unusual pictorial structure. More than any other work of the Cinquecento, it extends the Albertian notion that painting is like a window in order to exist as a fully autonomous spatial continuum that transforms the spectator into an active participant. Not surprisingly, this potent form of illusionist held a special fascination for those who frequented the court of the Gonzaga. The Sala dei Giganti was not, however, only appreciated for its ability to conquer the two dimensionality of the picture plane, but was admired because its virtual lack of perimeters forced the viewer to transgress the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. Its unique structure enabled the beholder to enter into an acutely visceral and absorptive relationship with representational space and allowed him to experience more fully the atmosphere of hedonism for which the palace was famous. But such a reduction of the liminal field did not merely provide the visitor with a novel and pleasant diversion; it also instilled in him a sense of the uncanny by decentering his status as viewer. This notion not only finds confirmation in written accounts by such 16th century visitors to Mantua as Giorgio Vasari, Jacopo Strada, and Giovanni Battista Armenini, but is recorded in pictorial form as well. The fame of the Sala dei Giganti rests, therefore, not only upon its ability to offer the viewer a Narcissistically-based experience of delight, but also upon its capacity to revive in him the fearsome memory of his own undifferentiated beginnings, that time when the ego was one with its surroundings.

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