Fondazione Villa Emo Onlus
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BATTISTA ZELOTTI’S WORKS

VILLA EMO’S FRESCOES

Scholars attribute the frescoes in Villa Emo to the painter Battista Zelotti who was companion and collaborator of Paolo Veronese in the Hall of the Council of Ten. He also worked on the ceiling of the Marciana Library in Venice and on the Palladian construction sites for Villa Godi and Villa Foscari known as La Malcontenta.

 

The frescoes cycle was dated by scholars to around 1565, just before the wedding between Leonardo Emo, the client for the Villa, and Cornelia Grimani, that was celebrated on 12th June 1565. The newly weds were presumably the first inhabitants of the noble residence and it is thought that the villa and the cycle of frescoes had been completed by that time. Of the entire Palladian complex the main floor is the only frescoed part. It is divided into three sections: the two side ones are identical and are in turn divided into three different size rooms, the middle part consisting of the loggia, the vestibule and the hall that overlooks the countryside at the back. The absence of ornament in the barchesse and in the dovecotes suggests that it is a contrivance to highlight the solemn nobility of the central body. Furthermore the agricultural function of the barchesse might have contributed to the lack of it.

 

In the painting cycle at Villa Emo, images of pagan origin mainly taken from the inexhaustible repertoire of Ovid’s Metamorphoses combine with Christian subjects and episodes taken from Roman history: they are allegories that celebrate the subduing of passion and the triumph of marital virtues, according to the cultural and moral views of the Venetian landowning aristocracy in the 1500s.

 

Zelotti’s adhesion to the Mannerist style is evident in the decoration of Villa Emo, where we find a great variety of decorative detail that is organized in the three main registers: the base, the central area and the frieze. Mannerism is also the simulation of real elements like bronze, marble, stuccoes and the use of false architectural elements to house episodes or individual characters of the stories displayed. The series of paintings in Fanzolo surely shows an artist in his mature period from a stylistic-chromatic point of view and for his ability to create a magnificent and harmonious whole.

The Vestibule

From the loggia you get to the vestibule, a small passageway that allows you to reach the Central Hall. This area too has the fake marble base decoration which is found on the lower parts of the loggia’s walls. On both side walls there are two doors each a real one, that leads to a passageway, and a painted one. Between the doors there are two frescoes that simulate bronze statues contained in niches and identifiable in the allegories of Conjugal Harmony on the left and the Wise Administration of Domestic Assets on the right.

 

The Conjugal Harmony which has a similar iconography in the Iconology by Cesare Ripa (1593) is a bare breasted female figure, wrapped in Roman clothes who guards two hearts on fire which allude to marriage as the only legitimate form of love, with the bare breast referring to fertility and therefore to the couple’s offspring.

 

As for the Wise Administration of Domestic Assets, the female figure is wrapped in a Roman peplum, her hair in the style of lumachelle and holds a rotulo in her right hand. In this case the allegory has no counterpart in Ripa’s Iconology but rather in the matrimonial representations of Roman art, especially in the imperial age sarcophagi, where the nuptial rite was carved next to other important moments in the life of the deceased. The rotulo could then be interpreted as the tabulae nuptiales or libellus, that is the visible evidence of the marriage held by the groom during the celebration of the rite (as illustrated on the sarcophagi).

 

The decoration of the vestibule is completed by a mock pergola supported by wooden beams culminating in the barrel-vault with an oval opening, where a winged Cupid holds some white and some red roses which represent respectively purity and passion. The Grapevine is full of white and black grapes while the leaves are starting to get the typical autumnal colours.

The Room of the Arts
 

The Room of the Arts, placed in the south area of the left wing of the villa, adjacent to the Loggia and connected to it, is so called because its walls are frescoed with the allegories of the Arts. This room, the only one that does not have a theme taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is decorated with a frieze that is enriched with images of putti who play straddled on garlands of flowers and fruit, and is supported by slender Corinthian columns that are resting on bases of average height with frames and panels of fake marble. It is these columns that mark the spaces on the walls where Zelotti represented the six allegories: Astronomy and Architecture on the north wall, Music and Sculpture on the east wall, Poetry and Painting on the south wall.

 

On the north wall Astronomy intently gazes at the sky wearing a robe that she holds with her left hand and that leaves one of her shoulders and one of her breasts uncovered. All around are her work tools: the compass that she holds in her right hand and the armillary sphere resting on the rock. Architecture is next, sitting near to classical ruins. While observing the ground she holds a treatise in her left hand and with the right one points to the plan of a building that is presented in the book itself. Some scholars think that the treatise could be The Four Books on Architecture by Palladio and the plan might be just that of Villa Emo, alluded to in the allegory, almost as if it wanted to suggest to the visitor where they are. The personifications of Architecture and Astronomy, represented symmetrically, seem to form a matching pair: one that observes and studies the earth, and the other the sky.

 

On the east wall there is Music who plays the lute among some ancient ruins, and next there is Sculpture that is easily recognizable as she is busy sculpting a statue of white marble with a hammer and a chisel.

 

On the south wall there is Poetry dressed in a long blue cloak, her head crowned with laurel and a lyre securely held in her left hand. The Lyre is a typical attribute of Poetry as it was the favourite instrument of poets who spoke their rhymes accompanied by its melodic sound; the laurel crown represents the aim of the poets which is getting famous through their verses. Next is Painting, which is represented as a young woman with multicoloured clothes; she sits on a little decorated chair and is busy painting what could possibly be the figure of an old prophet or a priest from the Old Testament.

 

The six Arts have been masterfully frescoed by Zelotti who, representing them in different positions, has given the room a dynamic dimension and has also succeeded in giving depth to the paintings through the use of ruins and painted windows that allow the viewer a glimpse of blue skies. The theme of the Arts can be easily connected to the lifestyle in the villa, because dedicating oneself to the Arts was considered an ideal occupation for a gentleman who, in so doing, would enrich and ennoble his soul.

 

In the middle of the east and west walls, facing each other, are the allegories of Summer and Winter both painted in gold-yellow monochrome; they are enclosed in false niches bordered by a festoon of roses and framed by Corinthian columns supporting a broken gable. On the east wall above the door that leads to the loggia there is the allegory of Summer represented as a young, strong, healthy looking woman with a crown of ears of corn on her head and a sheaf of wheat beside her, a well-wishing element for a farm-villa. On the west wall over the fireplace there is the allegory of Winter, represented as a fascinating and mysterious character wearing a hat and a long cloak that almost completely hides his face as if to suggest the idea of the freezing winter in the villa.

 

In the middle of the north wall above the door that leads to the grotesque dressing room, inside a false architectural structure hanging from a painted ribbon, is a little painting representing The Holy Family. In the foreground, in front of an emerald green tent, a young Madonna holds in her arms a little baby Jesus who is playing with the hem of his mother’s dress, while she is trying to cover him with a white sheet. Behind them, Joseph, seen from behind, looks towards the baby. The fact that The Holy Family is in the Room of the Arts means that the time dedicated to studies and the practice of the arts in the villa, contributes to highlight the importance of values such as family life, affections, concord and sobriety, away from the falsehood and the depravity of city life.

The Grotesque Dressing Room - East Side

The two Grotesques dressing rooms are placed symmetrically in the west and east area of the villa, at the sides of the vestibule that leads to the respective passageways. In the dressing rooms of Villa Emo they are in paired panels that are repeated on the opposite wall; they are identical but in reversed position.

 

In the east dressing room are represented the land symbol or Proserpina and the aquatic one or Anfitrite.

 

The Land Grotesque is represented by a small statue of Proserpina who stands for fodder and therefore for the wheat crop. The goddess stands under a pergola of pomegranate with a thyrsus and a plate full of fruit in her hands. In the top part there are two winged cupids who support bunches of flowers and fruit and a mask. In the bottom part there are two satyrs and a gem with a small figure holding a sickle engraved on it. This is probably the personification of Death. The grotesque is further embellished by other decorative motifs like ears of corn, flowers and little vases.

 

In the Water Grotesque or Anfitrite two satirical masks support a canopy at both ends of which are two putti with green wings; they support a fishing line with three fishes taking the bait and two turtles hanging from it. Under the pavilion we can see The triumph of Anfitrite, wife of Neptune, who leads a dolphin by its tail. The goddess is surrounded by a pergola of leaves and red flowers, and next to her are two obelisks topped by a globe with three flames. Below the goddess inside a gem there is the image of a woman leaning on a cane. The Gorgon’s head is hanging from the gem and has at its sides two war trophies that are interpreted as symbols of the Emo family’s victory at sea.

 

The ideal connection between the two symmetrical dressing rooms takes place by way of shared symbolism: the Scales, painted on the walls that continue towards the passageways and from there to the vestibule, and the representations on the east and west walls, that is Time and Poetry.

 

The Scales Grotesque is composed of a complex interweaving of motifs. There is the head of a bearded soothsayer with his head covered in bandages and plumes from which bloomed stems emanate, interwoven with violet ribbons. Starting from the top and placed symmetrically are two satyrs, two bronze anthropomorphic individuals that support on their heads baskets full of flowers and a burning torch together with a quiver. In the middle of the grotesque there is a large violet cameo surrounded by anthropomorphic figures: women whose lower limbs have been replaced by long green leaves with stems and flowers emanating from them; their necks are long, slender and twisted together. The cameo is placed in the centre of the long and thin arms of a scale whose fulcrum is a female figure with a veiled head, an impassive face, her belly covered with Roman armour and her breast uncovered. At the end of both arms of the scale are two small weights. At the sides of the female figure that acts as a support for the scale there are also two heraldic panthers (symbol of fertility) and two dragonflies (symbol of speed).

The Room of Jupiter and Io

 

The Room of Jupiter and Io situated in the south area of the right wing of the villa, adjacent to the Loggia and connected to it, is characterised by walls subdivided by slender Corinthian columns that are resting on a base decorated with panels of fake marble. The architraves of doors and windows are also decorated with false frames. The painting cycle in this hall tells the love story between Jupiter and Io taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The narration starts from the northern wall with the fresco on the left that represents the scene in which Jupiter, having fallen in love with Io, daughter of Inaco, king of Argo, tries to win the girl’s heart and seduce her. The two protagonists sitting on a rock and standing close together in a tender embrace are caught in the act of exchanging a kiss. The father of the gods is recognizable from the eagle, his traditional attribute, that holds in its beak Jupiter’s blazing flame. Behind the two lovers a thick blanket of clouds created by Jupiter to prevent his wife Juno from discovering his betrayal. However, we can see how Jupiter has not succeeded in his intent because among the clouds we can identify Juno’s bust who covertly manages to spy on her husband. Next is the second scene: Jupiter caught by Juno, turns Io into a heifer in the vain attempt to hide his lover from Juno’s eyes. In this fresco which is set next to the ruins of an ancient building, we can see Juno who asks her husband to give her the heifer as a gift, while Jupiter does not agree to her request.

 

The narration continues on the southern wall where, on the left, we can see Juno who hands Io to Argo. Once she has obtained the heifer from Jupiter, the goddess, with an eloquent gesture of her left hand, orders the hundred-eyed giant to keep an eye on it. Argo, represented from behind, is about to tie a rope around the neck of the heifer so that it could not run away. In the second fresco on the same wall, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, sent by Jupiter tries to put Argo to sleep with the sweet sound of his flute, so that he can free Io: a very hard task since Argo only slept resting two eyes at a time while the other ninety-eight stayed open and alert.


The end of the story is represented on the eastern wall where, on the left, is depicted the scene of the victorious Mercury who decapitates Argo, while Io, hiding behind a tree, gets ready to run away free. The last scene sees Juno wrapped in a very bright cloud and sitting on a chariot pulled by two peacocks, who arrives too late to help her faithful guardian Argo. In the fresco we can also see that the two peacocks have not yet got their characteristic beautiful plumage. According to the myth in fact Juno will pick up Argo’s one hundred eyes and will spread them on the tail of the bird giving it the well-known appearance, and will take this animal as her own symbol. The presence of Juno in the frescoes in this hall, emphasised also by the monochrome bust of the goddess frescoed in the lunette above the southern window, signifies the goddess’s protection, as guardian of conjugal virtues, over the whole family.

In the middle of the east and west walls, facing each other, are the allegories of Spring and Autumn both painted in gold-yellow monochrome; they are enclosed in false niches bordered by a festoon of roses and framed by Corinthian columns supporting a broken gable. On the western wall above the door that leads to the loggia there is the allegory of Autumn represented as a young Bacchus, with his head crowned by vine branches and clusters of grapes. On the eastern wall, over the fireplace, there is the allegory of Spring, clearly recognizable from the numerous flowers that frame her head and appear from the folds of her dress. The allegories of the seasons allude to one of the fundamental themes in the cycle of life of the villa-farm: that of fields cultivation and are completed by the allegories of Winter and Summer frescoed in the symmetrical Hall of the Arts.

 

In the middle of the northern wall above the door that leads to the grotesque dressing-room, inside a false architectural structure, hanging from a painted ribbon there is a little painting representing the Ecce Homo: that is Jesus presented to the crowds after the flagellation and derision by the soldiers. It is a half-length portrait of Christ in the foreground, his hands tied with a rope, his strong and muscular torso covered with countless wounds and a crown of thorns around his head. The gaze of Christ turned downward is highly expressive. At the sides are two male figures: the man on the left wears a shiny armour, the one on the right an oriental costume; both of them with a hard and serious expression on their faces. The humiliation of Christ in this image seems to suggest the enormous suffering and sacrifice that are needed to defeat passions.

Battista Zelotti
(Verona 1526 - Mantova 1578)

Battista Zelotti carried out his artistic training together with Paolo Caliari, the famous Veronese, both in Verona and on some important youth works, extra urbe. He learned his technique and style in the best art studios in Verona, like that of Antonio Badile, Soon though he unloosed himself from the local environment and enriched his own painting with the new ways of Mannerism that had developed in central Italy and whose stylistic innovations had reached Venice thanks to Salviati and Vasari’s stay in the town and also through Schiavone’s engravings.

 

Very soon the artist started to dedicate himself to complex pictorial interventions: among the most relevant commissions, dating between the fifth or sixth decade, should be mentioned the cycles of frescoes for the Palazzo of Iseppo da Porto, in which Zelotti took part with Veronese, and the one for Francesco da Porta’s villa at Thiene.

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Around the same period the two companions realised the cycle in Villa Soranzo at Sant’Andrea beyond the river Muson of Castelfranco, surviving fragments of which are today kept in the Sacristy of the town’s Cathedral. Having gained great appreciation inland, Zelotti was then offered important commissions, notably from the Serenissima Republic, and these again were realized with his companion, Veronese. Among the others it is worth mentioning the decoration of the Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci and that of the room of the Three Heads in the Palazzo Ducale; the tondos in the Marciana Library and the façade of Palazzo Cappello, overlooking the Canal Grande. In the same years Zelotti was also commissioned to do some major work in Vicenza which was a town that regularly turned to him for important jobs like the realization of some of the frescoes of the Monte di Pietà. Still around Vicenza together with Palladio, Zelotti worked at Palazzo Chiericati (1557-58) and at Villa Pojana in Pojana Maggiore (around 1558).

 

He also realized numerous paintings or cycles of paintings with a religious theme like, for example, the frescoes and the Assunta altar piece for the Abbey of Santa Maria of Praglia in the Padua area, and a number of altar pieces for churches in the Vicenza area. From 1560 Zelotti worked predominantly on entire cycles of frescoes in places around Venice, Vicenza, Padua and Treviso: among the most relevant are the painting cycles at: Villa Emo in Fanzolo; Villa Foscari, called The Malcontenta in Mira; Villa Roberti in Brugine; Villa Godi in Lonedo; Villa Caldogno in Caldogno; Castello degli Obizzi, called the Catajo, in Battaglia Terme; Villa Da Porto in Torri di Quartesolo.

 

During the last years of his life, probably from 1575, thanks to his expertise in the architectural field, witnessed by the extraordinary false architectural elements in his paintings, the artist was offered the prestigious position of Prefect of the ducal factories in Mantua, a role he held till his death. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Loggia
 

Going up the wide entrance staircase you reach the Loggia, sheltered between the two lateral rooms. The exterior is conceived like an ancient Greek temple with four slender Doric columns that support a simple entablature with a smooth frieze and a triangular gable holding the Emo family’s coat of arms which is supported by two winged Victories made by Alessandro Vittoria. In stark contrast with the sober façade of the villa, devoid of other statues and without cornices or mouldings at the windows, the loggia, which precedes the access to the rooms of the villa, is richly frescoed.

 

The northern central wall is defined by four Doric columns: two at the corners and two at the sides of the big entrance door above which, within a rectangle, Ceres, the ancient goddess of the earth and fertility, patron of crops, is depicted lying on her left side, and seems to welcome the guests. She is depicted as an allegory of agriculture with bare breast, the head surrounded by a crown made of ears of wheat among agricultural tools (the rustic cart, the rake, the plough and the hoe).

 

To the left and to the right of Ceres there are two monochromatic busts inside a shell: they are Juno and Callisto, namely the two feminine protagonists in the myth narrated on the loggia’s lateral walls.

 

The story narrated on the east and west wall is in fact the story from the second book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, of Jupiter’s love for the nymph Callisto who was consecrated to the goddess Diana. Ovid writes that Jupiter once saw the nymph sleeping in a forest and fell in love with her. He decided to seduce her by taking the appearance of the goddess Diana. Caught in the trap set up by the Father of the Gods, the poor nymph could not but submit to his will. She became pregnant and only a few months later she was found out by Diana and the other nymphs while bathing at a spring. The hunting goddess furious about the outrage and about what had happened cast Callisto away leaving her alone. The baby was born and named Arcade but at that time even Juno found out about the misdeed and sought revenge by turning the woman into a bear.

 

On the west wall of the loggia we can see the moment when Jupiter, disguised as Diana, easily recognizable in the seated woman thanks to the usual attributes of the hunting goddess (the quiver and the head surrounded by a little crescent moon), gets closer and seduces Callisto. The presence of Jupiter in the scene is signalled by the eagle with a lightening flash in its beak which are both attributes of the god. The second frame on the opposite wall represents Juno who furious punishes Callisto for the betrayal of her husband turning her into a bear: the nymph’s right hand is already changing to a furry brown paw.

The Central Hall

A large arcade leads to the square-shaped Central Hall. Its walls are decorated with false full-height Corinthian columns. Between the columns are placed the doors to the other rooms. Above these are frescoes representing two episodes of Roman history: on the west wall Scipio returns the captive princess to her father and fiancé, on the east wall The killing of Virginia. The episodes are taken from the collection of Exempla, by the Latin author Valerio Massimo, called Factorum et dictorum memorabilium libri IX in the chapter De continentia et abstinentia.

 

In The Killing of Virginia the fresco tells the story of the girl who, already betrothed, rejects the advances and gifts from the influential patrician Appio Claudio who wants to seduce her. Resenting the rejection from the honest girl, Appio decides to have Virginia through deceit and plans his sordid conspiracy with the help of one of his clients. The girl’s father prefers then to kill her and free her rather than sacrifice her virginity. The painter represents the moment immediately after: Appio Claudio, seated above the big stage which is placed in the upper part of the fresco, raises his hands in consternation. In front of him the body of the girl that has just been killed: her face already displaying the grey pallor of death. In the foreground, seen from behind, Virginia’s father runs hastily away holding a blood-stained knife in his hand.

 

On the opposite wall there is the well known theme of the Scipione’s magnanimity. When Scipione conquered Carthage he was offered a beautiful girl, who had been captured by the Roman soldiers. When Scipione heard that this girl was betrothed to Aluccio, a commander of the troops allied to Carthage, he sent for him and the girl’s father, and returned her. Gifts and money offered by the father as a ransom for his daughter were given back by Scipione to be used for the girl’s dowry. This fresco glorifies not only Scipione’s generosity but also his continence and chastity.

 

On either sides of these two pieces of Roman history are four false niches that contain four monochromatic figures: Jupiter with the flame and Juno with the peacock frame The killing of Virginia, while Neptune with the dolphin and Cibele with the lioness frame Scipione’s magnanimity. These divinities allude to the four primordial elements, fire, air, water and earth. Over the four elements hang intricate festoons of fruit and flowers that frame four little monochromatic squares of dubious interpretation.

 

Below the figures of the four elements, lying on the base frames, are just as many figures of Prigioni (slaves) , that, surrounded by arms, flags and shields, allude to the victories against the Turks, the French and the Germans associated with the Emo family’s feats on land and at sea. The Prigioni, are painted with the same commitment shown in the paintings of historical themes that are next to them, and are particularly relevant inside the central hall of villa Emo on account of the postures and the light effects that shape the bodies. Below the Prigioni on the high base, are represented four scenes of Triumphs in monochromatic gold-yellow. Each scene represents part of the long procession accompanying the victorious general as he enters Rome.

 

On the south wall that marks the access to the central hall from the vestibule, at the sides of the big entry archway there are two false Corinthian columns that support a gable from which two prosperous female figures stand out; they lie along the frames and represent the allegory of Prudence and Peace. Prudence holds a mirror in which her image is reflected: an indispensable tool to look inside oneself, observe one’s own soul and get to know one’s own strengths and weaknesses before acting. Peace has an olive branch in her right hand and a cornucopia in her left, which are the symbols of agricultural prosperity. At the sides of these allegories two monochromatic violet panels depict two stories taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the god Apollo’s love for the nymph Dafne (on the left) and the poetic competition between Apollo and Pan (on the right).

 

Under the two monochromes there are two false blind windows surrounded by frames, shelves, a gable and decorated with flower festoons. In the middle of the gable there are the monochromatic busts of Antonino Pio (on the left) and Julius Caesar (on the right). The same scheme is repeated on the north wall but the two windows are real; above them there are the two busts of Octavian and Pompeius; instead of the two monochromes there are other smaller windows that illuminate the entire hall. Over the large door overlooking the park there was once another window which has now been blocked to house the Emo family’s coat of arms.

The Room of Hercules

The Room of Hercules, situated to the north of the building in its left wing, is characterized by walls that are subdivided by Doric fluted columns that rest on a base decorated with painted marble panels. The architraves of doors and windows are also decorated with false frames.

This room is entirely dedicated to Hercules’s stories, as suggested by the three large panels which decorate the walls: Hercules embraces Dejanira, Hercules throws Lica into the sea (east wall) and Hercules at the stake (west wall). The frescoes are inspired by Hercules’s adventures as described by Ovid in the IX book of his Metamorphoses and have as a main theme Hercules’s transformation from man to god

 

Ovid narrates that, on his way back to his homeland with his spouse, Dejanira, Hercules was forced to wade the impetuous river Eveno. On this occasion the centaur Nesso offered to take Dejanira to the other bank but then tried to kidnap her at the end of the crossing. This first story is illustrated by Zelotti in the left panel on the east wall, where Hercules has just rejoined Dejanira after fatally injuring the centaur Nesso with poisoned arrows. The centaur lies dying at their feet, guilty of trying to steal Hercules’ s spouse during the crossing of the river.

 

Seeking revenge on Hercules, the centaur Nesso pretended to regret his actions and convinced Dejanira to keep his blood and spread it on her husband’s clothes as a magic filter to ensure the hero’s eternal fidelity. Many years went by and Hercules took part in many glorious deeds far away from his wife. One day Dejanira heard that, while away from home, her husband had become infatuated with the beautiful Iole, daughter of the king of Thessaly, Eurito. To regain her husband’s love, Dejanira, remembering the centaur’s words, decided to make him wear a vest soaked with Nesso’s blood and asked the unsuspecting slave Lica to deliver it. The fatal vest gave Hercules excruciating pains. He was so mad at Lica that he threw him into the sea as we can see in the second fresco on the east wall. Hercules with his usual characteristics (the club, the skin of the lion Nemea, and the quiver) is represented in the act of throwing into the water the poor Lica of whom we see only the legs and part of the vest.

 

The third representation, which is significantly placed above the hall’s fireplace, narrates the tragic end of the story. Hercules burns on the pyre while Filottete, whom he had ordered to light the fire to end his tragic pain, gets away from the fire holding the hero’s quiver, arc and arrows. In the plumes of the arches, are represented in gold monochrome, the personifications of the rivers, that, as already in classical art, are depicted as old bearded men pouring water from two swollen skins.

 

In the middle of the east wall above the door that leads to the central hall, the allegory of Fame, stands out, elegant and bright, against a background of variegated marble. It is represented as a woman covered only in a thin veil, with two big white wings and a long trumpet. This image clearly relates to the myth of Hercules as it is surrounded by the hero’s characteristics; the club, the skin of the lion Nemea, and the quiver.

 

In the middle of the south wall, above the door that leads to the Grotesque dressing room, we find a false golden cartouche that frames a panel with the sacred theme of Noli me tangere: a phrase uttered by the risen Jesus and addressed to Magdalene.

Grotesques Dressing Room - West Side

The word Grotesques derives from the grottos of the Esquiline hill in Rome where, around 1480, were discovered the buried remains of Nero’s Domus Aurea. The artists, new Renaissance speleologists, would climb down the hole at the top of the vault using some ropes and would admire, by candlelight, the magnificent frescoes from Imperial times in this peculiar pictorial style. This decoration was immediately imitated by the most famous artists of the time, including Raphael, and over the centuries became one of the milestones of decoration.

The Grotesques is a pictorial genre characterized by the total negation of space, by the presence of hybrid and monstrous beings, slender and unconventional figures, very colourful and immensely light, which merge with geometrical and naturalistic decorations, on a generally white background. In the Venetian villas the grotesques are particularly common in the access atria, in the framework among episodes of Roman history or in little dressing rooms as in the case of Villa Emo. 

 

The two Grotesque dressing rooms are placed symmetrically in the west and east area of the villa, at the sides of the vestibule that leads to the respective passageways. In the dressing rooms of Villa Emo they are in pairs in panels that are repeated on the opposite wall; they are identical but in reversed position.

 

In the west dressing room are represented the symbols of fire or prophecy and of air or of Priapo.

 

The Fire Grotesque is composed of a little temple, at the sides of which two imploring prophets are praying, addressing the flame that burns on the altar. On the gable of the temple there is a bronze statue, the head surrounded by a white circle bordered by a wide band adorned with twenty golden buds on what looks like the spokes of a wheel. Hanging from this are festoons of fruit that are bound to two sorghum plants by means of thin threads and two birds are flying towards them to peck some seeds. In the lower part of the grotesque there are two Greek Sphinxes: mythological figures with a woman’s face, bird’s wings and the body of a lion. Next to the sphinxes there are more festoons of fruit, two little birds with spread wings and some blue ribbons from which a gem hangs. This grotesque is thought to represent two prophets in the act of interpreting the spirit of a deceased evoked by the flames on the altar.

 

In the Air Grotesque we see a large mask from which two fringed ribbons leave and have two horns of plenty attached to them. Two female figures, one seen from behind and one from the front, are holding branches of four-leaf clovers and festoons of flowers and fruit. In the centre of the panel is painted a large red cameo in which is represented a stylised silhouette of a woman seen from behind next to a fire. This too is probably linked to the idea of divination and the soul’s interrogation near a fireplace. Below the gem is placed the image of Pan, accompanied by two satyrs, who support his arms, and by his own symbols: the flute and the panpipes.

 

The ideal connection between the two symmetrical dressing rooms takes place by way of shared symbolism: the Scales, painted on the walls that continue towards the passageways and from there to the vestibule, and the representations on the east and west walls, that is Time and Poetry.

 

The Scales Grotesque is composed of a complex interweaving of motifs. There is the head of a bearded soothsayer with his head covered in bandages and plumes from which bloomed stems emanate, interwoven with violet ribbons. Starting from the top and placed symmetrically are two satyrs, two bronze anthropomorphic individuals that support on their heads baskets full of flowers and a burning torch together with a quiver. In the middle of the grotesque there is a large violet cameo surrounded by anthropomorphic figures: women whose lower limbs have been replaced by long green leaves with stems and flowers emanating from them; their necks are long, slender and twisted together. The cameo is placed in the centre of the long and thin arms of a scale, whose fulcrum is a female figure with a veiled head, an impassive face, her belly covered with Roman armour and her breast uncovered. At the end of both arms of the scale are two small weights. At the sides of the female figure that acts as a support for the scale there are also two heraldic panthers (symbol of fertility) and two dragonflies (symbol of speed).

The iconological interpretation of the grotesques is very complex and not at all sure. These allegories probably allude to the four elements, to fertility and to the wealth of nature. This theory is corroborated by the fact that the iconography of the four elements is most appropriate when considering the natural context of the villa, as well as its function as a villa-farm, a real and proper farming commune, often recalled by the numerous references to farming and fertility represented in every panel in the painting cycle by Battista Zelotti.

The Room of Venus

The Room of Venus, which is located in the north part of the right wing of the villa, is characterised by walls divided by Ionic columns resting on a base decorated with panels of painted marble. The architraves of doors and windows are also decorated with false frames.

 

This room takes its name from Venus because the goddess is represented in every painted scene and is introduced by a monochromatic bust of her, framed by two putti and by multi-coloured festoons, located on the west wall above the door that leads to the Central Hall. Three scenes decorate the walls of this hall: Venus discourages Adonis from Hunting, Venus supports the dying Adonis (on the west wall), Venus wounded by Cupid (on the east wall). The story depicted in this hall tells of the love story of Venus, goddess of love and the handsome Adonis, as narrated by Ovid in the 10th book of the Metamorphoses.

 

In the fresco on the east wall, which is above the fireplace, we find the beginning of the myth. One day, according to the Latin poet, while Cupid was kissing his mother Venus, one of his arrows, that was protruding from his quiver, pierced her breast by accident. It was because of this arrow that Venus fell in love with the young and attractive Adonis who was born from the incestuous union between the king of Cyprus, Cinira, and his daughter, Mirra. In the representation by Zelotti, Venus, portrayed in all her ethereal beauty and covered only by an impalpable white-vermilion mantle, is represented in the act of pulling out from her breast the arrow that made her fall in love with the young man. Next to her is Cupid who, being worried about her, tries to help her, and behind the balustrade are some red roses: emblem par excellence of Venus and symbol of passion.

 

The tale of the myth continues on the west wall within the arcade that lies to the north. Here we see Venus trying to discourage Adonis from going hunting: this was in fact one of the young man’s favourite pastimes. In the scene set in a lush clearing, the goddess tries lovingly to hold Adonis who, carrying a spear and holding a greyhound on a leash, is already about to go hunting. Behind the figure of the goddess we can see a thriving rose bush, an attribute of Venus, and the chubby pink face of Cupid who looks on from among the trees.

 

To no avail were Venus’s attempts and pleas to convince him to stay away from the wild beasts: unfortunately Venus’s premonition that the hunting would be dangerous for Adonis, proved to be true. In the third fresco on the west wall within the arcade that lies to the south, we see the last moments of Adonis’s life. The youth has been attacked by the wild boar that he had previously shot with an arrow. This scene is symmetrically opposite to the other on the same wall but the atmosphere is completely different: the darker colours, the overcast sky and the bare tree surround the two lovers in this tragic scene where Venus supports the dying Adonis (as his greyish colour indicates as well as his hand and arm in the foreground which have lost all their strength). In the foreground a little Cupid looks on and almost appears as if wanting to help the couple, but to no avail; in the background two hunting dogs chase the wild boar that has caused Adonis’s death.

 

In the pendentives of the arches there are some winged figures that can be identified as Victories.

 

In the middle of the south wall above the door that leads to the dressing room of the grotesques, we find a false golden cartouche that frames the holy theme panel of The Penitent Saint Jerome. The scene is set in a rocky landscape where the saint, who is represented as an old man with white hair and beard enveloped in a purple mantle, is saying his prayers and pleas in front of a wooden crucifix. In the scene there is also the usual lion that is always been associated with the iconography of this saint, in accordance with the legend that Saint Jerome, feeling sorry for a lion in pain, with great courage took a thorn out of its paw. The gratitude felt by the lion turned it into a meek animal.

 
 

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