Eroticism and Urination

Hello everyone! This is definitely one of the more outrageous papers I have ever written. I will say, the footnotes are extremely important, so make sure to check them out. As always, comment for questions about sources or other questions/comments.


Psyche’s Second Task with a River God from the Sala di Psiche in the Palazzo del Te by Giulio Romano (1527-30) needs no introduction due to its strange and unusual depiction of an unspecified river god. One would think that a personified river creating the flow of water from his exposed penis would be unusual, but is this representation of a river god actually uncommon? My research aims to answer this question and discover whether a river god depicted in this way was unheard of and if so, why Giulio Romano chose to paint him in this erotic and unexpected way. In general, it was not unusual to have a sexualized or at least nude river god in the sixteenth century. They were becoming more popular at this time and were traditionally shown nude as part of a fountain or water feature. This was especially true for Giulio Romano who was known for his sexualized and erotic images. However, I argue that this fresco is an example of Giulio’s eroticism. The strong influence for this fresco comes from the patron Federico Gonzaga, rather than Giulio and his teacher Raphael’s stylistic choices alone. The fresco is symbolic of the patron: while Giulio includes sexual connotations within the painting, the image becomes an emblem of the Gonzaga family and a tool for Federico Gonzaga to combat rumors regarding his health. 

Psyche’s Second Task with a River God, Giulio Romano, Mantua: Palazzo del Te, Sala di Psiche, 1527-30

Psyche’s Second Task with a River God is one of twelve lunettes circling the Sala di Psiche in the Palazzo del Te.[1] A river god creating a river dominates the foreground of the fresco’s composition. The river springs forth via an over-tuned urn and his hair, but the majority of the river flows from his penis. The narrative cycle in this room revolves around the mythological trials of Psyche and Cupid and culminates with their wedding feast on one of the larger walls.[2]Psyche’s Second Task is a relatively minor aspect of the wall decoration and Psyche is relegated to the background of the lunette. Venus punished Psyche for her relationship with Cupid by assigning a series of next to impossible tasks.[3] The second task shown here required Psyche to cross a river and gather golden fleece from a herd of sheep.[4] Sheering the vicious sheep proved especially difficult. An anthropomorphized reed in the river told Psyche to wait until night fall and collect the fleece from an over-hanging shrub that the sheep would run under. Psyche did so and successfully completed her task.[5] However, her success is not obvious from this lunette. Instead of featuring Psyche in the foreground collecting fleece or talking with the reed, Giulio alludes to this action in the background. However, Giulio presents the river god as the main focus of the image. His body is encased in rocks and he has tipped over an urn from which water is flowing. Additionally, his beard transforms into water. However, the majority of the river flows from his exposed penis.  

Both male and female river gods are frequently sexualized in the sixteenth century. The popularity of the theme reflects the discoveries of antique river god sculptures which wealthy, upper-class families proudly displayed. [6] These figures are depicted nude or barely draped and characteristically shown with a tipped over urn from which the river flows.[7] In this case, the simple act of sexualization is not what makes Giulio’s fresco unique. It was also not uncommon to see river gods’ bodies transforming into bodies of water. At times, no clear delineation exists between where the water begins and where the god ended, especially in classical fountains and sculptures.[8] As a student of Raphael and a lover of classical antiquity, Giulio would have been aware of these other interpretations of river gods when making this fresco.[9]

Wedding Feast of Cupid and Psyche, Giulio Romano, Mantua: Palazzo del Te, Sala di Psiche, 1527-30

Before further analyzing the context within which Giulio painted this river god, it is important to note that this was not the only depiction of a river god Giulio included in the Sala id Psiche cycle.[10] In fact, he is not even the largest river god represented. Giulio adds three rivers gods in the composition of the primary fresco in this room, Wedding Feast of Cupid and Psyche. On the far left of the scene, a nude female sits in the foreground with two overturned urns, her body exposed to the viewer and one urn spilling between her legs. The water flowing from the urn is clear blue. Behind her sits a male river god, facing slightly away from the viewer. He leans on an overturned urn and has a swan climbing into his lap in a seemingly erotic pose. Adding an erotic undertone to this figure, the representation of the swan evokes depictions of Leda and the swan. Like the river god from Psyche’s Second Task, the river that flows from this river god’s urn is white. Finally, in the far background, almost invisible to the viewer at first glance is a third river goddess. Rather than overturn an urn, the female river god adds to the river by squeezing clear water from her breasts. Giulio sexualizes all of the figures, especially the closest female as she presents her breasts to the viewer and spreads her legs so the river can flow between them. Additionally, the female in the background is the female version of the river god from Psyche’s Second Task. However, instead of being emphasized in the foreground, Giulio relegates her to the background, where she is not as detailed and easy to overlook. In general, the fresco cycle in this room is particularly erotic, and imagery of running water whether from an urn or otherwise, is a frequent symbol. 

 At first glance, these images, especially of the single river god, exude extreme sexuality.  One would think these figures would be inappropriate and uncommon for the sixteenth century due to social norms. But upon further examination of this artistic period, sexual imagery is not uncommon and is frequently justified through the mythological scenes being represented.[11] This is not only true for depictions of river gods in general, but also Giulio’s oeuvre. Many of his works were erotic, if not outwardly sexual, whether heterosexually or homosexually. Giulio’s artworks The Lovers (c.1525) and Apollo and Cyparissus or Hyacinth (1520s) visible show unrestrained sexuality and eroticism by displaying sexual tension between both men and women, and men and boys. A student of Raphael, Giulio received a rather traditional artistic education.[12] However, in his work, he explored a variety of sexually adjacent myths like Ganymede, general seduction stories of Apollo, and other similar works that allowed him to push the boundaries of what was considered appropriate artistically.[13] He spent many years as the court painter for Federico Gonzaga who commissioned him to work on the Palazzo del Te as well as his private ducal apartments and other projects.[14] From his oeuvre, it is clear that he had no qualms depicting nude men and women in sexually compromising positions under the guise of mythology or some other literary trope.[15] Although the river gods in the Sala di Psiche are not as overtly sexual as some of his other works, their general nudity and eroticization is not out of character or unusual for Giulio. 

The Lovers (detail, Giulio Romano, c. 1525

In regards to this fresco, the patron and his family must be considered along with Giulio’s artistic and thematic precedent. The Palazzo del Te was commissioned by Federico Gonzaga, who would eventually become Duke of Mantua. The family reached its highest level of power, influence, and prestige during Federico’s reign. [16] As the son of the art collector, Isabella d’Este, Federico had been exposed to the important of art and its power from an early age.[17] The Gonzagas, like the other wealthy families of Italy at this time such as the Medici, utilized art to their social and political advantage.[18] Federico followed in this legacy that his mother, father, and ancestors had begun. His mother was an avid collector and patron of many significant artists and his ancestors were major patrons of Andrea Mantegna.[19] His father was not only an art patron, but also promoted the fine arts throughout Italy and Europe through his writings on fine art.[20] The Palazzo del Te, where the Sala di Psiche and these frescoes were, was one of Federico’s greatest architectural and artistic commissions.[21] Mantua does not have a storied Roman or classical past, but their claim to fame was Virgil who spent much of his life there.[22] Allusions to Virgil were frequent and normally included flowing water because the myths said he drew his knowledge from the water of the river Mincio.[23]  Typically, the river was depicted as a spring or other source of water in motion.[24] Federico incorporated this symbol wherever he could throughout the Palazzo. The commissioned artwork throughout the building frequently alludes to water, and even the architectural layout and mosaic designs of the building reflect flowing water.[25] In this context, the plethora of river gods featured with water flowing from urns or otherwise flowing becomes more emblematic of the Gonzaga family and Mantua than of the sexual nature of the nude figures.[26] The connection between the Gonzagas, Mantua, and flowing water is further emphasized by the geography surrounding Mantua, which is made up of a multitude of rivers and lakes.[27] This period marked the Gonzaga’s rise to power and Federico who was the first duke of Mantua.[28] The family gained more power with each generation. Emphasizing the water gods and their connection to his forefathers in his personal Palazzo tied Federico to his predecessors and highlighted his own power. 

However, I propose that the water imagery present throughout the Palazzo del Te, specifically that of this river god is not only emblematic of the Gonzaga family, but also of Federico as an individual. Like many of his contemporaries Federico used his private commissions to allude to his individual power.[29] First he emphasizes his power through his family emblems, but then begins to suggest his power through more specific. When this fresco series of Psyche was commissioned, Federico and his mother, Isabella d’Este were having a disagreement regarding Federico’s lover, Isabella Boschetti.[30] Isabella had in fact just moved out of the Ducal Palace partially as a sign of her disapproval of the relationship.[31] In the story of Psyche and Cupid, all of Psyche’s tasks are set to her by Cupid’s mother Venus who disapproved of the relationship, just as Isabella disapproved of Federico and Isabella Boschetti.[32] Not only was the mother/ son relationship similar to that of Venus and Cupid, but Isabella regularly had herself depicted as Venus in her own art.[33] She also had her own fresco cycle depicting Cupid and Psyche in her personal grotto.[34] Therefore, this fresco cycle was in direct defiance of Isabella and showed Federico’s disregard for his mother’s condemnation. 

But, Federico was not only showing his rebellion against his mother. The river god represents two other aspects of Federico’s life that would have been impossible to ignore for contemporary viewers. It is thought by some that Federico had a medical condition that made it difficult or painful for him to urinate.[35] Records show that doctors frequently treated him for this discomfort.[36] And yet, in the middle of one of the rooms in his Palazzo, he has a river god urinating a river. Although not as overt as the other symbolism, this could potentially be a message by Federico that he was in perfect health in regards to his manhood, so much so that he was able to urinate a river. This interpretation is further supported by the numerous putti piscatore or urinating putti that are featured throughout this room.[37] Therefore, the ability to actively urinate is constantly alluded to throughout the fresco cycle.

The other obvious symbolism with the river god and the river flowing from his penis is ejaculation. Giulio’s teacher, Raphael, had been one of the first artists to start utilizing river gods as symbolic in their art. He was one of the first to make the connection between the river gods, urine, semen, and water obvious.[38]  Lazzaro introduces the idea of Raphael connecting the concepts of urine, semen, and water while Giulio Romano was a part of his studio. While his depictions of river gods in this situation are not always as explicitly sexual as Giulio’s version, some of his tapestries, that have since been destroyed, had river gods squirting the river from their exposed penis. In this case, the river god was symbolic not only of the patron watering the ground, but also fertilizing it. 

With this connotation, the river god does not only symbolize Federico’s healthy manhood. It also symbolizes fertility and Federico’s capacity to continue the familial line. Federico was the apogee of the Gonzaga’s power. There was significant pressure on him to be successful, maintain control of the Gonzaga territory, and have sons. His father and mother had seen the growth of the family and Federico had hosted the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Federico’s marriage to his mother Isabella’s choice would have significantly expanded the family territory as well. This was the main reason for Isabella’s dislike of Federico’s affair. He not only threatened the alliance proposed by his marriage, but also the growth of the family influence. Finally, as Federico had multiple illegitimate children by Isabella Boschetti, the legitimacy and continuation of the family line was threatened. The urinating or ejaculating river god implies Federico’s ability to successfully do all of these things despite his love affair with Isabella. The flowing river water shows the success and fertility of his own territory in addition to his own sexual fertility. Therefore, Federico utilized such an unusual image because of its multiple symbolic connotations. 

There are four major aspects that must be analyzed and interpreted to understand this unusual fresco. First, while it is not unusual to have nude and sexualized river gods, it is unusual to have a river god creating a river through urination instead of pouring it from a jug. In fact, this might be one of the only such example that exists outside of Giulio and Raphael’s oeuvres. Because of that, this motif is clearly specific to this artist, location, and patron. Giulio’s reputation as an artist unafraid to depict sexual and erotic figures, specifically men, explains the sensuality of the figure and partially explains why he is urinating a river instead of holding a tipped over urn. The location of this fresco within the Palazzo del Te and the Sala di Psiche as a specifically Gonzaga-related location provides more evidence for why flowing water would be so prevalently featured and highlighted when it is not the main character in the narrative. Finally, the patron, Federico Gonzaga’s health concerns explains why the river god is urinating. It is a minor work in the room, so not the main focus of attention. Yet, the fresco is still important enough that it further connects Federico with his Gonzaga heritage as well as denies any rumors circulating regarding the health of his manhood. Therefore, I propose that this is not simply a sexual image, but one of familial and personal power. Federico Gonzaga’s own preoccupation with his person as well as familial power support this premise. Additionally, the documentation regarding Isabella d’Este, her son Federico, and his mistress Isabella Boschetti provides an explanation for why the fable of Cupid and Psyche was depicted, the abundance of flowing water, and the sexual undertones that are present throughout the Palazzo del Te. While we will never understand completely why this river god was depicted in this way, his existence shows the ability of patron and artist to work together to create a unique image that is specific to a particular time and place. 

[1] Frederick Hartt, “Gonzaga Symbols in the Palazzo del Te.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 13, No. ¾ (1950): 164.

[2] Frederick Hartt, Giulio Romano (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981): 130. The story of Cupid and Psych is divided into a series of scenes: eight octagons, twelve lunettes, two large frescoes of the wedding feast and the main work, the marriage ceremony. The lunettes focus on the punishment of Psyche by Venus after her disobedience.

[3] Giulio Romano (Milan: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 165. 

[4] Joel C. Relihan, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche: Apuleius (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2009): 41.  

[5] Frederick Hartt, “Gonzaga Symbols in the Palazzo del Te.” 166.

[6] Claudio Lazzaro, “River Gods: Personifying Nature in Sixteenth-century Italy,” Renaissance Studies 25, no. 1 (2001): 70.

[7] Lazzaro, 74. 

[8] A majority of river gods were shown in connection with fountains or another source of water, thus making the separation between human and river more obscure.

[9] “Giulio Romano real name: Giulio di Pietro de Gianuzzi Pippi.” Benezit Dictionary of Artists (January 22, 2014). When training with Raphael and then later, after taking over his workshop, Giulio adapted Raphael’s use of classical forms and took images from ancient sculpture and reliefs for his art. Also Toby Yuen, “Giulio Romano, Giovanni da Udine and Raphael: Some Influences from the Minor Arts of Antiquity,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 42 (1979): 264. “Giulio drew freely on nearly all classes of antique monument.” An ancient statue of the Tiber River was also uncovered in Rome in 1512, when Giulio was working in Raphael’s workshop. It was displayed in the Vatican where Giulio and Raphael were working, Lazzaro, 70. 

[10] See Wedding Feast of Cupid and Psyche

[11] See Giulio Romano’s Ganymede or sculptures like Perseus and Medusa

[12] “Giulio Romano real name: Giulio di Pietro de Gianuzzi Pippi.”

[13] Giulio Romano (Milan: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 91.

[14] “Giulio Romano real name: Giulio di Pietro de Gianuzzi Pippi.”

[15] Giulio Romano (Milan: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 91. 

[16] Egon Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua: Images of Love and Politics (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press Ltd, 1977): 22.  

[17] Alison Cole, Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd. 2016): 188.  

[18] Cole, 195.  

[19] Cole, 171-188. A. Lawrence Jenkens The Art of Mantua: Power and Patronage in the Renaissance (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2008): 84. Isabella d’Este was the patron of many significant artists in the sixteenth century including Leonardo da Vinci. She was known for her studiolo and her art collection. Francesco Gonzaga wrote treatises on fine art as well as commissioned artists like Mantegna to paint images showing the triumph and power of the Gonzaga family. 

[20] Jenkens, 215. 

[21] Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua: Images of Love and Politics: 1. 

[22] Cole, 169. 

[23] Kurt W. Forster and Richard J. Tuttle, “The Palazzo del Te,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 30, No. 4 (Dec. 1971): 267. 

[24] Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua: Images of Love and Politics: 21.

[25] Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua: Images of Love and Politics: 45. Although architecture cannot necessarily look like flowing water, there was an emphasis on flowing lines, swirling columns, and labyrinths meant to symbolize flowing water and ripples. 

[26] Frederick Hartt, “Gonzaga Symbols in the Palazzo del Te.” 173. In addition, with the proliferation of antique river god statues being discovered in Rome at this time, river gods had come to be symbolic of territorial rule and familial power. 

[27] Frederick Hartt, Giulio Romano: 138.

[28] Jenkens, 92.  

[29] Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua: Images of Love and Politics: 21.

[30] Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua: Images of Love and Politics: 19. Verheyen goes into further detail regarding the relationship between Federico, Isabella Boschetti, and Isabella d’Este. 

[31] Isabella Boschetti was the known mistress of Federico. It is thought that one of the reasons Palazzo del Te was constructed was to provide a place for Federico and Isabella to meet away from the prying eyes of her husband and his mother. Isabella held great sway over Federico and was in constant competition with his mother, Isabella d’Este. Federico commissioned Giulio Romano to paint and sculpt portraits of Isabella so Giulio was well aware of their relationship. Federico even had children with Isabella who they tried to legitimize through the Holy Roman Emperor. This was not a slight fling or affair. Isabella was Federico’s mistress for many years and exercised her power and influence over him. Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua: Images of Love and Politics: 19-21. 

[32] Frederick Hartt, Giulio Romano: 140 and 175. Isabella Boschetti was not a politically advantageous match. Federico never married her, but married his mother’s choice so he inherited Monferrato. Verheyen, The Palazzo del Te in Mantua: Images of Love and Politics: 117. In addition to Venus represented Isabella d’Este, the Gonzaga family also used Cupid to represent the men in the family or in this case Federico. Finally, documents note that Federico claimed that Isabella Boschetti was Psyche and all of the representations of her in the room are portraits. 

[33] Frederick Hartt, Giulio Romano: 139.

[34] Frederick Hartt, Giulio Romano: 138.

[35] Frederick Hartt, “Gonzaga Symbols in the Palazzo del Te.” 174. 

[36] Frederick Hartt, “Gonzaga Symbols in the Palazzo del Te.” 174. Although this is almost impossible to prove, Hartt cites Paolo Giovio who apparently tried “to cure Federigo of his ‘ostinata retention di urina’…This may very well account for the putto pisciatore in the ceiling of the Sala di Psiche and provide an additional motivation for the purgative role of water in the room.” 

[37] Frederick Hartt, “Gonzaga Symbols in the Palazzo del Te.” 173. There are not high-quality images of these figures as many are minor background figures or are painted into the borders of other scenes. However, they are referenced by many scholars including Hartt and Verheyen. 

[38] Lazzaro, 84. 

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