Great Works: Giulio Romano: The Chariot Of The Sun (1527), Camera del Sole

Palazzo Del Te, Mantua
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In 1880, the Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte painted a Parisian street scene. It shows a stretch of pavement. There's a tree, sparsely leaved, with its trunk planted into the middle of a circular grille. Nearby, there's a bench. There are four pedestrians, men in dark coats and hats, one sitting on the bench, the others walking. There's a bit of cobbled road.

But as for any background, there's nothing to be seen. The reason is simple. The street is pictured from overhead. Like other Impressionists, Caillebotte was drawn to high hotel-balcony vantage points. But Boulevard Seen from Above is an extreme case. The view goes straight down. And, when it went on exhibition, its strangeness drew the attention of at least one baffled witness.

"I have seen Caillebotte create a neck-breaking panorama in the wall, by painting a public square from above – from the fourth or fifth floor – with a tree seen properly from its crown down and a man foreshortened from his hat. Such a thing is ultimately meaningless, if only because to work properly the painting would have to lie on the floor and not hang vertically."

The floor-level display: it's an interesting thought, but it's unlikely to persuade us. Does a view from above really only make sense when it's seen from above? After all, we often lay out reproductions, showing side-on scenes, flat on a table, without being disoriented. Angle on subject doesn't determine angle of image viewing.

As for Boulevard Seen from Above, the idea seems even less necessary. It isn't pictured directly from above. The witness exaggerated. The tree isn't seen from its crown down – its trunk visibly rises at a lean. The ground is not viewed at a perpendicular, but only at a particularly sharp angle. A sign of this is that, when you hang the painting on a wall, it has an obvious right way up.

Yet perhaps a floor-level painting shouldn't seem so eccentric. After all, ceiling painting is a well-established genre of European art. It had gone out of fashion by 1880, but between the 16th and 18th centuries it was a flourishing form. Some of our favourite images are on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo's epic images of the creation story are actually side-on scenes. If you put them on a wall, they'd have a very clear right way up (though the surrounding figures of prophets, sibyls and nudes complicate this a good deal). What Michelangelo doesn't attempt is the ceiling painting that shows a great up-and-underneath view. He doesn't take advantage of a looking-up spectator to create a world seen from below.

And how does it go, the world seen from below? If you want it to be a peopled world, it can be a problem. The ground is not transparent. So sometimes underneath views have to use curious architectural settings. Figures are looked up at, obliquely, clinging on to rising structures.

But more often, ceiling paintings take place in weightless conditions, where life happens entirely off the ground. They're set in the vaults of heaven, where angels and immortals fly and hover among clouds. Then, if the artist chooses, a world of figures can be shown directly from beneath.

There are few more dramatic underviews than this fresco from the Palazzo del Te, in Mantua. Giulio Romano's The Chariot of the Sun and the Chariot of the Moon shows the transition of day to night. It's the only image on the ceiling of the Chamber of the Sun. Along a heavenly pathway the setting Sun, with its blazing red disc, is succeeded by the rising Moon. It's a highway seen from below.

The picture's narrow format mimics the width of their road. It demonstrates their changeover diagrammatically. The Sun's horses just exit the frame. The Moon's horses just enter. The way their forms fill the oblong measures their progress.

And there's a wide gap of deep blue between them – suggesting a jump to be crossed. The Chariot of the Sun may make us think of something Giulio Romano had never seen: the sights from TV cameras positioned under steeplechase jumps – or again, of the upward shots from the arena's floor, showing the viewpoint of the thrown, as the horses and chariots in Ben Hur hurl themselves over and onwards.

He hadn't seen these things, but he imagined them. He has imagined the world from the most hard-to-imagine perspective. He has done more. He has pictured anatomies, human and equine, in complex positions. He has shown them in motion, with billowing cloaks and thrashing tails. He has lit their forms from behind – see how the Moon's horse is just rimmed with white light. That would be virtuosity enough. But then, on top of it all, he has done the scene from below.

It is a radically alienating point of view. It puts us out of all familiarity with these divinities. They ride right over us. At the same time, this can offer us a surprisingly intimate and compromising view of them – see how we look straight up the Sun's tunic, see his nakedness, his bottom-crack and genitals exposed.

But how exactly should we look at this overhead image? It appears on the page as it normally appears in reproductions, set vertically, and with the Sun's chariot at the bottom. That implies that this is how we naturally look at it, whether on the page or in the Palazzo.

In fact, unlike Boulevard Seen from Above, this image has no right way up – nor is every way right. Every way has its problem. The Sun's chariot looks best this way up. The Moon's looks better if you put it the other way up. If you set it on a horizontal, it's slightly better with the Sun on the left. But whichever way you start looking, you'll find you're turning your head (or the page). And that may be a case for keeping The Chariot of the Sun and the Chariot of the Moon above our heads. Why not pin it up?

About the artist

Giulio Romano (1499-1546) was a multi-talented late Renaissance master. He was the leading pupil and assistant of Raphael. He became infamous for devising a series of erotic images, 'I Modi' (the poses), a Renaissance Kama Sutra – though the originals are long lost and its printed copies have all but vanished. His masterpiece, as an architect and painter, was a suburban villa in Mantua made for the Duke of Gonzaga: the Palazzo del Te. Romano and his team decorated its chambers with spectacular wall and ceiling chambers. See especially the wildly illusionistic Room of the Giants, in which huge figures are shown falling amid collapsing walls. There is also a room filled with beautifully still horses. He is the only artist to be mentioned in a Shakespeare play. In 'The Winter's Tale', "that rare Italian master Julio Romano" is credited with fashioning the statue of Hermione, though Romano was not a sculptor.