The Castle holds the most important Renaissance frescoes in the Sabina region. Most are located on the ground and first floors of the palace inserted between the military structures of the rear tail and the front spur.
The Great Hall harbours another set of later frescoes, the 18th century pictorial representations of the Castle and its surrounding fiefdoms.
The 16th century frescoes were commissioned by the Cesarini as the final stage of the reconstruction designed by Baldassarre Peruzzi. The frescoes were meant to stress the seigneurial vocation of the Castle along with its warfare function. Their purpose was to convey identity, history, myth, culture, beauty, and some pseudo-memories of the owner’s family (the past reinvented). Once again the pleasure of living intertwined with military capacity: a mix which had become a trademark of the Italian Renaissance, and was spreading throughout Europe.
In fact there were two patrons. First, Cardinal Alessandro Cesarini, the rich and powerful pro-imperial aristocrat, who had hired Peruzzi for a long series of projects including the fortress of Sinibalda. Then his nephew, the Marquis Giuliano, «a haughty and violent man», who commissioned the second series of frescoes, completed after his death in 1565.
The cardinal’s hat and the first version of the heraldic symbols of the Cesarini family identify the frescoes commissioned by Alessandro. A bear is bound to a column, and on the top of it the imperial eagle stands with its wings spread open. The very eagle that many believe inspired the unusual shape of the Castle.
The themes are typical of the cycles of paintings intended to extol the patron and his family. Mythological scenes, historical representations, battles, medallions of heroes, and grotesques. Many relevant references to Roman history as seen through Livy: the war between the Sabines and the Romans, (after all the castle is located in Sabina), the fire that destroyed the Temple of Vesta, the Roman style trophies and the soldiers’ weaponry. It must be remembered that the Cesarini claimed to be the direct descendants of Julius Caesar, a family romance which supported their pro-Charles V Habsburg affiliation.
The painted decorations are not homogeneous. In some of the rooms on the main floor, the frescoed friezes display series of narrative squares interspersed with caryatids, war spoils, standing warriors, monochromes, and grotesques. In other rooms, the friezes are continuous and the narratives go on uninterrupted, with no beginning nor end: a Mannerist pattern, meant to suggest the enduring fame and the immortality of the patron’s family. This totemic and mythical function acted as a denial of history and its contingencies in a period of anguish and turmoil.
The frescoes linked to the patronage of Giuliano Cesarini are easily recognizable. The Giuliano’s coat of arms blended the family crests of the Cesarini and the Colonna, another powerful Roman family. Giuliano had married Giulia, the daughter of Prospero Colonna, in a lavish ceremony, and Baldassarre Peruzzi had designed their wedding scenery and arrangements. The difference, however, is not to be found only in the coat of arms. Roman Mannerism had burst on the scene two decades earlier, and some of its stylistic characteristics are conspicuous in the frescoes: the “acid” colours, the truncated figures, the paradoxical or incongruous juxtapositions, the bundling of gender-hybrid objects and the systematic disruption of the rational perspectives typical of classic Renaissance.
The metamorphosis theme reaches its climax in the Giuliano cycle. Ovid is the key reference. A careful reading of the friezes identifies several episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Narcissus at the fountain (III, 435-503), the abduction of Persephone (V, 385), the abduction of Europa by the bull (VI, 104), Arianna found by Bacchus (VIII, 152-180), Perseus, Andromeda and the dragon (IV, 665-740), etc. But everywhere in the frescoes the quite obvious mythological and hagiographical references are morphed into hybrid figures in transition. Ongoing change tainted with uncertainty becomes the dominant common thread running through those images.
A chaos of bizarre objects mixing inert and living things is staged while it strives to reach the status of completed shapes, of well defined species and genders, of whole unfragmented bodies. It is the beginning of the De rerum natura (Lucretius), or the first verses of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The frescoes of the fortress, and more so the Giuliano’s cycle, implement the stated purpose of Ovid’s work: In nova fert animus mutates dicere formas/corpora. «Of shapes transformed to bodies strange, I purpose to entreat» (the classic translation of Arthur Golding, 1567). The aesthetic representation (both poetic and pictorial) tells us about the birth of these new bodies from «A heavie lump and clottred clod of seedes togither driven/ Of things at strife among themselves for want of order due» (I, 9). The frescoes are a narrative that unfolds with some uncertainty from one room to the other, from one frieze to the next. They convey the transition from chaos to order through the effort of the enlightened patron, organizer of the world and demiurge of its forms.
One must resist the temptation of a historical and political interpretation. The sack of Rome had happened in 1527. The pro-imperial Cesarini had paid the Spaniards 40 thousand ducats to safeguard their palace in Rome, but a week later the Spaniards told them that they could not prevent the looting by the Northern mercenaries (the Landsknechte) , and the Cesarini hastily fled the city. The frescoes would express the disorder of the present time and the wish for a new order expressed by powerful images and strong shapes. The catastrophic change would be kept under control and aesthetically translated into an ordered and harmonious outcome.
The frescoes are no political tale, they are a family apologetics. They state that the world chaos will find order and stability through the Cesarini. The same story line conveyed by the new fortress, a grandiose and successful synthesis of opposites (palace/fortress), of an inanimate object (the castle) and a totemic animal (eagle? scorpion?). As hybrid as the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and in the frescoes. A narrative bond links the castle, its architecture and its paintings.
It would be useful to know more about the artists, but unfortunately most of the scientific cataloguing remains to be done. Current attributions are fanciful and improbable: some have mentioned artists that were deceased while Peruzzi’s work was on going on the site, or some who could not have been in the Rocca Sinibalda area: Polidoro da Caravaggio (who died in Messina in 1543), Perin del Vaga (who died in Rome in1547). Other attributions are simply vague hypotheses: such as Cremona’s Giulio Campi. There are those who get away with the usual ploys: dubbing the frescoes as apprentices’ work, reproductions of cardboards that were widespread in the area at the time, etc. One name is undisputed: Girolamo Muziano, unfortunately for some of the most deteriorated frescoes, which barely survived shoddy restorations.
Last but not least: the grandeur of the paintings which, especially on the ground floor, have been sheltered to be restored if and when funds will become available. Their restoration might unveil new hints for the cataloguing of the already visible frescoes.
These caveats do not impinge on the sheer beauty of the pictorial narratives and grotesques adorning the long gallery of the Palace section. Diverse styles, different hands, differing colour registers, the usual classical themes and visionary mythological representations, family emblems and unsettling hybrids, unexpected virile and androgynous figures, realistic views of nature and landscape along with monstrous figures, capricious whims and gory scenes, zoomorphic entities and phytomorphic figures, ambiguous eroticism and sacrificial virgins: room after room, frieze after frieze, the wanderer is confronted with unusual combinations, discrepancies, visual screeches, surprises, the constant challenge to get adapted to unexpected new forms that the previous frieze didn’t foretell. From the Library to the Shaman’s Room, from the Criminal’s Room to the Room of the Enchanted Garden up to the Music Room: a long visual discourse about change unfolds and invites you to give up the stability of forms and run the risks of the metamorphosis. Rocca Sinibalda as the castle of the metamorphoses.
The 18th-century Grand Hall
The Gallery of the Metamorphoses originates in the Grand Hall. Its walls were extensively decorated with tempera frescoes between 1730 and 1742, during the restoration works that followed the explosion of the powder- magazine in the north spur, and the ensuing fire.
Their content is deceptively simple. The North East wall provides an extended view of the Castle and of the village from the west end of the Turano Valley, the same perspective Paul Bril had selected in 1601 for his painting The fiefdom of Rocca Sinibalda, now at the National Gallery of Ancient Art, Palazzo Barberini , Rome. While Bril had been powerful and dramatic, the 1730 fresco is elegant and bucolic. The swampy malaria-ridden valley had been the most effective defence of the fortress in the two failed siege attempts. The Grand Hall rendition turns it into a friendly meadow rising gently to the base of the Rock among fruit-laden orchards. Viewed from the side, the castle is mainly a noble mansion. The front spur and the tail with their powerful artillery are underrepresented as a diminished addition. Peruzzi’s « walled manor » is first of all an aristocratic dwelling. It conjures up the image of a place meant for a wealthy and pleasant life, and for the “villeggiatura” (summer leisure) rituals.
The remaining walls picture the key villages of the fiefdom: Pantana, Belmonte, Antuni, Posticciola, Vallecupola. Large inserts exhibit the coats of arms and the mythological medallions of the Lord’s family depicting among others the Colosseum and Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Grand Hall sums up the fiefdom’s surroundings. Its walls are a virtual landscape. They show what can actually be seen from the bastions and the walkways – for ex. Belmonte -, and what is known to exist but remains unseen: Vallecupola, Magnalardo, Posticciola, Pantana. While sitting in the Hall, the Lord, his family and his guests were visually immersed in his domain. Surrounded by it, they could visually grasp all of it in just one glimpse.
The Hall functions as a panopticon. The Lord stands at its centre, with the Castle as a tangible projection of his Lordship. But the Castle is also one of the walls. Thus the Lord sees on the walls what he could see through them, his own world and the world he owns, his cosmos. He mirrors himself in his Castle, which mirrors him. He looks at it and sees his own reflection. He experiences being the centre, and the border. The Grand Hall as a visual machine is less naive and obvious than it may appear to the distracted visitor. Like the extraordinary mirror painted by Parmigianino in the Fortress of Fontanellato ceiling right above Paola Gonzaga’s bath tub, it conveys a «Respice finem» message: face your limit, your boundary, your deadline, yourself.
The Parmigianino’s frescoes in the «Respice finem» little room at Fontanellato illustrate the myth of Diana and Actaeon , from Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . The encompassing Grand Hall enacts a panopticon and a looking glass through which you get into the Gallery of the metamorphing narratives. This might be a «fearful symmetry» or a farfetched analogy, but let’s not to cast it away too quickly.
The grotesques of the Library
In the Piano Nobile, a 80-metre long Gallery captures the visitor’s gaze from the Grand Hall to the tail-end of the Castle. This is not just a visual architectural apparatus. The sequences of the mannerist frescoes from the second half of the sixteenth century hint that we are faced with a symbolic and narrative itinerary still in want of a satisfactory interpretation.
The grotesques are a key component of this itinerary. Since about 1545, the Mannerist artists who were painting the Piano Nobile frescoes connect themselves to the ornamental style that was filling up with levity and apparently disordered imagination the walls and ceilings of the great Italian villas. No one thinks anymore that the 16th century grotesques were just a decorative whim imitating the recently discovered images on the walls of the Roman Domus Aurea. Such a simplistic reading doesn’t account for the complexity of their content, the variety of the representations within the canon, the formal transgressions and the cerebral self-consciousness, the wealth of sophisticated references, the links to the Hermetic tradition and to the hieroglyphics fad. Nor does it account for their naturalistic encyclopaedism, their visual Wunderkammern, the liberating experiments at the boundaries of both the language and the rules of iconic narratives, the links with the linguistic and rhetorical ruptures introduced by the Macaronic Literature, and more generally by the never ending experimentation with narrative and poetry patterns which is typical of the late 16th century.
Central Italy was a privileged area for these exercises in freedom under the shared banner of «dissimular dicendo» (, Torquato Accetto’s hiding while saying). Several great cycles of grotesques can be found in the rural areas close to Rome and Viterbo, in Tuscany, Umbria, and the Southern Marches. On the other hand the Cesarini themselves had cultivated in their dwellings both the Mannerist innovation and the grotesques. All this would quite obviously converge in their large castle at the crossroads of Lazio and Umbria, on the strategic Via Salaria, along the route of the itinerant artists who wandering between Rome and Tuscany.
The grotesques of Rocca Sinibalda concentrate in the Library and in the Criminal’s Room, the first and third rooms in the Gallery. The two well-preserved cycles have been restored skilfully. Due to their quality and figurative richness, these beautiful and original grotesques safely compete with the more famous ones in Umbria and around Viterbo. Their inclusion within the narrative cycle of metamorphoses shaping the Piano Nobile amplifies their strength. They are not isolated ‘ornaments’ and ends in themselves, but the phrasing of a visual discourse around form, formlessness and morphing.
The Library’s grotesques cover the upper part of the four walls, just below the decorated wooden ceiling. In the Shaman’s Room, they do not act just as a visual support, counterpoint or ornament for other ‘serious’ pictorial cycles. They are the prevalent visual narrative, with the only exception of two realistic and mythological panels. Talamons, caryatids and other architectural paintings frame the sequences.
The Shaman’s grotesques include all the typical patterns of the late-Renaissance mannerist ‘grottesca’: the candelabra-like representations, the cherubs playing instruments or at play, sphinxes and other feminine monstrous combinations, exotic birds, phytomorphic details, ethereal shrubs, vines and trellises, veils and drapes, busts of male bodies on improbably slender square-coned columns.
Both the style and syntax correspond to the canon. Every grotesque encompasses an arrangement of heterogeneous and hybrid objects devoid of meaningful connections. Gravity is almost absent; unlikely bodies stand on impossible plinths, with groups of cherubs seemingly support them, or maybe pushing them to the ground. Elation and a colourful levity prevail, a feeling of freedom that doesn’t have to account to the patron or to reality. Everywhere the bright background of the white plaster. Unexplainable scenes pop up unpredictably: bulls’ sacrifices on classical altars, ellipses holding lake landscapes or blurred figures of a man and a woman (the patrons?), sexual innuendos, improbable warriors accompanied by lackadaisical cherubs. An amused or openly comical register pervades most of the scenes.
The artist is unknown. A first dating attempt is being conducted, which should help with the identification. One solid reference: the grotesques of the Shaman’s Room are subsequent to the completion of the renovation by Peruzzi, and can be situated between 1540 and 1570.