Day 32: Mantova and Sabbioneta

Painting celebrating the Gonzagas murdering their rivals

The Gonzaga family’s patronage of art started with Marquis Ludovico III Gonzaga who hired Andrea Mantegna as court artist then later, patronage continued with Isabella d’Este, married to Francesco II Gonzaga (who was Ludovico III grandson) and a leading cultural and political figure of the Renaissance in her own right. Her son, Federico while held hostage in the Vatican, could observe Michelangelo and Raphael’s works as they were working on them, and became a major patron of the arts when he inherited.

We started our first full day in Mantova going to Palazzo Ducale, a vast rambling complex, the aggregate of 300 years of extravagant patronage by the Gonzaga dynasty.

The expert for this tour, Dr. Michael Douglas-Scott, talked in detail about the history of the city, ruling families and the art all without notes. He seems to have a phenomenal memory for details and dates.

The major art draw of this city has to be Mantegna’s frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi or Camera Picta. Visits to this astounding room are limited to 5 minutes and special private or extended visits are not available. Dr. M D-S spoke at lightning speed to point out everything we should take in during the 5 minutes.

The most famous work is Mantegna’s illusionistic dome where he invented in sotto del sù which the viewpoint is one of looking up from below.

Elsewhere in the complex other painters have tried to do the same, but not as successfully as Mantegna.

There is so much stuff, not just Renaissance, but as a sophisticated court, they also collected ancient statuary, in part, to compare themselves to ancient Romans. A favourite theme is also Roman Caesars to suggest they were rulers—although including Nero and Caligula and even Julius Caesar does not seem to be the best propaganda.

They also wanted to display Renaissance culture in the decoration of rooms using themes of ancient literature, particularly Homer.

Restorations in the complex during the 1960s and 1970s discovered remnants of Pisanello frescoes based on stories of King Arthur. Some appear to be unfinished.

Pisanello (c. 1380/1395 – c. 1450/1455), born Antonio di Puccio Pisano or Antonio di Puccio da Cereto, also erroneously called Vittore Pisano by Giorgio Vasari, was employed by the Doge of Venice, the Pope in the Vatican and the courts of Verona, Ferrara, Mantua, Milan, Rimini, and by the King of Naples. He stood in high esteem in the Gonzaga and Este families. His works are considered to be in courtly style of Gothic art in the 15th century, called the International Gothic style but he is also considered as one of the first artist in the Renaissance movement as his later work was infuenced by classical style.

Peter Paul Rubens worked for a while in the Gonzaga court. His large scale painting, yet again, was cut up and taken by Napoleon to Paris. Upon its return, pieces were missing which explains its odd looking current state.

Giulio Romano (1499-1546) born Giulio Pippi in Rome, was Raphael’s principal assistant, often described as Raphael’s best student. He completed the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican after Raphael’s death. Known as an arch Mannerist, in 1524, he became court artist in Mantua, succeeding Mantegna, who had died some years before. Romano remained in Mantova for the rest of his life.

As court artist and architect for Frederico II Gonzaga, first Duke of Mantua and then for his successor, Francesco III, Romano led a courtier’s life. His work both architectural and pictorial are throughout the complex. Palazzo Te, which we will visit later, is considered his Mannerist masterpiece both for the architecture and frescoes.

A “hanging garden” on the upper level

A coach ride in the afternoon to southwest of Mantova took us to Sabbioneta, an ideal Renaissance city on an almost miniature scale, built for Vespasiano Gonzaga (a cadet branch to the dukes of Mantova) in the 1550s. He wanted his own dukedom by creating a city state from a blank slate.

Statue of Vespasiano

It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As the population is under 5000 it is described as a commune, the smallest civil administrative unit in Italy, the equivalent of a municipality. Our local guide who is from Sabbioneta said the current population within the commune is about 250. During Vespasiano’s time it was about 2,000.

As the scale model above shows, the city is surrounded by walls designed by a Sienese writer likely read by Vespasiano, who made his money as a condottiere and was also a military engineer. The design was adopted throughout Europe as it provides sight lines for the entire wall.

The ducal palace, now the town hall:

Teatro all’antica (“Theatre in the style of the Ancients”), designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi who worked with and completed a lot of works started by Palladio. The theatre, partly re-created, resembles Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico.

The unusual shaped church, which is essentially a mausoleum to Vespasiano.

Galleria degli Antichi, one of the world’s first picture galleries. Prior to 1797, the buildings were connected to the Rocca or Castle of Sabbioneta but Napoleon’s forces razed them during the Siege of Mantova.

The gallery once housed Vespasiano Gonzaga’s collection of antique Roman statuary and hunting trophies most of which are now in the Ducal Palace in Mantova. While the architectural design of the gallery is striking, the richness of the interior decoration of the palazzo is also dazzling.

Sadly, Vespasiano’s only son died before the father and his daughter was not allowed to inherit Sabbioneta as it would make her the ruler of the city. The major Gonzaga branch claimed the city for themselves. But the end came for the major branch when they got into a fight with the Hapsburgs and lost, then in 1706 Austria took over ruling Mantova. With the exception of a brief Napoleonic period, Mantova remained under Austrian control until the fights for the unification of Italy in the 1860s.

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