If you are lucky enough to go to Mantova (Mantua in English), in the Italian region of Lombardy, you will surely meet up with the enormous Palazzo Ducale. For more than 300 years this place was the seat of the Gonzaga– a family of wealthy horse breeders– who rose to power in the 14th century to become one of Italy’s leading Renaissance families.
Their 500-room, 35,000-sq-metre palace is vast; a visit today winds through 40 of the finest chambers. Along with works by Morone and Rubens, the highlight is the most excellent and very witty mid-15th-century fresco by Mantegna in the Camera degli Sposi on which I’ll be writing a separate post very soon.
The Palazzo Ducale di Mantova is actually a group of buildings, built between the 14th and the 17th century, mainly by the Gonzaga family. The noble Gonzaga family used this complex as their royal residence in Mantova, which was the capital of their Duchy.
The oldest structures of the Ducal Palace, which are located on the sizable Piazza Sordello (this piazza is very rocky: as you can see from the pictures, the surface is thousands of small stones set side by side. It’s pretty to look at, difficult to walk over). These oldest buildings were built between the 13th and early 14th centuries by the Bonacorsi family, who dominated Mantua before being superseded by the Gonzagas in 1328.
After the Gonzaga’s were in power in the late 14th century, they built an imposing fortress, the Castello di San Giorgio, near the city’s lakefront. The castle was commissioned by Francesco I Gonzaga and was designed by military architect Bartolino da Novara as a defensive structure aimed at protecting the heart of the town, and subsequently converted into the main residence of the Gonzaga family. The castello has a square plan with four corner towers, surrounded by moats with three entrances, each with a drawbridge.
A key moment in ecclesiastical history took place in the Palazzo Ducale: in 1459 the marquis, Ludovico III Gonzaga, commissioned architect Luca Fancelli to renovate parts of the complex for the Council of Mantua. The Council was called for by Pope Pius II.
Until the late 16th century, the Gonzaga’s home was not a unitary structure, but actually consisted of various neighboring buildings, independent and physically separated from one another.
In 1556, Guglielmo Gonzaga decided to merge those buildings into a single, grandiose architectural complex. Therefore, a number of late Renaissance-style courtyards, gardens, passages, porticoes, and new wings were built in the second half of the 16th century after designs by some of the most renowned architects and artists of the time, including Giulio Romano, Giovan Battista Bertani, and Antonio Maria Viani.
The vast complex includes some 500 rooms and occupies an area of c. 35,000 m. Although most famous for Mantegna’s frescos in the Camera degli Sposi (Wedding Room) the complex has many other very significant architectural and artistic elements.
Notable artistic works belonging to the Palazzo Ducale include a celebrated altarpiece, the Adoration of the Holy Trinity, by Peter Paul Rubens (1605), which was formerly part of a triptych originally produced for the church of Santissima Trinità in Mantua.
For this altar, Rubens portrayed members of the Gonzaga family in the holy scene. Other paintings from deconsecrated churches and monasteries are also today found in this huge room.
Sadly, the Palazzo was subjected to the vicissitudes of war and peace, and in 1797 Napoleonic troops brutally dismembered the Room of the Archers.
In the Sala del Pisanello, fragments and preliminary sketches of Pisanello’s frescoes of Arthurian knights remain, while room 24, the Sala dello Zodiaco, sports a ceiling representing the heavens studded with starry constellations.
The palace’s finest remaining features are its frescoed and gilt ceilings including, in room 2, a labyrinth, prophetically predicting the capricious nature of good fortune. Below it, as if in illustration, are two portraits of Eleanor Gonzaga (1630–86), who rose to marry a Habsburg emperor, and Vicenzo II (1594–1627), who lost the entire family fortune and one of Europe’s most enviable art collections.
Perhaps most notable of all, are the 16th-century Flemish tapestries reproduced from Raphael’s original designs for the Sistine Chapel. Woven in Brussels using the finest English wool, Indian silk and Cypriot gold and silver thread, these textiles represent the cosmopolitan sophistication of the Gonzaga court at the height of its power.
After the fall of the duchy in 1707, Mantua became a possession of the House of Habsburg and subsequently part of the Austrian Empire. Under the Austrian rule, the Ducal Palace was renovated and its collection of art, already dispersed and greatly impoverished during the final decades of the House of Gonzaga, were partially reinstated.
After the Gonzaga dynasty ended, the complex of buildings predictably saw a sharp decline in care and condition. Only in the 20th century, was restoration begun anew and the complex was designated as a museum.
Still capable of revealing surprises, in 1998 a hidden room was discovered by palace scholars, led by musicologist Paula Bezzutti. The room is thought to have been used for performances of Monteverdi’s music in the late 16th century.
One last architectural feature I want to include is that Cardinal (later Duke) Ferdinand (1587–1626) had architect Viani design a series of ever-smaller rooms, long known as the Appartamento dei nani (Dwarves’ Apartments). For a long time it was believed that this appartamento was built to house the celebrated court dwarves of Mantua. In 1979, however, art historian Renato Berzaghi convincingly demonstrated that these tiny rooms are instead an exact reproduction of an ancient Roman original: the Scala Santa (Holy Stairway) of St. John Lateran in Rome. It’s believed that these rooms were intended for devotional purposes.
Finally, the church of Santa Barbara, which had the role of Palace chapel (Basilica Palatina) for the Gonzagas, was built in 1562-1572 by Giovanni Battista Bertani, commissioned by Duke Guglielmo. It allowed for religious ceremonies, with some degree of independence from the papal hierarchy. It was outfitted with an Antegnati organ (1565) by one of the premier builders of Northern Italy. The organ was restored in 1995. Recently the remains of four dukes and other members of the Gonzaga family were discovered in the church.
And last, but not least, is the Cortile della Cavallerizza was designed by Giovanni Battista Bertani. He adapted the style of the surrounding buildings (in 1569) to the Mannerist style of Giulio Romano. This was the place where the Gonzaga’s horses were shown before being sold.