by Roderick Conway Morris

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Massimo Telï

Monumental Mantua

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA, Italy 14 June 1992


Mantua rises up on the plain of eastern Lombardy, an implausible, water-girt mirage of rearing walls, domes, spires and towers. The Roman poet Virgil was born here, Shakespeare's Romeo took refuge here, and here Verdi set Rigoletto. Aldous Huxley dubbed it 'the most romantic city in the world.'

Three lakes - Superior, Middle and Inferior - formed by the River Mincio as it flows from Lake Garda to the River Po, were enlarged and regulated by engineering works in the 12th century: they once entirely encircled the town, and still surround it on three sides. The city's monumental buildings are largely the work of a single dynasty, the Gonzaga, who, despite comparatively modest means, attracted here a series of outstanding and boldly innovative artists and architects - among them Mantegna, Alberti and Giulio Romano - who transformed what might have remained an insignificant provincial town into a cultural capital of international fame and importance.

The Gonzaga were landowning gentry, not nobles. But in the 14th century they and their supporters rose against and drove out the Bonacolsi, the leading Mantuan family and effective rulers of the town. There followed 300 years of benign, if paternalistic, Gonzaga government, which seems to have enjoyed remarkably consistent support from all classes, during the course of which Mantua's first family elevated themselves from Captains and Lords of the People, to Marquises, and finally Dukes.

All the while their domains were never much larger than an English county, Mantua remained the only town, and the whole Liliputian enterprise was run like an extended country estate.

With its population of about 60,000, Mantua is even today the province's only sizeable town. Its wealth still derives, as it has done for centuries, from agriculture and stock raising on its fertile alluvial plain, and textiles - though the woollens and silks of the Gonzaga era have given way to stockings and tights (this small area producing 70 per cent of Italy's output). The province now has the nation's highest per capita income. Yet the Mantovani (or Mantuans), despite their congenial manners and friendliness to visitors, like to consider themselves solid folk, careful with their money and unostentatious. They also enjoy the lowest crime rate in the country.

It is possible to see Mantua's principal sights in a day to a day and a half - but a longer stay is infinitely more rewarding. Everywhere can be reached within a few minutes on foot.

Piazza Sordello, the city's main square, is where the Gonzaga defeated the Bonacolsi on the 16 August 1328. On the east of the piazza is the huge brick façade, arched below and with battlements above, of the Ducal Palace. It was originally the Palazzo Bonacolsi, but was occupied by the Gonzaga after their victory - the leader of the Bonacolsi clan being killed on his own front door step. (The pitched battle is dramatically recreated in Domenico Moroni's canvas of 1494 in the Palace.)

Behind the Palace's medieval exterior the Gonzaga constructeda labyrinthine complex of 500 rooms and over a dozen piazzas, courtyards and gardens - making it at one time the largest palace in Europe. This and their other palaces also became the home of one of the world's great art collections, but in the 17th century, when the state fell on hard times, much that was moveable was sold off, many of the finest pieces, including Mantegna's stupendous 'Triumphs of Caesar', being bought by Charles I of England in 1629.

One Mantegna masterpiece remains in the Ducal Palace: his frescoes in the Camera Picta (Painted Room), a vaulted audience chamber in the Castle of St George, the fortified residence built by the Gonzaga at the end of the 14th century. They show the Marchese Ludovico Gonzaga (1412-1478), his family, friends, courtiers, guests, retainers, horses, dogs and dwarves (without which no Renaissance court was complete).

In the ceiling is a wonderful trompe-l'oeil oculus, or round window, revealing a blue sky with fluffy white clouds, and surrounded by a balustrade over which peer court ladies, servants and naughty winged putti, one of whom is about to drop an apple on our heads. Mantegna was the prime inventor of the illusionistic sotto in su (from below upwards) technique dazzlingly employed here. Afterwards it became a favourite device, so often used to display a worm's eye view of the naked body, that in a Mantuan context, it is tempting to translate it as 'bottoms-up'.

It was Ludovico 2nd Marchese of Mantua that enticed Mantegna (?1431-1506) to Mantua in 1460, with the offer of 180 ducats a year, a house, free grain, firewood and removal by boat from Padua, his hometown (these being, the Marchese promised him, 'the least of the rewards'). Already famous and sought-after in Padua, though still only in his twenties, Mantegna at first resisted. But having arrived at the Mantuan court, he spent the rest of his life there - serving three generations of Gonzaga, contributing prodigiously to the city's prestige and profoundly influencing other painters and architects who followed him here.

The Camera Picta took seven years to complete, and Mantegna incorporated a self-portrait, cleverly concealed in the elaborate foliage on the painted pillar to the right of the doorway.

At the top of Piazza Sordello is the 18th-century façade of the Duomo of San Pietro. The cathedral dates back at least 900 years, but the bright interior was remodelled after a fire along the lines of a classical temple, using designs left by the painter, architect, artistic entrepreneur and urban planner extraordinary Giulio Romano (1492-1546). Raphael's favourite pupil, chief assistant and heir, Giulio Romano, like Mantegna, came to Mantua in his twenties and ended his days here, placing his sparkling and indelible stamp on the city.

On either side of San Pietro's altar are frescoes commemorating synods held at Mantua by Popes Alexander II (left) and Pius II (right). Not least of the Gonzaga achievements was their accomplished diplomatic balancing act between the Papacy in Rome and the Holy Roman Emperors in Germany: a prime benefit being that Mantua never suffered the factional strife that regularly tore apart many other Italian city states.

Mantua was traditionally pro-imperial, the legitimacy of its rulers depending on the recognition of the German Emperor, and it was as a reward for their loyalty that successive Emperors conferred on the Gonzaga ever grander titles. The family, as it were, hit the jackpot in the 17th century when Gonzaga daughters married Holy Roman Emperors. Meanwhile, the Gonzaga secured important posts in the Catholic Church and acquired a glowing reputation for piety. By 1615 ten of them had reached the rank of cardinal, numerous others that of bishop, many daughters had become nuns, and one son, Luigi, achieved sainthood.

Already an ideal halting place between Rome and northern Europe - despite winter fog, summer heat, mosquitoes, and the incessant croaking of frogs, of which visitors from the poet Petrarch to Pius II complained - Mantua spared no efforts to upgrade the facilities to attract distinguished and influential guests.

When a papal nuncio told a Gonzaga agent in Venice that the pontiff had been put out by Mantua's mud, he was informed that the paving of all the squares and streets was already under way. (Mantua's distinctive oval cobbles, still there today, are a charming aspect of the city, but murderous on the feet; and though the town's many cyclists negotiate them with amazing aplomb, visitors are advised to wear flat, thick-soled shoes.)

A high archway in the southern corner of Piazza Sordello, opens the way to Piazza delle Erbe (Herb Square) at the centre of an intriguing maze of store- and cafÉ-lined streets and piazzas, where, every Thursday, a splendid country market of over 200 stalls sets up shop selling everything from tools, farm, implements and crockery to shoes, hats, lingerie, spices and honey.

The dominant building here is the great basilica of Sant'Andrea, which contains a holy relic of Christ's Blood. The church is the work of the Florentine architect, mathematician, poet and polymath Leon Battista Alberti (1402-1472). The façade with its double monumental arches, one placed above the other, is particularly striking. Inside, the first chapel on the left was designed by Mantegna himself as his resting place, and a bronze relief self-portrait shows his face, sombre, lined and almost defiant in old age.

Two other smaller architectural gems are to be found nearby: the Rotonda of San Lorenzo, an intensly pleasing 11th-century round church, which is an idealized version of the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem; and the 18th-century Teatro Scientifico, familarly known as the 'Bibiena' after its designer and decorator, where the 14-year-old Mozart was ecstatically received a couple of months after its inauguration in 1769. There is also, at Piazza Broletto 9, an unusual and entertaining museum devoted to the memorabilia of the Mantuan motor racing champion Tazio Nuvolari (1892-1953).

A leisurely stroll towards the south of the city (by Via Roma, Amadeo and Acerbi) brings us to Giulio Romano's chef d'oeuvre, Palazzo Te - and no visitor should leave the city without seeing it.

On the way a short deviation along Via Poma leads to the much admired house Giulio Romano built for himself (no.18, with a classical statue of Mercury in a niche above the door). Its sturdy and rugged stone arches and columns are, in fact, illusory. Like almost everything else in the city, they are built of brick, with hard stucco rendering cunningly imitating stonework (a technique brought to perfection in Mantua).

Ironically, it is just as well there were no quarries to hand - since the Gonzaga would never have been able to afford either the time or the money to build on the scale they did, in stone. (Indeed, so brick-conscious were they that Ludovico Gonzaga was prepared to hazard a guess of how many of them would be needed to build Sant'Andrea - 'about 2 million, in my opinion,' he wrote to the architect.)

Round the corner, at Via Acerbi 47, is the house Mantegna designed for himself as a studio and home - surely one of the most inspired and unusual domestic buildings anywhere. The conventional-seeming exterior contains a cylindrical interior courtyard, a geometricaltour de forcethat also brings light into every room, and impresses the visitor while providing interesting, practical and comfortable living and working spaces. Looking upwards in the courtyard, it is almost a surprise to see real, and not trompe l'oeil, walls and sky. The unfortunate Mantegna was forced in 1502 to exchange the house for another owned by Francesco the 4th Marchese to pay off debts he owed his patron.

Palazzo Te, built by Giulio Romano for Federico the 5th Marchese and 1st Duke of Mantua, is a couple of minutes away. In the 16th century it stood on an island linked to the city by a bridge, and the buildings that formed its basis were originally the stables of the Gonzaga stud farm (the horses bred there being highly prized throughout Europe).

Federico was of a sensual and hedonistic bent and the Palazzo seems to have been conceived as a retreat where he could retire with his mistress Isabella Boschetti. But the Te project once placed in the hands of Giulio Romano (of whom his contemporary biographer Vasari wrote that 'one only had to mention an idea for him to understand and draw it'), blossomed into the creation of a glorious country villa for entertainment and enjoyment, and the most complete realization of the artist's multifaceted genius.

The airy and harmonious buildings are arranged around two spacious courts (at the bottom left hand of the second one is a lovely walled Secret Garden and grotto). Room after room is frescoed in Giulio Romano's own hand or according to his designs by his group of assistants (his exceptional skill at directing a large and complex team of artists helped, no doubt, by experience in Raphael's large studio). The Te was begun in the mid 1520s and sufficiently far advanced to serve as a place to receive Emperor Charles V on his visit to Italy in 1529-30.

The Metamorphosis and Ovid Rooms, decorated with scenes from the Latin love poet, lead on to the Sun Room, with chariots of the Sun and Moon rushing overhead in atrompe l'oeilopening in the ceiling. In the Hall of the Horses, esteemed Gonzaga steeds - Battle, Darius, Morel the Favourite and Glorious - improbably stand life-size on high ledges against rustic backgrounds. Beyond is the Hall of Psyche, daringly illustrated with erotic and bacchanalian scenes from classical mythology. It was after the Pope ordered the destruction of a book illustrated with the artist's pornographic engravings that Giulio Romano had found it politic to quit Rome and come to Mantua. The Psyche Room vaults abound in 'bottoms-up' views, and the obvious state of arousal of Jupiter as he prepares to impregnate Olympia is arresting even by today's standards.

The final triumph is the Hall of the Giants, a staggering in-the-round experience of the destruction of the Giants by Jupiter for daring to rebel against him and scale Mount Olympus. Here the massed ranks of gods, in a considerable panic themselves, fill the domed ceiling, while Jupiter hurls down thunderbolts and boulders, horribly crushing the outsized figures of the giants in a mass of collapsing pillars, plinths and brickwork. The room has a booming echo to provide the sound effects for this nightmare vision, which has been appropriately compared to a disaster movie (it is even funny and hair-raising at the same time as such productions are).

Federico adopted Mount Olympus as an heraldic device, and this symbol appears on many a wall and ceiling at the Palazzo Te. For the ruler of a tiny kingdom on a plain as flat as a pool table, it might seem a faintly absurd choice. Yet through sheer energy, ambition and chutzpah, the Gonzaga did achieve a kind of Olympian status, and their man-made Olympus, the city of Mantua, is still there to prove it.

A version of this article appeared in the New York Times.

First published: New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023