by Roderick Conway Morris

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Mantua's Museum of the City at Palazzo San Sebastiano

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA, Italy 16 April 2005


The city-state of Mantua grew up in a singular position: an island in the middle of the Lombardy plain. At one time it was entirely surrounded by a lake and marshes formed by the River Mincio as it flowed south from Lake Garda to join the River Po. Waters still lap it on three sides. For centuries this unusual, defensible location helped maintain its independence from the powerful Duchy of Milan to the west and Venetian Republic to the east.

The town's only distinction in ancient times was that it was the birthplace of the Roman poet Virgil. It languished in obscurity in the Middle Ages. But under the benign autocratic rule of the Gonzaga family, between the 14th and early 17th century, it became one of the most renowned and admired cities in Europe.

The Gonzaga attracted to Mantua some of the greatest of Renaissance architects and artists - Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Mantegna, Giulio Romano - not to mention craftsmen and musicians, notably Claudio Monteverdi. The Gonzaga also increased their prestige by building up the finest art collection in a single family's hands anywhere.

But with the decline of the dynasty, many artworks were dispersed. Charles I purchased a sizable chunk of the best pieces, including Mantegna's magnificent series of canvases 'The Triumphs of Caesar,' still in England at Hampton Court. Many of the king's acquisitions were sold on by Cromwell, hugely enriching the Prado, the Louvre and other collections. Additional works were destroyed or carried away when the city was sacked by Imperial troops during the War of Succession (1628-31) that followed the death of the last Gonzaga duke in the direct line.

Yet Mantua was left with a stupendous architectural heritage, from Alberti's Sant'Andrea and San Sebastiano churches, to the Ducal Palace and Giulio Romano's splendid Palazzo Te. And the city is surely unique in having no fewer than three private houses designed by artists as their own residences: those of Mantegna, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Battista Bertani, the creator of the first Gonzaga court theater.

Two of the most important Renaissance fresco cycles also survive here: Mantegna's mural portraits of Ludovico Gonzaga, his family, retainers, dwarves, hounds and household pets, at the Ducal Palace, and Giulio Romano's extraordinary mythological decorative scheme that runs through the rooms of Palazzo Te.

In fact, more of Mantua's moveable treasures remained here than has hitherto been evident. Since the mid-18th century, the Ducal Palace has doubled up as the city's principal museum. This has been unfortunate, since many pieces were displayed in inappropriate settings, and a very large number were permanently in storage.

Now Mantua has at last inaugurated a brand-new Museum of the City to show some of its wealth of hidden artworks. The museum occupies Palazzo San Sebastiano, strategically placed on the axis that runs between the Ducal Palace and the old city center, to Mantegna's house and Palazzo Te.

Palazzo San Sebastiano was constructed in the early 16th century by the Gonzaga Marquis, Francesco II, its design including a special gallery to display the nine huge canvases of Mantegna's 'Triumphs of Caesar,' which the painter had spend nearly a decade working on. After the removal of the 'Triumphs,' the palazzo fell into disrepair.

Its restoration has revealed extensive decorative frescoes in situ, to which have been added frescoes from other palaces, some in the style of Mantegna and his school, others early examples of the 'grotesque,' inspired by the rediscovery of Nero's Golden House in Rome. And in the absence of the original 'Triumphs,' there is a suggestive series of frescoed copies of them, made for a private palazzo in the 1670s.

The Gonzaga, one of the leading land-owning families in the region, rose to their position of pre-eminence from the 14th century onwards, gradually achieving absolute power, acquiring the titles of lords, then marquises and finally dukes. These honorifics were granted by the Holy Roman emperors, who found Mantua an invaluable, secure staging post on their journeys to and fro over the Alps, from their Germanic homelands to their fiefdoms in Italy and to Rome. Noble titles played a vital part in legitimizing Gonzaga rule, as did the heraldic blazons and symbols associated with them. This produced some intriguing art works in various media, well represented in the museum.

The city was an early center of humanism and in the forefront of reviving interest in classical ideas, literature and art. As the museum reveals, even after the depredations, the Gonzaga legacy has left Mantua with some wonderful sculpture, both genuinely antique and later pieces modeled on Roman marbles.

Over time the name of Gonzaga became synonymous with the state. The family even granted the use of their name to other prominent citizens. One such was the knight Valente Valenti, who had this privilege conferred on him in 1518, along with the right to insert the Gonzaga eagle into his coat of arms.

Although not of the bloodline, Valenti's descendant, Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga, shared to a striking degree the ruling house's compulsion to collect. He is the subject of 'Portrait of a Collection: Pannini and the Gallery of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga' (which continues at Palazzo Te until May 15).

Born in Mantua in 1690, he moved to Rome at the age of 20, and enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks at the Vatican. Having served in several senior positions in the state, he was made a cardinal in 1738.

Equally engaged by theology, the arts and science, among other initiatives Valenti oversaw the works for the consolidation of the dome of St. Peter's; revived the drawing school at Rome's Academy of Fine Arts of San Luca; inaugurated an Academy of the Nude to foster figure drawing; founded the Capitoline Picture Gallery; and strengthened the laws regulating the export of artworks, both ancient and modern, from the Papal states. He established chairs of chemistry and experimental physics at Rome University. He is reputed to have brought the first pineapple to Rome.

Valenti bought pictures, sculpture, furniture, tapestries, silver and thousands of other artifacts to embellish his several residences. By the time of his death in 1756, his paintings numbered 832. In 1749 he had one of his favorite protégés, Giovanni Paolo Pannini paint 'The Picture Gallery of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga.' This is now at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, and has made the journey back to Europe for the first time in half a century.

This view of a lofty baroque interior - in which Valenti and Pannini are portrayed center stage examining a new acquisition - shows the gallery crammed floor to ceiling with paintings, and with piles of new canvases, engravings and books waiting to be accommodated. There are 220 pictures visible in Pannini's oil, of which 140 are clear enough for their content to be discerned. Of these, with the aid of Valenti's inventory and other documents, 54 have been positively identified (15 of them in the exhibition).

What is remarkable about Pannini's painting is that the cardinal's canvases were never all at the same time in the same place, and the building in which they are shown hanging is wholly fictional. This is, indeed, almost certainly the first 'virtual' gallery ever conceived and executed.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022