The city of Mantua, known as Mantova by the Italians, has a lot to be proud about. Its old historic center has rightly been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nearly 10 years in celebration of the artistic and ancient cultural treasures that can be found there. And this year it has been named Italian capital of culture by the Italian government. But it’s probably most famous for its architecture, particularly the medieval Palazzo Ducale of Mantua, which for 700 years has dominated the city center. Let’s take a look!
Mantua, Lombardy’s hidden gem
Mantua’s historic beginnings stretch back 4,000 years when the first settlement was established along the banks of the River Mincio in 2000 BC. The origins of the city’s name are less well known, although according to local tradition it was either named after the early Etruscan god Mantus or Manto the daughter of Tiresias an ancient Roman.
See also: Mantova Guide by Martha’s Italy
Throughout its early life the little village of Mantua was fought over by several tribes, including the Gallic Cenomani people, before the Romans conquered it with victory in the Punic Wars of 220 BC. The town remained under Roman control for over 600 years but with the fall of the ancient Roman Empire in 476 AD came the return of successive tribal invasions as the ever-expanding Mantua was overrun first by Goths, then Byzantines, Longobards and Franks.
Mantua finally declared itself a free commune in the 1100s but still had to defend itself against the Holy Roman Empire of the Pope and various local power grabs. A fellow called Pinamonte Bonacolsi took timely advantage of a squabble between the Ghibelline and Guelph tribes to seize power in 1273 whilst they were distracted. But although he brought prosperity to the city and used the new-found riches to enhance its architectural beauty the Bonacolsi family rule wasn’t to last for long.
Just 55 years later in 1328 Luigi Gonzaga, an official in the government incited a bloody public coup d’état, deposing Bonacolsi and installing himself as Captain General of the People. And whilst the Gonzagas ruled with an iron fist for several centuries, it’s their descents that we have to thank for the spectacular Palazzo Ducale of Mantua.
The Palazzo Ducale of Mantua
Although Pinamonte Bonacolsi built the original 13th century medieval Palazzo Ducale of Mantua, its the Gonzaga family who are credited with it’s huge expansion, restructuring and decorative Renaissance additions. During the 400 years that they called it home the Gonzagas created a large complex of interconnected castles, gardens, basilicas, courtyards and palaces with a total of over 500 glorious rooms. And each new Gonzaga lord, marquis or duke added his mark, gradually extending the site into a small city within a city.
Today the vast, sprawling complex covers an enormous 35,000 square meters or 377,000 square feet. Corridors and fantastically frescoed galleries connect the buildings with 15 gardens, courtyards and squares. And thanks to inspired initiative by Ludovico II century to create a cultural center for artists in the 1400s the palace boasts some stunning decoration, particularly on its ceilings, throughout its corridors and in rooms such as the River Chamber, Zodiac Room, the Hall of the Labyrinth and the famous Room of the Newly Weds.
Camera degli Sposi
The Palazzo Ducale of Mantua boasts some wonderfully frescoed rooms and one of the most popular highlights is the Camera degli Sposi, Newlyweds Room or Wedding Chamber. Also known as the Camera Picta or Painted Chamber the room was commissioned in 1465 by the Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga III and took 9 years to complete.
Ludovico had, for some time, been interested in the work of Andrea Mantegna, an artist born near Padua. The thirty four year old was a student of Roman archaeology and had been experimenting with the relatively new technique of perspective to give his works depth and dimensionality. And finally, in 1460, Mantegna entered the service of the Gonzagas, for the enormous monthly salary of 75 Lire, indicating the high esteem in which the ruler held him.
Today Mantegna’s work for the court of Mantua is held as one of his greatest masterpieces. Decoration of the square room would take him almost ten years to complete due to a few technical hitches. But the main reason for the delay in its final unveiling was that the artist simply put so much detail into his work that it took him years to finish all the scenes.
Today the room’s walls are covered in a series of frescoes making great use of the innovative trompe l’oeil technique to give a three dimensional impression. And Mantegna cleverly frames his scenes with painted curtains to give the impression that a heavy velvet drape has been pulled back to reveal the hidden paintings.
Scenes include elegantly dressed courtiers at court gatherings and Ludovico and his wife Barbara of Brandenburg seated with relatives. And the west wall shows the meeting scene between the Marquis, in all his ceremonial finery, his son Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga and Christian I of Denmark. Sadly, some of the messages or meanings behind the frescoes have been lost down through the years but they still offer a striking insight into life at the Gonzaga’s palatial home.
Don’t miss the River Chamber, Zodiac Room and Hall of the Labyrinth
The Camera degli Sposi is not the only gem in this vast complex of note. The River Chamber’s walls and ceilings are covered in decorative maps of the rivers of the region that sweep and wind around the room. The midnight blue Zodiac Room is pierced by a wonderful array of stars in the night sky. And the classic maze on the ceiling of the Labyrinth Room aptly reflects the warren-like network of chambers and courtyards of the Palazzo Ducale of Mantua. Don’t miss these beautiful chambers!
Exploring the Palazzo Ducale of Mantua
Ultimately, as with most dynasties, the Gonzaga’s rule eventually came to an end when Napoleon invaded Italy. The family was forced to sell most of their art collection to pay off debts and the palazzo complex was largely abandoned in the 19th century. Fortunately, however, Mantua recognized its importance, restoring the buildings to create a state museum and give us a portal back to another world. If you’re visiting Lombardy, make sure you ask our friendly travel experts to include a tour of the Palazzo Ducale of Mantua in your itinerary; it’s a wonderful, mysterious complex and a fascinating insight into how the iron-fisted Gonzagas lived their lives.
What’s your favorite spot in Lombardy? Leave us a comment with some recommendations. And in the meantime, buon viaggio, have a good trip!