MANTUA, Italy –Almost twenty years ago, just before I left Philadelphia to live in Italy full time, I bought myself a good size black leather travel bag. The plan was to get settled in my new country and then spend weekends checking out the little Italian towns I always passed on my way to somewhere else. I had traveled to Italy often enough to know there were a lot of them, but there always seemed to be too many other things to do and see.
|Gonzaga Ducal Palace|
I’ve slipped those soft leather straps over my shoulder many, many times since then, but never got around to Mantua. I remember reading somewhere that in the 1400’s Mantua was a dark and dank city infested with vermin, wolves and vultures, that travelers slept on flea ridden straw mattresses, shared their beds with strangers and the disease of the day was the bubonic plague. I sincerely hoped the town had changed since then, and say so to the woman sitting across from me on the train.
"I think you'll find things have improved," she says. “It’s actually very pretty. There are three small lakes that wrap around the town like a Renaissance moat, giving it a very romantic atmosphere. And it has one of the best preserved medieval towns in northern Italy. In fact the last time a new building went up in Mantua's historic center was back in 1561 when it was ruled by the Gonzaga family."
Oh yes, the Gonzaga family. They are what Mantua is, and always has been, about. They were one of the richest and most powerful families in Italy's history, and in this small provincial town, which today has about 65,000 inhabitants, they created a dynasty so powerful it rivaled their more famous city state neighbors, Venice and Milan.
After I check into the hotel, look at the mattress and assure myself there are no strangers lurking in the closet, I go to meet Toni Lodigiani, the Associate Director of the Mantua Tourist Bureau. He walks me over to the Ducal Palace, and as we cross the three interlinking squares of the old city, Piazzas Sordello, Broletto and delle Erbe he tells me about the Gonzaga family.
“They were shrewd and cunning soldiers of fortune, commoners who fought their way to power. They took control of Mantua in 1328, and held it with an iron fist for 400 years, buying themselves a royal title along the way,” he says.
At the Palace, what I find is a series of palazzi, dating from different periods, that have been hobbled together. It’s massive. With more than five hundred rooms and fifteen courtyards it is second in size only to the Vatican in Rome. Once inside it takes close to an hour to make my way through the maze of rooms, secret gardens and courtyards that are open to the public. From the Room of Cupid and Psyche, to the Room of the Moors, to the Room of the Mirrors, each is decorated with ornate, detailed frescos dedicated to the power and glory of the Gonzaga family.
In 1463, when a youthful Federico Gonzaga decided to marry, his father, Ludovico, the Marquis of Mantua, hired artist Andrea Mantegna to decorate the Camera degli Sposi, or Bridal Chamber. On the walls of the small room Mantegna pictured the Duke and his wife Barbara surrounded by their children, members of their court, their servants, their dogs and their horses. With extraordinary beauty and sensitivity the artist reproduced a slice of life in the Renaissance court of Mantua. The fresco became one of Mantegna’s most famous works.
| Portrait by Lavinia Fontana|
of Young Gonzaga Girl
|Lunch time in Mantua|
During the dangerous and turbulent days of the Renaissance, strong political alliances could mean the difference between survival and surrender. The Gonzaga survived, and flourished, not only through their military shrewdness, but by marrying their sons to the daughters of allies and potential enemies. The women, bartered and bargained for, were used like brood hens to produce heirs for the mutual benefit of the families. For the Gonzaga there was also a serious need to introduce new blood lines as genetic defects due to excessive inter-breeding was starting to produce odd looking children.
The boys, though deformed, were generally tolerated but the girls were sent off to live out their lives in a cloistered nunnery. The painting of a young girl in elegant court dress, her face completely covered with black hair found hidden in a private Gonzaga gallery was no doubt the treasured remembrance of the girl’s mother who knew her daughter would be lost to her forever.
Over the next few centuries the Gongaza family put together what was to become one of Europe's most extraordinary collections of art and art objects, amassing more than 2,000 paintings and nearly 20,000 objets d'art. The collection included Correggio, Mantegna, Giulio Romano, Tintoretto, Titian; and family portraits by Titian and Rubens.
There are rumors of an impending train strike which means I may have to leave earlier than planned so I walk over to the Palazzo Te to see what else the rulers of Mantua had on their minds besides collecting art and making war.
The sun is high in the sky and prickly, so I stop at the small café in the park near the Te. It’s crowded with elegantly dressed young mothers in Dolce and Gabbana chatting and spoon feeding gelato to their cooing round-faced babies. At this hour there are no other women my age in the café, or even in the park, making me fair game for every bike riding Romeo cruising by. Safe in the knowledge that their Signoras are at home cleaning the kitchen after lunch, they feel free to stare and flash their toothless smiles. What I can’t figure out is how they can pedal along the narrow park paths and ogle me without running headlong into the trees.
The entrance to the Palazzo Te is crowded with stacks of tables and chairs ready for an event scheduled for later that evening. These days the Te is used for corporate meetings and special banquets, but back in 1525 when Federico II called the architect and artist Guilio Romano to the Ducal palace, he had another idea for the space.
Federico, (who would be granted the title of Duke just five years later), asked Romano to convert what was an abandoned stable on the outskirts of town into a summer retreat, a hideaway where he could entertain his mistress, Isabella Boschetti. What Romano gave him was the greatest of all Mannerist villas, the Te.
The Duke and Romano sat and planned the frescoes that would decorate his new palace. Federico explained that his interests ran to women and good times, and Romano listened. His fresco of the drunken Bacchus (the Roman god of wine) frolicking with plump nudes and exotic animals in a celebration of sex, food and wine in the Hall of Psyche, says it all. Federico was delighted.
Far from the spying eyes at the Ducal palace, Federico felt free. At last he could indulge in his vices and transgressions, which he happily did until he died at the age of forty, crippled by what the Italians called the French disease, and what the French called the Italian disease, syphilis.
The threatened train strike becomes a reality and I have to leave. The people at the hotel understand, train strikes are a way of life here. They shake my hand and say they hope I at least enjoyed the little time I had, and to come back soon.
I go up to my room to pack and as I glance out of the hotel window I realize the narrow street below leads to the oldest building in Mantua, the 11th century Rotunda of San Lorenzo. The past is such a vibrant part of the present here and being able to slip back hundreds of years just by turning a corner fascinates me. The Mantovani may prop their bikes against the old wall of the Ducal palace without giving a thought to the centuries of violence and bloodshed that took place on the very ground beneath their feet, but I find it difficult to take the historic treasure that is Mantua for granted.
The sky was darkening as I boarded the train. I watched as the shadowy gray sky outside the train window deepened to charcoal and then black. Mantua was much more than I expected and I hope it stays just the way it is, a simple paese with all the charm of the Italy I fell in love with all those many years ago when the scruffy old black leather bag sitting on the seat next to me was still new.