CHIAVARI, Italy – Almost twenty-five years ago, just before I left Philadelphia to live in Italy full time, I bought myself a 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 had always passed on my way to somewhere else. I had traveled to Italy often enough to know there were a lot of towns to see, so I figured the bag was a good investment.
I’ve slipped those soft leather straps over my shoulder many, many times over the years and have traveled the length and breadth of Italy but somehow I had never gotten to Mantua. I remembered reading that in the 1400’s Mantua was a dark and dank city infested with vermin, wolves and vultures, that the disease of the day was bubonic plague and that travelers slept on flea ridden straw mattresses. To make matters even worse, they had to share their beds with strangers. As I was at that moment on a train heading for Mantua, I sincerely hoped the town had changed since then and said so to the woman sitting across from me.
“I think you’ll find things have improved a little,” she said. “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. It’s 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 the Gonzaga family was in power.
Oh yes, the Gonzaga family. They were one of the richest and most powerful families in Italy’s history. In this small provincial town, which today only has about 45,000 inhabitants, they created a dynasty so powerful it rivaled their more famous city-state neighbors of Venice and Milan. They are what Mantua is, and always has been about.
After I checked into my hotel, examined the mattress for signs of straw and fleas, assured myself there were no strangers lurking in the closet waiting to share my bed, I met up with Toni Lodigiani, who was the Associate Director of the Mantua Tourist Bureau. He walked me over to the Ducal Palace and as we crossed the three interlinking squares of the old city, Piazzas Sordello, Broletto and delle Erbe, he told me about the Gonzaga family.
“Mantua owes everything to the Gonzaga family,” he said. “It would still be a small insignificant backwater if it weren’t for them. They put this town on the map. 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.”
With a promise to meet up later, we said our goodbyes and I walked into the palace of the Gonzaga Dukes. It was not what I expected. It’s not one large palazzo but a series of palazzo from different periods that have been hobbled together to create a massive structure. With more than 500 rooms and fifteen courtyards, it is second in size only to the Vatican in Rome. Not all the rooms are open to the public, but it still took me close to an hour to make my way through the maze of rooms, secret gardens and courtyards that are open. From the Room of Cupid and Psyche, to the Room of the Moors, to the Room of Mirrors each is decorated with ornate, detailed frescos dedicated to the power and glory of the Gonzaga family.
During the dangerous and turbulent years of the Renaissance, strong political alliances could mean the difference between survival and surrender. The Gonzaga were clever enough to survive and flourish not just through their military shrewdness but by marrying their sons to the daughters of allies and potential enemies. The Gonzaga girls, on the other hand, were bartered and bargained for and used as 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 inbreeding 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 cloistered nunneries. A painting by artist Lavinia Fontana of a young Gonzaga girl whose face is completely covered with black hair, was found hidden in a private Gonzaga gallery. There was no doubt it was the treasured remembrance of the girl’s mother who knew her daughter would soon be sent away and lost to her forever.
|Portrait by Lavinia Fontana of Young Gonzaga Girl|
In 1463, when young Federico Gonzaga was coerced into getting married, 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 accurately reproduced a slice of life in the Renaissance court of Mantua. The fresco became one of Mantegna’s most famous works.
Over the next few centuries the Gonzaga 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. Their collection included paintings by Correggio, Mantegna, Giulio Romano, Tintoretto, and family portraits by Titian and Rubens.
|Palazzo Te, Mantua, Italy|
There are rumors of an impending train strike which means I may have to leave earlier than planned, so I decide to walk over to the Palazzo Te to see what else the Dukes of Mantua had on their minds besides collecting art and making war.
The entrance to the 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 events, but back in 1525 when Federico II called architect and artist Guilio Romano to the Ducal palace, he had another idea for the space.
|Banquet of Psyche and Amor by Giulio Romano|
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 Boshetti. What Romano gave him was the greatest of all Mannerist villas, the Palazzo 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, said it all. Federico was delighted.
|Dancing with the Devil at the Palazzo Te|
Far from the spying eyes at the Ducal Palace, Federico felt free here. 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 call the French disease, and what the French call the Italian disease, syphilis.
The threatened train strike became a reality and I had to leave. I went up to my room to pack and as I glanced out of the hotel window I realized the narrow street below led to the oldest building in Manuta, the 11th century Rotunda of San Lorenzo.
The past is such a vibrant part of the present here and the idea of turning a corner and slipping back hundreds of years fascinates me. The Mantovani may prop their bikes against the old wall of the Ducal Palace with nary 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 the shadowy gray sky outside of the train window deepen to charcoal and then black. Mantua was much more than I had 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 leather bag sitting on the seat next to me was new.
Update: If you are going to be in northern Italy this summer you might want to stop in Mantua and see artist Andrea Mantegna’s masterpiece, the Camera degli Sposi, in the Mantua Ducal Palace. It will be open to the public from 19 July to 5 October, 2014 and then closed so the damage caused by the earthquake two years ago can be repaired.