Renaissance Italy was divided into 5 large territories, belonging to Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples and the Papacy, and a number of smaller ones, like Mantova (Mantua), Modena, Ferrara and Urbino. The rulers of the smaller states, lacking the money and territory to wage war against the big boys, made their living by hiring themselves out as condottieri (captains of companies of mercenary soldiers). Successful condottieri, like the Gonzagas of Mantova, became very rich men, and they used their money to hire the best artists, architects and humanists they could afford. That is one reason why the relatively small city of Mantova has such astonishingly rich art.
In the 15th C, the Gonzaga’s court painter was Andrea Mantegna, who decorated the Camera degli Sposi (which, despite the name, was a formal audience hall as well as the lord and lady’s bedchamber) with frescoes of the Gonzaga family. A master of the new techniques of perspective, Mantegna frescoed the ceiling with a fake “oculus,” or skylight, which creates the illusion of people leaning over the balustrade to peer down at the folks below. One little cherub is even painted from the perspective of the bottom of his feet.
In the 16th C, the court engaged Giulio Romano to decorate the Palazzo Te, the Gonzaga’s summer palace (the name refers not to the hot beverage, then still unknown in Europe, but a local river). The frescoes use startlingly bright colors and oversize figures. In the most famous room, Romano depicts the mythological Fall of the Giants, in which an angry Zeus destroys the prior race of immortals by using thunderbolts, floods, and buildings. Although the room is a standard rectangle, the artist creates the illusion of a dome by painting from floor to ceiling as one continuous canvas.
After the 16th C, the Gonzaga family went into decline, and supported itself by selling off much of its art to the royal families of Europe. When Napoleon came through, he stole much of what was left. Some of the older paintings have been recovered and restored (such as a portrait of Giulio Romano by Titian, which had been sold to Charles I of England and sold off by Cromwell to pay the crown’s debts). But most of what remains in Mantova is the stuff that, because it was painted directly on walls or ceilings, couldn’t be removed. Fortunately, that is quite enough.
In the 18th C, the house of Gonzaga died out and the city came under the control of the Austrian Hapsburgs, who would remain in charge until the reunification of Italy in 1860. Buildings from this era include a wonderful rococo-style theater for musical performances — one of the first performers was a still teenaged Mozart. The Theresiana Library, named after the Empress Maria Theresa, has a wonderful collection of old globes, including a 16th C one which depicts California as an island (as maybe, in some political sense, it is).
Mantova is also the setting for Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. The title character, a court jester for a (fictional) Duke of Mantova, discovers his daughter has been seduced by the playboy Duke. Vowing revenge, Rigoletto hires a hit man with the wonderful name of Sparafucile (Shooter), who lives down by the river. Sparafucile, unfortunately, shoots the daughter instead of the duke. Hopefully, the folks running this boathouse are less inept than the hapless shooter.
We also visited Sabbioneta, a much smaller town about 20 minutes drive from Mantova which was once the property of a younger son of the Gonzaga family, the grandly named Vespasiano. In the 16th C, this fellow created a model Renaissance city here, complete with a regular palace, a summer palace with a gallery for displaying his collection (now lost) of antiquities, even a theater. The tiny city went into decline after Vespasiano’s death, and still looks much like it did at the end of the 16th C. As a result, it is much in demand for location shoots for Renaissance period dramas, including most recently the Netflix series on the Medici family.