“One wonders what dreams these immense scenarios served … it was the most preposterous dream of the Renaissance” – Corrado Alvaro, 1933
Alvaro‘s “preposterous dream” is the extraordinary ambition of the Gonzaga family, and the sumptuous wealth of their main home, the Ducal Palace of Mantua. It has more than 500 rooms, many exquisitely decorated with amazing frescoes reflecting the opulence of their lives. Often described as a town within a city, the immense complex of palaces, courtyards, gardens and churches is second in size only to the Vatican. In medieval Italy those were some bragging rights.
The family’s power was both earthly and spiritual, with a saint, twelve cardinals and fourteen bishops amongst their ranks. Not to mention two Empresses of the Holy Roman Empire. Which makes some of the more risqué frescoes on display all the more fascinating. This most powerful and connected of families were legendary in their own lifetime, no wonder that Shakespeare featured them in Hamlet. The play-within-a-play is called, The Murder of Gonzago.
The grandeur and wealth of the Gonzagas was given full expression through their patronage of the arts. Two of the most wondrous rooms in the palace are the work of Renaissance masters. The Camera degli Sposi, or bridal chamber, depicts typical court scenes projecting the family’s power. They were painted between 1465 and 1474 by Raphael’s star pupil, Andrea Mantegna, who served the Gonzaga clan as court painter for 50 years.
The more whimsical Sala dello Zodiaco, or Zodiac Room, has a slightly psychedelic ceiling covered in a constellation of epic paintings of the Zodiac. They swirl around the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana, whose chariot is being pulled by a pack of dogs. A late 16th century creation of Lorenzo Costa the Younger, it’s quite a sight and all the more intriguing to know that Napoleon Bonaparte slept beneath it when he was conquering this part of Italy.
For all the splendor of the Ducal Palace, it’s the seemingly less ostentatious Palazzo Te on the outskirts of the old town that really defies expectations. This time it was Mantegna’s apprentice, Giulio Romano, who built this masterpiece on an island in the river. Approached from the outside the single story Te seems restrained. Venture inside, however, and its true purpose is revealed.
Palazzo Te is a full-on pleasure palace designed for romantic trysts and filled with the most salacious erotic art that, it’s rumoured, caused more than one impromptu orgy. There is nakedness and sexual cavorting everywhere the eye wanders as you go from room to room. The Chamber of Cupid and Psyche features Voluptas, the goddess of sensual pleasure, lying on a bed. Bacchus is fuelling the festivities as only he knows how. While Jupiter seduces Olympias.
In the Chamber of the Sun and the Moon, the Moon is riding a chariot and chasing the Sun, who provides a little too much ínformation about what he isn’t wearing under his toga. Buttocks flying in the breeze, is this the origin of the meaning of ‘mooning’? If it’s shocking today, it shows how the Renaissance aristocracy viewed sexuality. One can only imagine the medieval shenanigans in this erotic wonderland.
Constructed for Federico II Gonzaga between 1525 and 1535, Palazzo Te is styled on a Roman villa and sits in a large park. The walk through Mantua to reach it is pure medieval delight. The Piazza delle Erbe, the old marketplace, is now full of restaurants and bars, including Bar Caravatti. The house aperitif, invented by Signor Caravatti in 1865, is famed well beyond Mantua. The secret recipe of wine and aromatic bitters seems like justice after a day of exploring.
Here also is the 11th-century Rotonda di San Lorenzo, said to be inspired by Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre church – there is a resemblance – which sits over the square from the hulking mass of the Basilica di Sant’Andrea. From here you can fan out in almost any direction and explore the medieval centre for hours. We could have spent days here. Instead, we headed north along the River Mincio to Lago di Garda. Our journey was ending and soon we’d have to cross the Alps back to Germany.