From Famous Castles & Palaces of Italy, Illustrated in Colour from Paintings, by Edmund B. d’Auvergne, London: T. Werner Laurie, [undated, 1911]; pp. 277-296.


Decorated Adorment from the spine of the book, of a gilt berry with leaves in black around it on a burgundy woven ground.




MANTUA, like Ferrara, was made by its princes, and their impress it still bears. They lit, it is true, the feeble lamp of their fame in the full sunlight of a great man’s glory; but of Virgil there is but the memory, and only the reeds and the slow, placid lakes remain of the Mantua which he knew. A vast pile of buildings, terminating in a castle on the lake’s side, is the more tangible monument of the city’s prime.

Its career, as a principality, began with Sordello, “the most polite, the most gentle, the most generous man of his time,” who was chosen their lord and captain by the people in 1284. He preserved the city from the clutches of Eccelino, with the sister of which tyrant he was, by the way, in love; and, having done so well under one dictator, the citizens were foolish enough, upon his death, to elect another. This was Pinamonte Bonacolsi, who made the office of captain hereditary in his family. His grandson, Guido, surnamed il Bottesella, built himself a great house where the ducal palace now stands; but on his accession to power in 1299 he erected a much finer palace next to it, with funds belonging to the state. However, his abuse of authority was ratified by the council of the ancients, and the work he had begun declared of public utility. The Bonacolsi might have 278 been living in this palace to this day had not Francesco, Bottesella’s nephew, become enamoured of the wife of Filippino Gonzaga, a powerful noble in those parts. Matters were further complicated by Gonzaga’s falling in love with Bonacolsi’s mistress. Instead of effecting an exchange, or considering that one transaction cancelled the other, the two nobles became deadly enemies. Luigi, the uncle of Filippino, made a treaty with Cangrande of Verona, and one August morning in 1328 burst into Mantua crying, “Viva il popolo!” Passerino, the chief of the Bonacolsi, collected his followers and made a stand outside the palace. He was defeated and wounded, and dropped dead from his horse as he rode under the arch behind the present-day entrance to the palace. Francesco fled for refuge to a church, but was dragged from it and tortured to death. Then the city was sacked by its deliverers, and had to pay the Pope twenty thousand gold florins to obtain absolution for them for having done so. They then “elected” Luigi as their captain.

With a view to the enlargement of his official residence, this prudent leader gave all the houses surrounding it to his kinsfolk and friends. He lived in princely state. Documents mention the loggia of his palace, a “glorietta” and chambers painted like those at Pavia, with the figures of wild beasts, and with episodes from the career of Cæsar. While busy fighting his old ally, Cangrande, Luigi found time to entertain Petrarch, who had come on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Virgil, and who seldom missed an opportunity of visiting a court.

Guido was the second Gonzaga captain of the 279 people. He admitted his son, Ugolino, to a share in the government, to the mortification of his younger sons, who slew their brother at a banquet, and were allowed to take his place. One of these disciples of Cain was Lodovico, who succeeded his father in 1370, and proved himself a good and able ruler. To kill even his own brother, under the influence of a violent passion, does not, it seems, prove that a man is really bad, and that it would be for the good of humanity to kill him in turn. Under the rule of Lodovico the city tasted great peace and prosperity. He died in 1381, and was succeeded by his son, Francesco. This prince married Agnes, the daughter of Bernabò Visconti, and, suspecting her of love for another man, caused her to be put to death in the courtyard of his palace. This was not, like his father’s crime, an assassination, but an execution or murder in cold blood. Francesco, himself, saw it in that light, and wandered about Italy devoured by remorse. He came home, married Margherita Malatesta, and in 1388 built a wing of his palace in front of the lake, which he called the Casa Giocosa. Seven years later he obtained a license from Pope Boniface IX. to pull down the ancient Church of Santa Maria Capo di Bove, and instructed Bartolino da Novara to build on the spot a castle similar to that which he had built for the Marquis of Ferrara ten years before.

In 1407 the fourth captain of Mantua died. He had expiated the killing of his wife by many good deeds, and by a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His son and successor, Gianfrancesco, was raised by the Emperor Sigismund to the rank of marquis; and he stood on such good terms with the republic of St Mark 280 that he was appointed commander of her armies on the death of Carmagnola. Contact with the rich Venetians gave him and his subjects a taste for luxury and display. He contested prizes offered by the goldsmiths of Venice with the Marquis of Ferrara, each being attended by two hundred gentlemen superbly mounted and apparelled. Both marquises were awarded the first prize, but a Mantuan cavalier bore off the second. Jealous of the veneration showed by the common people for Virgil, the marquis or his uncle, Malatesta, was barbarous enough to destroy the ancient statue of the poet. If he was responsible, vengeance may be considered to have overtaken Gianfrancesco in 1444, when he was poisoned by his wife’s lover.

His son Lodovico, is said to have run away from home, and to have fought against the armies commanded by his father. He came back wearing a long beard, on account of which he was nicknamed il Turco, with the picturesque familiarity of the times. During his reign of thirty-four years, he laboured to make this court the most polished and his city the most beautiful in Italy. “It must be confessed,” remarks Mr W. D. Howells, “that this was a soil in which art flourished better than literature, and that even born Mantuan poets went off, after a while, and blossomed in other air.” Mantegna, on the other hand, came from Padua, at the marquis’s invitation, and stayed all his life at his court. In May 1459 he was asked to decorate the chapel of the castle, which had been built after his own design. He, and the engineer, Fancelli, put, in fact, the finishing touches to the castle built by Bartolino half-a-century before. The 281 edifice closely follows the model at Ferrara, except that its square, machicolated towers are set only at the angles, and not also between them. The castle looks across the lake and along the causeway, by which the country carts come into Mantua as languidly as the wind stirs the water. The stranger enters the four-hundred-year-old pile from a court in the rear, once called the Prato del Castello, and traversing a gallery across the moat enters the inner quadrangle. The portico at the far end was built by Fancelli in 1472, and was probably reproduced on the opposite side. On the ground floor of the north tower is the Camera del Sole, so called after the sun painted in the center of the ceiling. The lunettes are adorned with various devices, such as the Dove with the motto, “Vrai amor no se change,” etc. The room above, known as the Sala degli Sposi, is adorned with the works of Mantegna. The figures are all portraits. Specially interesting is the group showing the Marquis Lodovico and his son, Cardinal Francesco, with the principal monuments of Rome in the background. The scenes were at one time supposed to tell the story of the flight of the marquis’s first-born son, Federigo, to Naples, to escape from a distasteful match with Margaret of Bavaria. Reaching the southern capital he fell into great want, and was only supported by the menial labours of his half-dozen followers. His mother, the Marchioness Barbara, had, meanwhile, sent messengers in all directions to inquire for him; and one of these coming to Naples recognised one of his prince’s servants in a day-labourer, and presently discovered Federigo, himself, lying sick in a miserable hut on a heap of straw. The 282 marquis, on hearing this pitiful tale, relented, but insisted upon the prodigal’s wedding the unattractive Margaret — a conclusion which, I hope, is as false as the rest of the story has been shown to be.

Mantegna probably painted the grotto for the Marchioness Isabella, but his work was covered by later painters. These grottoes were very much to the liking of the Italian princes of the Renaissance. There is a good example of one in the little palace of the Malaspina at Massa. It was a harmless conceit, similar to the later fancy for Greek temples, Chinese pagodas and Swiss chalets.

The upper rooms of the castle, bare and white-washed, were used as political prisons by the Austrian government and contain many relics of the patriots confined in them. Among these are several death warrants, signed, I observed, for the most part by “Carlo Barone Culoz.” I did not envy Baron Culoz this form of commemoration; and I thought Italy was to be congratulated that the signatures of her rulers would never more be appended to documents so barbarous and so disgraceful to humanity.

Federigo, the hero of the Neapolitan story, reigned from 1478 till 1484; and left the marquisate in good order to his son, Francesco II. The world just about this time was beginning to yawn and to rouse itself from its long doze. There was tremendous activity of all sorts, most of it perhaps rather misdirected, and no one was so active in that busy times as Francesco Gonzaga. He discovered no original channels for his energy, however; and just as a modern millionaire blindly imitates other millionaires by affecting an 283 interest in the turf and keeping a yacht aboard which he feels ill, so the Marquis of Mantua could think of nothing else to do but make war and encourage the fine arts.

In politics he was, however, versatile, and changed sides with bewildering rapidity and frequency. In 1495 he led the Venetian troops at the battle of Fornovo, and wounded Charles VIII. with his own hand. The French king bore him no grudge for this, and when peace was proclaimed they exchanged presents of horses.

From the chronicles of Mantua Mr Howells, who writes so entertainingly of the city, extracted the following anecdote which I relate in his own words: — “An ambassador from the Grand Turk on his way to Rome was taken by an enemy of the pope, despoiled of all his money, and as the Italians expressively say, left planted at Ancona. This ambassador was come to concert with Alexander VI. the death of Bajazet’s brother, prisoner in the pope’s hands, and he bore the pope a present of 50,000 gold ducats. It was Gian della Rovere who seized and spoiled him, and sent the papers (letters of the pope and sultan) to Charles VIII. of France, to whom Alexander had been obliged to give the Grand Turk’s brother. The magnificent Gonzaga hears of the Turk’s embarrassing mischance, sends and fetches him to Mantua, clothes him, puts abundant money in his purse, and despatches him on his way. The sultan, in reward of this courtesy to his servant, gave a number of fine horses to the marquis, who, possibly being tired of presenting his own horses, returned the Porte a shipload of excellent 284 Mantuan cheeses. This interchange of compliments seems to have led to a kind of romantic friendship between the Gonzaga and the Grand Turk, who did occasionally interest himself in the affairs of the Christian dogs; and who, when Francesco was a prisoner at Venice, actually wrote to the Serenest Senate, and asked his release as a personal grace to him, the Grand Turk. And Francesco was, thereupon, let go; the canny republic being willing to do the sultan any sort of cheap favour.”

The wife of this marquis was the lively Isabella d’Este, who has stamped her fancies in every part of the vast palace. Its embellishment was her particular care; indeed her husband’s warlike occupations can have left him little leisure for domestic affairs. She entreated, scolded and commended the various artists and artificers engaged about her home in the warmest terms. Her husband died in 1519; she survived him twenty years and lived to see her son Federico II. made Duke of Mantua by Charles V. Three years after, the emperor secured the duke the inheritance of the marquisate of Montferrat, which, though separated from their original dominions by a considerable distance, the Gonzagas held down to 1708. Federico and his mother worked together for the adornment of Mantua and the cultivation of the arts. In those days Baldassarre Castiglione lived in the city and was writing his “Cortigiano”; and he it was who discovered Giulio Romano and brought him to his master’s court. Giulio was one of those artistic gentlemen-of-all-work that abounded in the days of the Renaissance. He could lay down a system of sewage, design a rabbit-hutch, 285 build a fortress, paint a Madonna, mould a goblet and decorate a palace with equal felicity. The specialist was but lightly esteemed in those days. For such a man there was plenty of work at the court of the Gonzaga, where he waxed very rich and very old. “This painter,” says our American friend, “is an unlucky kind of man to whom all criticism seems to praise. At Mantua it is impossible not to feel in some the degree the force of this genius. As in Venice all the Madonnas in the street-corner shrines have some touch of colour to confess the painter’s subjection to Titian or Tintoretto; as in Vicenza the edifices are all in Greekish taste, and stilted upon pedals in honour and homage to Palladio; as in Parma Correggio has never died, but lives to this day in the mouths and chiaroscuro effects of all the figures in all the pictures to be found there; so in Mantua Giulio Romano is to be found in the lines of every painting and every palace. It is wonderful to see in these little Italian cities which have been the homes of great men how no succeeding generation has dared to wrong the memory of them by departing in the least from their precepts upon art. One fancies, for instance, the immense scorn with which the Vicentines would greet the audacity of any young architect who dared to think Gothic instead of Palladian Greek, and how they would put him to shame by asking him if he knew more than Palladio about architecture! It seems that original art cannot arise in the presence of the great virtues and great errors of the past; and Italian art of this day seems incapable of even the feeble mortal life of other modern art, in the midst of so much 286 immortality.” This, it must be remembered, was written nearly fifty years ago.

The first Duke of Mantua reigned eleven years, and was succeeded by his son, Francesco III., “a boy of melancholy complexion,” who died from the effects of a ducking in the lake. His brother, Guglielmo, the next duke, was a hunchback, and it is said that all his courtiers put on humps out of compliment to him. He certainly did his best to make his palace appear as deformed as he, spoiling most of the good work done by Giulio and calling in Giovan Battista Bertani to direct the work of enlargement and aggrandisement. Luckily neither he nor his predecessors seriously interfered with the beautiful façade of the old Bonacolsi palace begun in 1304, with its graceful loggia of pointed arches, its two-light windows so much admired by Street, and its Guelf battlements. We enter by the arch under which Passerino fell dead from his horse in 1328, and find everything white and chilly within. A listless attendant conducts you up a broad marble staircase, which leads first to the ancient armoury. Mantua was a school for armourers, and Giulio Romano designed some of the magnificent suits presented by the duke to Charles V., now at Madrid. In this hall was held the council convened by Pius II. in 1459 to concert measures against the Turks. Alexander Borgia took part in the conference, together with a brilliant assembly of prelates and ambassadors. The guide next takes you to the Sala dei Duchi, so called from the portraits of the captains, marquises and dukes painted or repainted on a frieze near the ceiling during the Napoleonic era. From 287 the windows you look into the square where Agnes Visconti was beheaded, by order of her husband. Her alleged lover, Vincenzo da Scandiano, was put to death immediately under the hall in which we stand. We presently come to the empress’s apartment, a double row of chambers forming part of the Bonacolsi palace and appropriated to the use of the German empresses on their occasional visits to the city in the early eighteenth century. The tapestry which once adorned these rooms was carried off by the Austrians in 1866 on the cession of the Veneto to Italy, and the canopy in the bedchamber was marked about the same time with the initials of the first king of the new kingdom.

We reach the Hall of Rivers — not very important ones for the most part: the Po, the Oglio, the Milla, the Mincio, the Secchia and the Chiese. These are personified on the walls after the usual fashion — these aquatic divinities are all alike — and overhead presides a figure in a chariot resembling the Empress Maria Theresa. These decorations are the work of Anselini, a Veronese artist, and date from 1776. This room overlooks the Giardino Pensile, a perfectly square garden surrounded by a portico, which was designed by Bertani, in Duke Guglielmo’s time. The next room is named after the Constellations of the Zodiac, which form the subject of the decorations, and were painted perhaps by Lorenzo Costa in 1579. The Appartamento Arazzi was hung with the famous Acts of the Apostles acquired by Duke Guglielmo in 1563 and now at Schönbrunn. The bed is that in which Napoleon slept in 1797 and 1805.


Traversing the former picture gallery and the Sala degli Arcieri, we enter the dual apartments, the first of which is called the Hall of Judith, whose history is illustrated on the frieze. The next chamber is named from the labyrinth painted on its ceiling in memory of the confusion and disorder from which Duke Vincenzo extricated his men at the siege of Kanizsa in Hungary in 1601. A more picturesque explanation of the design was afterwards invented. The duke was taken prisoner, we are told, and confined in a labyrinth, from which he at last escaped, fortified with the skill of Dædalus and the courage of Theseus. The motto, “Forse che si, forse che non,” introduced into the decoration is supposed to be expressive of his perplexity on this occasion, and has, I imagine, supplied the title of a recent and celebrated work, one of the scenes of which is laid here.

This Duke Vincenzo is described by Mr Howells as a great beast; a charge which appears to me undeserved. He was left by his father, Guglielmo, in possession of ample treasure, which he prudently determined to spend, lest some other prince might relieve him of it. So on the day of his investiture (1587) he rode through the streets throwing handfuls of gold to his subjects, lent two hundred thousand livres to the King of Spain, and in the course of fifteen years got through fifty million crowns. One hundred and fifty horses of marvellous beauty stood in his stable, and he had a hundred mounted guards. His people, also, seem to have had a good time. Says a chronicler: “Everywhere in Mantua are seen jousts, feasts, masks, banquets, plays, music, balls, 289 delights, and dancing. To these the young girls as well as the matrons go in magnificent dresses; and even the churches are scenes of love-making. Good mothers, instead of teaching their daughters the use of the needle, teach them the arts of rouging, singing, dressing, and dancing. Naples and Milan scarcely produce silk enough, or India and Peru gold and gems enough to deck out female impudence and pride. Courtiers and warriors perfume themselves as delicately as ladies; and even the food is scented, that the mouth may exhale fragrance. The galleries and halls of the houses are painted full of the loves of Mars and Venus, Leda and the Swan, Jupiter and Danae, while the devout solace themselves with such sacred subjects as Susannah and the Elders. The flower of chastity seems withered in Mantua. No longer in Lydia or in Cyprus, but in Mantua is fixed the realm of pleasure.” Happy state! And how changed now! There is less gaiety in Mantua than even in the other parts of sad, serious Italy. The men are occupied entirely with business or huckstering, or such-like unimportant and trivial things; the ladies spend their time looking out of the windows into empty streets, and if there are any young girls in Mantua I am sure they wear an air serious enough to fit their grandmothers.

Invoking blessings on the cheerful shade of Duke Vincenzo, which must long ago have fled from these dreary halls, we visit the Stanze della Città, painted with views or view-plans of the principal cities of the sixteenth century. Among these are London, which I should hardly have recognised; and Jerusalem, which the painter had evidently never seen. The Gabinetti 290 del Paradiso, overlooking the Giardino del Padiglione, were decorated by order of Isabella d’Este, whose name and motto, “Nec spe nec meta,” may be detected here and there on the walls. She was very fond of rebuses and such conceits. The number XXVII. introduced into the decoration is to be read vintesette (I conquered seven), in reference to her diplomatic triumphs; but what she intended to signify by the reiterated device of the Pause and Clef no one has ever explained. She was so proud of it that she wore it embroidered on her gown when in 1502 she appeared at the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia at Ferrara. Musical instruments enter into the scheme of decoration of the first cabinet; the second is called “of the golden Ceiling.” Both chambers are interesting to the learned in art; but are so bleak and comfortless that other people are not tempted to linger long in them.

We return to the ducal apartments and enter the Galleria degli Specchi, looking on the quadrangle of the Bonacolsi wing. It was designed by Duke Guglielmo. The ceiling is brilliantly painted with mythological subjects, among which is a chariot of the sun with horses which appear to be facing you from whatever point you regard them. We are then conducted by a long gallery to the wing of the palace built in 1514 adjacent to the castle; and glance at the Sala del Giuramento, where a fresco represents the people taking the oath to the founder of the Gonzaga dynasty. Looking down from the windows you see the Cortile dei Cani, wherein Marquis Francesco II. used to bury his favourite dogs. Giulio Romano designed a tomb for a much-loved bitch, and over the entrance to the Camera di Apollo is a Latin inscription commemorating 291 the virtues of another hound. At the villa of Marmirolo is the grave of a falcon with this epitaph: “Ipse ego candenti cœlatus marmore falco — unica Gonzagiaci gloria regis eram — Me rapuit longo dignum mors invida sæclo — Heu tumidus tanta ne foret orbis ave.” I hope that nowadays it is unnecessary to say a word in defence of so kindly and reasonable a practice of marking the resting places of those that have served us so faithfully in life.

We obediently follow the guide through a score of other rooms as uninteresting if not as magnificent as when Howells said of them, that they seemed specially intended to reconcile men to the humbler dulness of their own houses. The Sala di Troja was painted by Giulio Romano with those classic subjects which are one degree less tedious than the epigraphs in Moorish palaces. The Imperialist general, Piccolomini, who visited the palace in 1631, describes this room as of unparalleled magnificence. Velvets and rich stuffs — all, no doubt, in want of dusting — hung from the walls; the furniture was of gold and silver and studded with gems. The adjoining Sala di Marmi looks on to the spacious Castle della Cavallerizza, the work of Giulio. Here took place tournaments and sports, while from the gallery, called the Loggia Aperta, the court could witness aquatic displays on the lake. What we found most curious in the whole vast assemblage of buildings were the dwarfs’ apartments. Isabella d’Este took great delight in these little people, and was at some pains to discover a means of breeding them. It was Duke Guglielmo, however, who had these little low rooms specially built for their accommodation; and even provided a 292 tiny chapel where one of the detestable manikins pretended to celebrate Mass, to the huge enjoyment of the impious and imbecile spectators.

You will not after this, I fear, be induced to visit another of Isabella’s grottoes beneath the old part of the palace. These Renaissance princes, with their grottoes and illusive pictures and dwarfs, strike us as a fatuous race; though I doubt not that our great men’s hobbies and affected interests will appear quite as absurd to a not remote posterity. Tragedy lurked always behind the empty grin of those old courtly faces, and passion never lay very far below the artfully painted surfaces. One day in this very palace, Duke Ferdinand, who acceded in 1612, saw a pretty girl playing on a cithern. Her name he learned was Camilla, and she was the daughter of a nobleman of Montferrat. The duke found himself in love with her, and since she was to be obtained in no other way, he offered her lawful marriage. The unequal alliance was kept secret, but it at last became known, and Ferdinand was exposed to the reproaches and ridicule of his family. He promptly contradicted the report of his marriage, and espoused the daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. However, it presently appeared that Camilla was in possession of undoubted marriage lines; and this document the duchess could only wring from her under threat of putting her boy, Giacinto, to death. The real wife surrendered, retired to a convent, and died of a broken heart. It is good to hear that the duchess made the rest of Ferdinand’s life a burden to him. She never bore him any children, and he was succeeded as duke by his brother, Vincenzo II. “He was enamoured of the widow of one 293 of his kinsmen, a woman no longer young, but of still agreeable person, strong will and quick wit, and of a fascinating presence, which Vincenzo could not resist. The excellent prince was wooing her with a view to seduction, when he received the nomination of cardinal from Pope Paul V. He pressed his suit, but the lady would consent to nothing but marriage, and Vincenzo bundled up the cardinal’s purple and sent it back with a very careless and ill-mannered letter to the ireful Pope, who swore never to make another Gonzaga cardinal. He then married the widow, but soon wearied of her, and spent the rest of his days in vain attempts to secure a divorce, in order to be restored to his ecclesiastical benefices. And then one Christmas morning he died, childless; and three years later the famous sack of Mantua took place.”

On the extinction of the elder line of Gonzaga, Charles of Nevers-Rethel, the representative of a collateral branch, appeared suddenly and furtively in Mantua, and hastily donned the ducal bonnet. The city was besieged by the imperial troops — this was in 1630 — and soon reduced to a desperate plight. A pestilence decimated the garrison, and ravaged the population. Finally, a Swiss soldier in the duke’s service let the Germans in, and was very properly murdered for his pains. Then the city was sacked from end to end, and treated as we treated wretched San Sebastian in 1813. The men were slaughtered, the women violated, the churches profaned. The general, Aldringer, one of Wallenstein’s old lieutenants, reserved the palace for his share of the plunder, and left the duke on his return not a bed to sleep in. Charles had to throw himself on the clemency of his 294 imperial foe, who sent Piccolomini to verify his statements, and then sternly rebuked his rapacious general. In compassion he allowed the duke to resume his throne, and sent him a large sum of money to start housekeeping with. The Grand Duke of Tuscany sent him a large amount of furniture; from Parma came a table service; and from Modena a hundred pairs of oxen. It is pleasing to read how dukes stand by each other in the hour of trial.

Twenty years later Mantua was itself again, and had a reputation for gaiety which attracted strangers from all parts. But Ferdinand Charles, who reigned at the end of the seventeenth century, preferred Venice to his own capital, and to pay for his coarse pleasures sold the great fortress of Casale to the French — to the no small dismay, be it said, of the Duke of Savoy. He also admitted a French garrison — no doubt for a consideration — into Mantua, and was in consequence pronounced by the emperor guilty of high treason and deposed from his duchy. The sentence was executed in 1708, when the Austrian troops marched in and the last of the Gonzagas ignobly fled. He died at Padua the same year.

The Austrians built a citadel — stained in after times with the blood of the patriot, Hofer — and made the city a fortress. Every army that set foot in northern Italy shot a bolt at Mantua. It became one of the fortresses of the famous Quadrilateral, and the place of martyrdom of many of Italy’s sons. In 1866 it was united to the kingdom of Italy, and now seems to have nothing else to do but to brood over a stirring if not very glorious past.






Decorated Adorment from the spine of the book, of a tree with gilt leaves on a burgundy woven ground.