Unlimited wealth and refined taste transformed Mantua - a provincial town between three lakes, halfway from Venice to Milan - into one of the artistic and cultural centres of Europe. The Gonzagas, a princely family who ruled from 1328 to 1708, began as soldiers of fortune and accumulated riches through the art of war. Enhancing their dynasty by military alliances and advantageous marriages, they finally surpassed their rivals the Montefeltros in Urbino, the Malatestas in Rimini and the Estes in Ferrara.
This learned, perceptive and sumptuously illustrated book, with text translated from the Italian by A. Lawrence Jenkins, tells of the Gonzagas' tireless quest to acquire art, on their trips around Italy, by artists of the calibre of Pisanello, Mantegna, Alberti, Perugino, Correggio, Giulio Romano and Rubens. Raphael and Titian sent paintings that were commissioned in their workshops; Tintoretto brought his works in person.
The Gonzagas also imported craftsmen, actors and musicians, and even kidnapped a few promising castrati. The artists' city planning and fortifications, churches and palaces, frescoes and paintings, sculpture and armour, tapestries and stage sets, silverware and coins, jewels and cameos - amounting to 20,000 objects - left a deep mark on the town. The greatest creators were richly rewarded. Both Mantegna and Giulio rose from artisans to noblemen, and had their own collections of Classical art and impressive palaces.
Mantegna worked in Mantua (the birthplace of Virgil) from 1460 until his death in 1506. He combined, with "solemn bravura", Classical grandeur, sculptural figures and illusionistic perspective. His monumental heroes, art historian Bernard Berenson observed, were "statuesque in pose, processional in gait, and godlike in look and gesture". Mantegna's Dead Christ (now in the Brera in Milan) emphasises human mortality and the terrors of death. Christ's corpse, seen from below and with a radically foreshortened body, is rigidly stretched out on a tomb and in a winding sheet, with gangrenous flesh and punctured hands and feet. His dark matted hair falls on a blood-red cushion; his eyes are closed and his mouth twisted in pain. At his side, three followers weep, mourn and pray.
Mantegna's masterpiece, the Camera degli Sposi (Newlyweds' Chamber), in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale, was called "the most beautiful room in the world". On one wall the Marquis Ludovico, surrounded by his wife, charming children, lavishly dressed courtiers and rigid dwarf, receives a dramatically delivered letter. Two other scenes show Ludovico and his impressive entourage welcoming back his son, with his cardinal's hat, from Rome; another portrays the departure of the marquis, with his monumental dogs and horses, for military duties.
Giulio Romano, arriving in Mantua 18 years after Mantegna's death, had to deal with the jealousy of rivals and the egoistic demands of his patrons. (Tintoretto, for example, portrayed the Gonzagas' triumph in a battle that was never fought.) Giulio's most notorious work, in the Palazzo del Te outside Mantua, is frankly pornographic, depicting Jupiter, his lower extremities in the guise of a sea monster, about to plunge his enormous erection into an unresisting Olympia.
Things ended badly for Mantua when its wealth and power declined and its treasures fell prey to foreign powers. In 16, 370 major works of art were sold to Charles I of England, and later dispersed when he was executed. (Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar remains in Hampton Court.) In 1629, the town was pillaged by troops of its former protector, the Holy Roman Emperor. It was devastated by a plague the following year, and sacked again in 1632, when 300 cartloads of booty left Mantua. Finally, in 1797, Napoleon's army ransacked the town. Although most of the portable art was stolen, the buildings, altarpieces and frescoes remain superb examples of an enlightened dynasty and the transforming power of art. The Art and Architecture of Mantua is an exceptional account of the town, the Gonzagas and their great artists.
The Art and Architecture of Mantua: Eight Centuries of Patronage and Collecting
By Barbara Furlotti and Guido Rebecchini. Thames & Hudson. 280pp, £48.00. ISBN 9780500514429. Published 13 October 2008.