Piazza Erbe


Mantua, Italy: powerhouse of the Renaissance

With its elaborate palaces, elegant frescoes and magnificent art, Mantua has much to shout about and there’s even a subtle link to the Bard, says Rodney Bolt.
Mantua is surrounded by what Lucentio (in The Taming of the Shrew) calls “fruitful Lombardy, the pleasant garden of great Italy”.

"That is Pius VIII. We’ve had three popes in the family.” Guido Castiglioni nods towards a darkening canvas, on one side of the hall in the family palazzo in Mantua, northern Italy. From another wall, a portrait of his most famous ancestor, Baldassare Castiglione (the spelling has mutated over the centuries) looks down with benign curiosity.
Castiglione’s book, Il Cortegiano (The Courtier), published in 1528, was the handbook of the Renaissance gentleman, an ideal of courtly life that was clearly known to Shakespeare (it informs passages in Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing, among other plays). I have Shakespeare on my mind. A rather intriguing Shakespeare connection has brought me to Mantua – the work of “that rare Italian master Julio Romano”.
In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare cites Romano as the artist who could fashion a statue that was so realistic it appeared to be alive. (In the play, the “statue” of Hermione that has supposedly been made by Romano turns out to be Hermione herself.) Today, Romano is known primarily as a painter, and critics of the snickering sort enjoy pointing out that Shakespeare committed an error in naming him as a sculptor. But, as my visit to Mantua was to reveal, there is more – quite literally – to Romano than meets the eye. 
Piazza Sordello, il duomo.

Mantua was a Renaissance cultural powerhouse in the 16th century.
Sixteenth-century Mantua was a Renaissance cultural powerhouse. In a city ringed by lakes, and surrounded by what Lucentio (in The Taming of the Shrew) calls “fruitful Lombardy, the pleasant garden of great Italy”, the ruling Gonzaga family generated an energy of creative activity that is hard to beat, even in Italy. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, talent-spotted the young Rubens and brought him to town, made the composer Monteverdi his maestro di cappella, and rescued the poet Tasso from the madhouse, to offer him succour for life. He bought paintings by the young Caravaggio, and was once so bewitched by a Raphael Madonna belonging to the Count of Canossa that he handed over an entire estate — land, castle, rent and all — in exchange. Many of the paintings, the palaces and Mantua’s delicate skyline remain intact.

Palazzo Castiglioni is across the piazza from the Gonzaga Ducal Palace, and parts are open as a b&b. My room is in a tower, a former dovecote. Pigeons were hugely popular in medieval Italy, and they were housed according to their high status. This one sports a beautifully restored early-14th-century fresco — a Tree of Life, its boughs laden with birds, a monkey, a rather smug-looking cat, and even fish and a couple of huntsmen in armour. Through windows on four sides of the tower, I am eye-to-eye with grand domes and lacy spires. Pink stone alternates with pale ochre plaster; sculpted figures and spiky crenulations poke up above terracotta rooftops.

Down in the piazza, over coffee and a sbrisolona (a crunchy shortbread-like cake that you break up with your fingers), I look on as a small crowd gathers waiting entry to the Ducal Palace. A group of Franciscan friars crosses the square, two men walk past in earnest conversation. There is no traffic. Here and there an open window reveals colourful frescoes, or a richly carved ceiling. People jostle though shaded porticos; arched passages branch off into hidden courtyard gardens. Is that a lute I can hear? Somebody hesitatingly picks out a tune. It seems, sitting here on the Piazza Sordello, that the rich world of the Gonzagas is just the whisk of a muslin curtain away.

The Ducal Palace itself seems endless,
Palazzo Ducale: a small city.
a small city of salons and galleries, of chapels and themed apartments. There are tapestries based on Raphael cartoons, grottos, a hanging garden. And there are frescoes by Mantegna, and by Romano. These rooms are currently closed, while damage caused by the 2012 earthquake is repaired. No matter. The true object of my quest is across town — Palazzo Te, the pleasure palace built for Duke Federico II.
In 1521, Federico asked Baldassare Castiglione (yet to publish Il Cortegiano, and at the time the Gonzagas’ ambassador to Rome) to lure an artist to Mantua — a star pupil of Raphael’s, whom Federico described in his letter as a “most noble genius both in painting and in architecture”, one Giulio Pippi, known as “the Roman”. So Romano was not only a painter, but an architect, too. Palazzo Te was to be his grand project in Mantua.

Palazzo Te by Giulio Romano
The palace is a revelation. A grand but elegant sprawl, with muted classical references, and spread with an overwhelming feast of frescoes. There’s elaborate stuccowork, too, by members of Romano’s workshop, and generally to his design. The frescoes are an eye-opener: some extraordinarily lewd ones, in rooms believed to have been the private apartment of Federico’s mistress; in the Sala dei Cavalli, an array of trompe l’oeil horses, so jaw-droppingly true to life that — in the same way as the third Gent says of the figure of Hermione, that “one would speak to her and stand in hope of an answer” — you almost expect a whinny, or the flick of a mane.

And, then, the Sala dei Giganti — a domed room depicting the Fall of the Giants, a world of contorted figures and crushed bodies, of columns and boulders, twisted and fracturing, as if the entire thing is about to fall on your head. The original design had pebbles on the floor, and a real fire in situ, so that, as the flames flickered and the crashing underfoot echoed in the cupola, the battle was given movement and sound effects. “Romano was famous for his bizarre inventions, and his theatrical spectacles and effects,” my guide tells me. Statues that came alive, even. But that side of his art is ephemeral — the tricks, the machinery, the blurring of the line between art and real life.

But, as I wander back through the streets of Mantua, I can’t help thinking that maybe Shakespeare knew a little more about Giulio Romano than we give him credit for. That the inventive, trickster artist is a very subtle choice as the “maker” of a super-realistic sculpture that turns out not to be a sculpture after all. And then there’s the elaborate stuccowork — arguably as much Romano’s as a Damien Hirst piece made by workmen in his employ is still said to be “by” Hirst. And the fact that the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari (a friend of Romano’s) describes Romano’s original tombstone as referring to him as a master of three arts: painting, architecture and sculpture. Perhaps the Bard did not commit such a howler after all.

My mind is distracted as I take in some of the city’s other sights — Teatro Scientifico Bibiena, a gem of an 18th-century theatre; the sober, calming 11th-century Rotonda di San Lorenzo; a farmer’s market (under the arches of a loggia designed by Romano) replete with all manner of produce from the “pleasant garden of great Italy”. It is tempting to think that Shakespeare had some first-hand knowledge of Mantua. It’s a temptation I resist. Just.