The Palazzo Ducale of Mantova is one of those places that we could write notes about for a year and still have things left over to describe. Heck, just the Gonzaga tapestries alone that it contains could easily provide a couple of month’s worth of content.
Today however, out of the 366,000 square feet of indoor space of the monumental complex, we are going to write about just one room, the so called Camera degli Sposi (bridal chamber), which it seems was a misnomer as the space was actually used as an office by the Dukes.
Unfortunately, the 2012 earthquake that wreaked havoc in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia didn’t spare the Castello di San Giorgio (one of many buildings that make up the “palazzo”). Actually, the castle itself fared pretty well, but its walls shook enough that many frescoes sustained considerable damage. The “bridal chamber’s” walls, sadly among those that shook, happen to have one of Andrea Mantegna’s greatest masterpieces on them.
While the scenes are roughly related to Francesco Gonzaga’s elevation to cardinal, the frescoes as a whole are more generally a political-dynastic recounting of the glory of the Gonzaga family. You’ve got scenes that cover everything from intimate chit-chats between Francesco, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the King of Denmark (as one does), trips to Rome, days at the court with the Duke and his wife, Barbara of Brandenburg, and a ceiling trompe-l’œil that is hard to forget.
Better to let real art-historians tell the full story of this masterpiece (another note?), and simply feast on the incredible, almost playful details that Mantegna has left for us to enjoy. For example, you can almost sense his delight in making sure that every single figure, human or animal, has it’s own character. Also, was Mantegna chuckling to himself when he added his self-portrait in one of the grotesque cartouches? And you know for a fact that he was smiling as he painted those rolls of fat on the cherubs’ butts.
Fortunately for us, after a couple of years of restoration, the masterpiece is now back to its former condition and as of April 3rd, it will be possible to enjoy it fully once again.
(For more info, the Palazzo Ducale, Mantova