On this date in 1328, 4 members of the Gonzaga family who had been state officials – the 60-year-old Luigi and his sons Guido, Filippino, and Feltrino – overthrew the last Bonacolsi, Rinaldo, to become rulers of Mantua and remained in power until 1708. I wouldn’t normally memorialize the sordid machinations of a power-hungry elite, but I live in Mantua and the historical footprints of the Gonzagas are everywhere. Furthermore my apartment is right behind the duomo which is on piazza sordello, site of the coup that installed the Gonzagas and of the ducal palace (palazzo ducale) where they lived and ruled for four centuries. So I figured I’d give them a tip of the hat and give myself a little history lesson on my current home.
Mantua was originally an island settlement that was first established about the year 2000 BCE on the banks of River Mincio, which flows from Lake Garda to the Adriatic. In the 6th century BCE, Mantua was an Etruscan village. The name (Mantova in Italian) may derive from the Etruscan god Mantus, although this is disputed. Mantua was subsequently fought over in the first and second Punic wars between Carthage and Rome. Eventually, what became new Roman territory was populated by veteran soldiers of Augustus. Mantua won’t let you forget that its most famous citizen from antiquity is the poet Virgil who was born in the year 70 BCE in a village near the city which is now known as Virgilio.
After the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 CE, Mantua was invaded in turn by Goths, Byzantines, Longobards, and Franks. In the 11th century, Mantua became a possession of Boniface of Canossa, marquis of Tuscany. The last ruler of that family was the countess Matilda of Canossa (d. 1115), who, according to legend, ordered the construction of the Rotonda di San Lorenzo which can still be seen in the historic district, although it has had to be significantly restored both in the post-war years and also in the last few years.
After the death of Matilda of Canossa, Mantua became a free commune and strenuously defended itself from the Holy Roman Empire during the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1198, Alberto Pitentino altered the course of River Mincio, creating what the Mantuans originally called “the four lakes” to reinforce the city’s natural protection. Three of these lakes still remain and the fourth one, which ran through the center of town, was drained in the 18th century.
During the 13th century there were a number of power struggles between major families in northern Italy, and in 1273 Pinamonte Bonacolsi took advantage of the chaotic situation to seize control of Mantua and was declared the capitano del popolo (Captain General of the People). This office was created in the 13th century in Italy as a way of balancing the interests of the people with that of the nobility. The Bonacolsi family ruled Mantua for the next two generations and made it more prosperous. On August 16, 1328, Luigi Gonzaga, an official in Bonacolsi’s podesteria, and his family staged a public revolt in Mantua and forced a coup d’état on the last Bonacolsi ruler, Rinaldo. Over the next 4 centuries the House of Gonzaga ruled Mantua.
The history of the Gonzagas is not pretty. Over the time of their rule the family included a saint, twelve cardinals and fourteen bishops. Two Gonzaga descendants became Empresses of the Holy Roman Empire (Eleonora Gonzaga and Eleonora Gonzaga-Nevers), and one became Queen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Marie Louise Gonzaga). Ludovico I, who had been podestà (chief magistrate) of the city in 1318, was elected capitano del popolo when the Gonzagas seized power. The Gonzagas built new walls and renovated the architecture of the city in the 14th century, but the political situation did not stabilize until the third ruler of Gonzaga, Ludovico III Gonzaga (1412 – 1478), killed his relatives and centralized power to himself. During the Italian Renaissance, the Gonzaga family softened their despotic rule and further raised the level of artistic refinement in Mantua, making it a significant center of Renaissance art and humanism, still reflected in art and architecture throughout the old part of the town.
Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua in 1490. When she moved to Mantua from Ferrara (she was the daughter of Duke Ercole the ruler of Ferrara) she created her famous studiolo first in Castello di San Giorgio for which she commissioned paintings from Mantegna, Perugino and Lorenzo Costa. She later moved her studiolo to the Corte Vecchia and commissioned two paintings from Correggio to join the five from Castello di San Giorgio. It was unusual for a woman to have a studiolo in 15th century Italy but she was a powerful force in northern Italy. Niccolò da Corregio called her ‘la prima donna del mondo’.
Through a payment of 120,000 golden florins in 1433, Gianfrancesco I was appointed Marquis of Mantua by the Emperor Sigismund, whose niece Barbara of Brandenburg married his son, Ludovico. In 1459, Pope Pius II held the Council of Mantua to proclaim a crusade against the Turks. Under Ludovico and his heirs, the famous Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna worked in Mantua as court painter, producing some of his most outstanding works.
The first Duke of Mantua was Federico II Gonzaga, who acquired the title from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530. Federico commissioned Giulio Romano to build the famous Palazzo Te, on the periphery of the city, and profoundly improved the city. In the late 16th century, Claudio Monteverdi came to Mantua from his native Cremona. He worked for the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, first as a singer and violist, then as music director, marrying the court singer Claudia Cattaneo in 1599.
In 1627, the direct line of the Gonzaga family came to an end with the vicious and weak Vincenzo II, and Mantua slowly declined under the new rulers, the Gonzaga-Nevers, a cadet French branch of the family. The War of the Mantuan Succession broke out, and in 1630 an Imperial army of 36,000 Landsknecht mercenaries besieged Mantua, bringing the plague with them. Mantua has never recovered from this disaster, and is now pretty much a sleepy backwater. Ferdinand Carlo IV, an inept ruler, whose only interest was in holding parties and theatrical shows, allied with France in the War of the Spanish Succession. After the French defeat, he took refuge in Venice and at his death in 1708, he was declared deposed, and the Gonzaga family lost Mantua forever in favor of the Habsburgs of Austria.
Here’s a little gallery of my photos to show the influence of the Gonzagas and to make it clear that Mantua is fortunate to have retained so much historical art and architecture, largely because for centuries no one cared about the town. It is swarmed with Italian day trippers on Sundays, but foreign tourists are in the small minority. Fine by me. Sundays are as awful for me as they were when I lived in san Telmo in Buenos Aires, but the rest of the week is fine.
I’m not going to give you a recipe today but instead repeat what I wrote when I posted about Mantua’s patron saint http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mantua-and-anselm/ :
Mantua is famous as a culinary center. Some of the local specialties include bigoli con le sardelle, pasta with sardines, stracotto d’asino, donkey stew, salame con l’aglio, garlic sausage, luccio in salsa, pike in sauce, tortelli di zucca, pumpkin tortelli, and torta sbrisolona, a crumbly cake. I’m going to reprise what I used to write when I was living in China. If you want authentic Mantuan food, come to Mantua.
I gave a recipe there for bigoli which you can look at. Here’s a small gallery to make you drool.