The marvels of Man­tua

In praise of a north­ern Ital­ian city-state with lively Mozart con­nec­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - STAN­LEY STE­WART

‘‘YOU ever heard of Mozart?’’ the door­man asks, show­ing me into the foyer.

He draws aside a cur­tain and I step into the tiny au­di­to­rium. Baroque dec­o­ra­tion — gilt, crys­tal, vel­vet, stucco, tas­selled side lamps — gives the place the air of a 19th-cen­tury bordello.

Luca takes a seat in the front row, tuck­ing his cigar be­hind his ear. ‘‘Mozart got his first big break in this the­atre.’’ (As a 13-year-old, Mozart played at the in­au­gu­ral con­cert in this au­di­to­rium.)

‘‘But for Man­tua,’’ Luca con­tin­ues, ‘‘no one would ever have heard of Mozart.’’

For most Ital­ians, their home town is the cen­tre of the world, and not just be­cause Mamma lives there. Ital­ians are fond of Italy but this is a coun­try of old city-states and, deep down, the in­hab­i­tants know ex­actly who they are. They are Mi­lanese or Neapoli­tans or Man­to­vans. You may or may not have heard of Mozart, but ev­ery­one, ac­cord­ing to Luca, should know Man­tua. It is one of God’s great gifts.

The fa­mous Ital­ian cities — Florence, Venice and Rome — tend to hog most of the at­ten­tion while up and down the penin­sula other mag­nif­i­cent cities are over­looked. But they too boast fa­mous mas­ter­pieces in their churches and fa­mous ghosts haunt­ing their palaces. They too are Re­nais­sance cre­ations with pi­az­zas full of sun­light and cafe ta­bles and cob­bled streets lined with log­gias and histri­onic lo­cals. There is only one im­por­tant dif­fer­ence. They are smaller. Not small as in in­con­se­quen­tial and parochial — many were cap­i­tals of im­por­tant Re­nais­sance states — but small as in per­fectly formed, like the glo­ri­ous the­atre in Man­tua where Mozart was lucky enough to be the open­ing act.

As I am leav­ing, Luca de­lays me for a mo­ment, his hand on my arm. ‘‘You are go­ing to the Basil­ica?’’ he asks. I nod. ‘‘Make sure they show you il Prezio­sis­simo Sangue, the Pre­cious Blood. It is in the crypt. The blood of Christ, taken from be­neath the cross.’’

His eye­brows dance. won’t find that in Rome.’’

The great­est con­cen­tra­tion of these small Re­nais­sance cities is in north­ern Italy in the river val­leys

‘ ‘ You of the Veneto, Emilia-ro­magna and Lom­bardy. Vi­cenza, Padua, Verona, Cre­mona, Parma, Fer­rara, Berg­amo — each has its own his­tory, its own grand palaces, its own food, and its own firm be­lief that their city is a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to the de­vel­op­ment of Euro­pean civil­i­sa­tion.

I have only re­cently dis­cov­ered Man­tua, en­cir­cled by three lakes, home to the in­fa­mous Gon­zaga fam­ily, blessed with the best risotto in Italy, and de­scribed by Al­dous Hux­ley as ‘ ‘ the ro­man­tic city in the world’’.

I drive down from Verona, half an hour on the au­tostrada. Land­scape in these flat river val­leys be­tween the Apen­nines and the Alps has been re­duced to geo­met­ric sim­plic­i­ties. Per­spec­tive is the thing. Long straight road, lines of pol­larded trees, lin­ear canals, all di­min­ish to­wards a van­ish­ing point in the hazy dis­tance. Walled farm­steads rise four square from wa­ter­logged fields that hold the rich­est farm­land in Italy. The re­gion is a larder: parma ham, parme­san cheese, bal­samic vine­gar, ar­bo­rio rice and valpo­li­cello all spring from this al­lu­vial earth.

Man­tua is a place of in­ter­link­ing squares flanked by el­e­gant log­gia. Sen­tinel tow­ers rear above me­dieval palaces and vaulted pas­sage­ways lead from one pi­azza to an­other be­neath cu­ri­ous clock tow­ers. In the cob­bled streets there are old phar­ma­cies with walls of glass jars and wooden draw­ers,

most bak­eries packed with breads and pas­tries and cakes, each one a badge of Man­tuan iden­tity, and clothes shops with win­dows that have a nos­tal­gic air. I find a hat shop and feel as if I have stepped into the 1950s.

Like many Ital­ian city-states, Man­tua is an illustration of Mar­garet Thatcher’s fa­mous com­ment about there be­ing no such thing as so­ci­ety, only fam­i­lies. In Man­tua it was the Gon­za­gas who made the city their fam­ily busi­ness for al­most 400 years. They were the Wind­sors of Italy — Ger­man blood, dif­fi­cult mar­riages, a pas­sion for horses. Their grand Ducal Palace looms over the cob­bles of the Pi­azza Sordello.

The palace would make Buck­ing­ham Palace look like a town­house. At its height it was the largest palace in Europe, con­tain­ing more than 700 rooms, 15 court­yards and some­where in­side (I never do man­age to find it) a basil­ica. Mer­ci­fully only a part of it is open to the pub­lic. Ban­quet­ing halls with fire­places the size of SUVS give on to re­cep­tion halls, their walls swarmed with fres­coes — bare-breasted nymphs, cherubs, knights charg­ing one an­other on horse­back, scenes from The Iliad. There are Arthurian fres­coes by Pisanello, por­traits by Rubens, and a mas­ter­piece by Man­teg­nas in the Cam­era degli Sposi, or bridal cham­ber. Around the walls the whole Gon­zaga fam­ily are gath­ered; they favoured fash­ion­able short skirts and tights and pretty pill­box hats and, frankly, that was only the men.

The ceil­ing is a trompe-l’oeil of an ocu­lus with ladies and laugh­ing cherubs peer­ing down into the bridal cham­ber. It was not the kind of thing you re­ally would have wanted on your wed­ding night.

At the other end of town, in what was once syl­van coun­try­side, is the world’s great­est love nest. To schol­ars, the Palazzo del Te is one of the most im­por­tant Re­nais­sance build­ings in Italy.

To play­boy Fed­erico Gon­zaga and his mis­tress Is­abella Boschetti, it was an amorous re­treat where they could get away from Fed­erico’s wife.

The cre­ation of Gi­ulio Ro­mano, stu­dent and heir of Raphael, its racy fres­coes fea­ture or­gias­tic wed­ding feasts where drunk gods re­cline in var­i­ous states of un­dress be­neath a ceil­ing paint­ing of Cupid and Psy­che. Shake­speare refers to Gi­ulio in The Win­ter’s Tale as ‘‘that rare Ital­ian mas­ter . . . who, could he put breath into his

work, would be­guile Na­ture of her cus­tom’’. In an­other room, his mas­ter­piece, the Fall of the Giants, is an as­ton­ish­ing work of per­spec­tive and il­lu­sion.

In more rev­er­ent mode, Gi­ulio also had a hand in the mag­nif­i­cent Basil­ica Sant’an­drea over­look­ing the Pi­azza Man­tegna, although the chief ar­chi­tect was Leon Bat­tista Al­berti. The lat­ter sounds like an ir­ri­tat­ing guy: the orig­i­nal Re­nais­sance man. Ar­chi­tect, poet, painter, sculp­tor, priest, lin­guist, philoso­pher, cryp­tog­ra­pher, hu­man­ist, es­say­ist, ath­lete, horse whis­perer, moun­tain climber, as­tronomer, car­tog­ra­pher, he was no doubt a dab hand at macrame, too.

Al­berti was said to have mod­elled the church on the Basil­ica of Max­en­tius in Rome, and in the de­scend­ing gloom of a win­ter’s af­ter­noon, it does feel like some­thing from an an­cient world with its paint­ings, stat­ues, gilt, colos­sal Corinthian col­umns. Can­dles throw gar­ish shad­ows against reaches of pol­ished mar­ble. Pe­ti­tion­ers shuf­fle in and out, mut­ter­ing im­pre­ca­tions. Enor­mous arches rise to­wards the vault ceil­ing, deep­en­ing into shad­ows.

Anna, a vol­un­teer guide, leads me down a flight of nar­row stairs, fum­bling for the light switches as we go. The crypt is a low-ceilinged chapel di­rectly be­low the floor of the basil­ica’s cross­ing. At its cen­tre, in­side a large grilled en­clo­sure, is a gold and mar­ble chest on an al­tar. In­side the chest, locked with 12 dif­fer­ent keys, is the Pre­cious Blood of Christ. Ev­ery year on Good Fri­day it is raised through a trap­door into the basil­ica above to swoon­ing crowds of wor­ship­pers.

‘‘Is there much doc­u­men­ta­tion about the relic?’’ I ask, try­ing to raise the ques­tion of its au­then­tic­ity as gen­tly as I can.

‘‘Oh, peo­ple have tried to dis­pute it,’’ Anna replies breezily. ‘‘But when pope Pius II came to visit in the 15th cen­tury, the Pre­cious Blood mirac­u­lously cured his gout. That re­solved the is­sue.’’

Like Mozart, Pius had rea­son to give thanks for Man­tua.


Pi­azza delle Erbe and the mag­nif­i­cent Basil­ica Sant’an­drea in Man­tua, above; one of the racy fres­coes in Palazzo del Te, left


Mozart painted by Save­rio della Rosa, 1770

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