The marvels of Mantua
In praise of a northern Italian city-state with lively Mozart connections
‘‘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