I would assert that there is unlikely to be any greater, more playful or more evocative epitaph in any language than the one (dubiously) ascribed to Virgil: Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces, with its echo of the envoi of Georgics IV:
Illo Vergilium me tempore dulcis alebat/Parthenope studiis florentem ignobilis oti,/Carmina qui lusi pastorum audaxque iuventa,/Tityre, te patulae cecini sub tegmine fagi.
Among the many madeleine-style memories evoked by these lines are (non-exclusively and in no particular order) Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice, light filtering like golden showers down through (Hampshire) beeches, the smell of the store-cupboard/fire escape lobby which was the tutorial room for the Classics Sixth (i.e. Judith and me), and of course (quite irrelevantly) the English countryside as it used to be, when there were still haystacks rather than giant black-plastic eggs laid from the rear end of a combine harvester.
As a result, it was (to paraphrase Queen Victoria) with some emotion that I beheld Mantua – which is beautiful. It seems to me to be so much more relaxed than Ferrara – wider roads, less grid-like layout, and the use of paint and plaster to cover brick (which is in any case a softer brown than in the latter city), all giving a lightness and sprezzatura (pretentious, moi?) to the whole place.
It perhaps helps that it is surrounded on three sides by lakes created in the late twelfth century by widening and deepening the river Mincio (which flows from Lake Garda into the Po), creating effective defences and ensuring an infallible water supply. The lakes are now in part a wildlife haven: we took a boat trip and saw herons and egrets, cormorants ducks and gulls – and amazing beds of flowering pink lotus, planted (if I understood the commentary correctly) in the 1920s, which seem, unlike many artificial introductions, to have done nothing but good for the quality of the water and the diversity of the wildlife.
We were staying in a tiny apartment right in the pedestrianised centre, and our deal included breakfast 50 yards away in Piazza Erbe, at a café founded in 1881 and understandably popular with the locals: the coffee and pastries are wonderful, as is the view of the Mantuans going about their daily business, and the clock tower with its extraordinary (1473) clock, which indicates, as well as mundane stuff like the time, the lunar phases, the days suitable for the various working activities and, finally, the sun’s position in the zodiac signs. Him Indoors discovered a poll saying that Mantuans consider themselves the happiest people in Italy, and the city is supposed also to be the food capital (though Bologna might argue about this).
Next to the clock is the remarkable round church of San Lorenzo, built between 1040 and 1151. In 1579 the reigning duke ordered it to be closed, and it began to collapse. Ordinary rectangular buildings, mostly shops, began to engulf it, and the road surface gradually rose, so that when in 1907 the Commune decided to redevelop the area, they found the hidden framework of the church, largely intact and about six feet below the surrounding pavement. It was consolidated, but after about 20 years of indifference it was again in danger of demolition, until the Dominican Order, with huge faith and imagination, took it on. Ninety years later, it thrives as a chapel and exhibition space.
As Ferrara had the Este, so Mantua had the Gonzaga – and indeed many of them married each other, so that Isabella d’Este was perhaps the most famous marchesa of Mantua. The enormous complex of the Palazzo Ducale (claimed to be the largest palace in Italy apart from the Vatican) was built in the same 300 or so years as the Este were busy, and on a similar principle of redecorating, reorganising and rebuilding each time a new ruler succeeded. Unlike the Este, however, the Gonzaga had only one alternative palace in Mantua – but it makes up for its singularity in sheer splendour. I was eager to see Palazzo Tè because, some time ago, I was involved in producing the English version of a book on Giulio Romano, Raphael’s astonishingly talented pupil, whose masterpiece the palace is: it does not disappoint.
The famous frescoed rooms were displayed to indicate one of the major state occasions for which the palace was used: the reception by Marchese Federico II Gonzaga (son of Isabella d’Este) of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530, as he made his way to Bologna to be crowned by the pope. (Since his armies had sacked Rome in 1527, one assumes that an alternative location was thought preferable.) Charles V apparently had a thing about dining alone (that is, presumably, away from his host and other social more-or-less equals: I don’t think he actually cut his own bread). But there was also dancing (with the sixty most beautiful and noble ladies of Mantua roped in), music, horse-riding (Federico was devoted to his horses),
yet more eating and drinking, and simply admiring the newly decorated rooms of the palace, among which the most famous, and most staggering, is the Sala dei Giganti, a tour de force which depicts the fall of the ambitious Giants who tried to scale Olympus by piling Mount Pelion on Mount Ossa, and got squashed for their pains.
The fresco (a continuous painting round the walls and ceiling) plays with scale and perspective, achieving grotesque, comic and at the same time terrifying effects, partly by rounding off all the corners in the room so that you are in the centre of a dome (though it takes some time to realise that). Giants, columns and huge boulders tumble all around you, while up in the sky Jupiter, assisted by Juno, is casually hurling thunderbolts – altogether a queasy experience.
The legend is that Palazzo Tè was built for Federico to dally with his mistress: in fact it seems to have been used fairly seldom, and always for state occasions. This is probably just as well, since if the dynasty had used it regularly it would have been subject to the same chopping around as the Palazzo Ducale. Even though only a small area of the latter is currently on display, it is still mind-boggling, and it will be simpler to let the pictures (especially the Andrea Mantegna frescoes) tell the story.
(By the way, we had a really superb meal in a side-street restaurant, noticing only quite late on that the building had a plaque recording that Charles Dickens had stayed there in 1844 … He didn’t like the Sala dei Giganti.)