Mantua’s Gonzaga dynasty casts a long shadow – in fiction as much as fact.
There’s a sequence in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot when Spats Colombo, played by George Raft, is questioned about his whereabouts on the night of the St Valentine’s Day massacre. “ I was at Rigoletto”, he protests. After some verbal sparring Spats asks his henchmen whether they know anything about the scene of the crime – or the two missing witnesses (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis). “Us?” replies one, “We was with you at Rigoletto’s”.
Us? We was also at Rigoletto’s recently. Members of the Guild, that is, exploring Lombardy following our Annual General Meeting in Milan. Mantua was where Verdi set his eponymous opera. It was such a hit that local residents, perhaps aware even in the mid-19th century that the opera might attract travellers, decided the cathedral rectory should be Rigoletto’s house. And so it remains. There’s a small statue of him, in cap and bells, in the forecourt.
Verdi portrayed him as court jester to a fictitious member of the Gonzaga family – a libertine Duke who seduces Rigoletto’s daughter. The composer wanted to set the action in Paris but his opera, seen as a slur on the ruling class, was threatened with censorship. With the Gonzagas long gone, Verdi thought Mantua would be a safe bet. Though the threat persisted the work’s popularity drowned objections. In any case, truth should have been a defence: if in doubt, go and see the raunchy frescos in the Palazzo Te.
The Palace was built in Mannerist style just over 300 years before the opera’s first performance. It served as an overblown love nest for Federico II, who spent time there with his mistress. As you imagine them surrounded by painted, naked flesh in the Sala di Amore e Psiche, Verdi’s fiction suddenly seems fact.
That’s not the only reason to go. The Gonzagas stabled their horses at the Palace – and the frescos depicting their mounts in the Sala di Cavalli appear so three dimensional you almost expect to hear them snort.
The Gonzaga family ruled Mantua for some 400 years of four centuries from 1328. They seized the city in a bloody coup, depicted in Domenico Morone’s painting in the Palazzo Ducale (the Ducal Palace), part of a huge complex of palaces and churches there. They were great patrons of the arts, although much of what they acquired was sold when they ran into financial difficulties. Some, including works by Titian and Caravaggio, went to King Charles I of England. Long after the family’s hold on Mantua was broken, Napoleon’s army carted away pretty well everything else that was portable.
The Ducal Palace is a must see despite that, not least to get a sense of its scale and the family’s formerly immeasurable wealth– but also for Pisanello’s fragmented frescos and some sumptuously woven Brussels tapestries. So is the cathedral, whose vastness is obscured by secular buildings.
Cross the causeway which divides two lakes to the north to see the city’s stupendous skyline, broken only slightly by a giant crane. Repair work continues following an earthquake that struck in 2012.
The Gonzagas built a theatre. Monteverdi’s l’Orfeo, considered the first fully fledged opera premiered there in 1607, perhaps less than not much more than a decade after the first London audiences saw Shakespeare’s Romeo banished to Mantua for killing the Capulet Tybalt.
The fabric of the old theatre fell apart. Its replacement, where a 13 years old Mozart played harpsichord, is a harmonious gem of late baroque, its wood carved boxes curving from the stage to a ball shaped floor plan. It was commissioned in the mid 18th century by the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa from the Parma architect Antonio Galli Bibiena.
It lies at the furthest tip of the Gonzagas’ shadow but is not their ultimate legacy. That is the tourist income which this small city in Lombardy still derives from one family’s long domination.
Further information on how to get around, where to stay and other services can be found at www.wonderfulexpo2015.info, the official tourist website of Milan and Lombardy.
Images and words by Roger Bray.