Mantova (Mantua), Day 6
Palazzo Ducale, Palazzo del Te, and Sabbioneta
Emotions can run wild when you are with a group of people for an extended amount of time, or on a trip in a gorgeous place, such as Venice.
Palazzo Ducale, Mantova
Our day in Mantova started at the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace), a collection of buildings commissioned by the noble Gonzaga family. The buildings look unassuming from the outside but once you enter, you are taken aback by the beauty of the interior. Mantova suffered from an earthquake a few years ago, so we couldn’t see the famous frescoes by Andrea Mantegna in the Camera Picta, which are undergoing renovation. But we did see numerous coffered and painted ceilings, tapestries, and frescoes by the Early Renaissance painter Pisanello.
Palazzo del Te
We then took a short bus ride across town to the Palazzo del Te (also known as the Palazzo Te). The Palazzo is famous for its illusionistic artwork; walking through the rooms, it’s easy to see why. Each room left you questioning whether the art was painted or sculpted. In the Hall of Horses, the life-size horses, which seemed to stand on cornices on the walls, appeared stuffed, while the statues in niches appear to be sculpted. In truth, the entire room is painted. (The Gonzaga family loved their horses; they bred them and occasionally gave them as special gifts to friends.) A bit farther along in the Palazzo, we found the Hall of Giants, which features the Fall of the Giants, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Here, the battle takes place in a domed room, with rounded edges, which added to the theme of chaos. The walls of the room seem to cave in as the Giants topple enormous classical buildings, crashing to the ground in clouds of smoke. With their grotesque, nearly cartoon faces, they create a dizzying “whirlpool” effect–truly magnificent to behold.
While still in the Palazzo Te, we were lucky enough to see a work of contemporary art in a special exhibition: Bill Viola’s video The Raft (2004). Viola was inspired by Gericault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). In Viola’s work, which is filmed in slow-motion, a group of people representing different nationalities and ages is slowly consumed in tidal waves of water. We watched as each person slowly collapsed to the watery ground. While they began as separate individuals, they ended up as a united whole, needing each other–so it seemed–to survive. The scene served as a perfect counterpart to the Mannerist frescoes we had just seen, in which the Giants were similarly felled by powerful forces.
After a group lunch at a local restaurant, we headed off to our last stop of the day: the Renaissance city of Sabbioneta. Yes, you read that correctly: an entire, perfectly preserved city designed to embody Renaissance ideals. It was here that the first free-standing public theater was built in 1588 by Vincenza Scamozzi. The Teatro Olympico de Sabbioneta is breathtaking; as we studied the stage set, which shows a town in perfect perspective, we imagined the noble history of theatre and the many performances that had taken place in that precise location.(We had to hold back several Theatre Arts majors, who felt an overwhelming urge to get on the stage!) We also marveled at the statues of the Olympian gods, which ringed a kind of classical wall high on the opposite side of the room. Above, an anonymous artist had painted a trompe l’oeil scene of well-dressed people looking down at the theatre below. After learning about the history of the building, we toured the Ducal Palace, which was designed for the family of Vespasiano I Gonzaga, the 1st Duke of Sabbioneta. We saw one beautiful room after another, with deeply carved walnut ceilings and frescoed walls. One student, Brooke Lineberger, was so moved by the whole experience that she spontaneously danced down one of the long hallways, treating us all to an elegant, emotional performance. It was a perfect ending to a day of nearly overwhelming beauty.