The Gonzaga family ruled Mantua from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Their rise to power in Mantua and their reputation as warriors, diplomats, patrons, and indulgers has been chronicled by Kate Simon. A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua is a rich feast of Renaissance princes, painters, poxes, and passions. Between each course of Gonzaga family history, Simon serves up dollops of cultural background, which she entitles “Interludes.” The result is perhaps less a formal banquet than a smorgasbord of Renaissance history—but it is nevertheless fascinating.
Mantua takes its name from Manto, the prophetess-daughter of Teiresias, who settled there with her followers in the mists of legendary time. Mantuan history begins with an Etruscan city on whose ruins a town flourished despite invasions by Gauls, Goths, Huns, Lombards, Holy Roman Emperors, and after the Gonzaga, French, Spanish, Austrians, and Germans. The city developed during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance as many northern Italian cities did—growing from a trading commune into a flourishing municipality dominated by the strength of one family.
In the early fourteenth century, aided by clever diplomacy, the force of great wealth, and luck, the Gonzaga family, led by Luigi, the first capitano, wrested the rule of Mantua away from the Bonacolsi, who had controlled the city throughout the thirteenth century. The early Gonzagas pioneered the fine art of Italian diplomacy, relying on informants, tact, and careful marriages to consolidate their power.
Lust for power in the third generation led to double fratricide. Francesco and Ludovico, jealous of elder brother Ugolino’s position and imminent ascension, murdered him at his own table. Through bribery and the support of the Bishop of Milan, they received a pardon from Rome, but Francesco, soon victim to Ludovico’s ambition, did not live long to enjoy it. Ludovico’s son, Francesco, heir not only to the captaincy of Mantua, but also to his father’s unscrupulousness, did not hesitate to condemn his first wife to a traitor’s death when she proved an embarrassment to him.
The Gonzaga took advantage of the intense military activity of the fifteenth century by hiring themselves out as condottieri for Venice and other major power brokers. The generations of Gonzaga mercenary captains earned huge sums of money, much of which went into building and embellishing Mantua, creating one of the leading cultural centers of Europe. Twelve thousand florins were also paid to the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1433 by Gianfrancesco Gonzaga for the title Marchese of Mantua.
The thirty-four-year reign of the second Marchese of Mantua, Ludovico, and his wife, Barbara of Brandenburg, solidified both the power and the culture of the Gonzaga. Ludovico had not been his father’s favorite son, that place being held by his younger brother Carlo, but he quickly proved himself the better military commander, serving the forces of Venice and Florence against those of Milan captained by his brother. After a lucrative military career, Ludovico returned home to local affairs, which, Simon assures her audience, had been capably directed by Barbara in his absence. Mantua prospered with a carefully managed economy and profited under their rule with well-nurtured wool- and silk-weaving industries. Dikes to hold in the Po River were designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the great architect-sculptor-engineer. A growth in religious passion fostered church building: two were designed, at least in part, by Leon Battista Alberti. The health of the municipality was looked after by consolidating a mishmash of hospices and other facilities into the large Ospedale Maggiore. In addition to prescient social management, Ludovico patronized the arts and sciences. The decoration of his palaces and of the town itself was directed and often created by the painter Andrea Mantegna. Ludovico early acquired a printing press and turned out editions of Italian literature including works by Vergil, Dante, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio. Treatises on the raising and care of horses, a Gonzaga passion, were also printed, along with a five-volume encyclopedia of the world’s animals. Ludovico’s reign was a quiet triumph, but it was his grandson Francesco’s court that epitomized the brilliance and decadence so often associated with Renaissance Italy.
Francesco inherited the rule of Mantua as a young man after his father Federico’s brief, but troubled, rule. The young man, a talented and gallant condottiere, first for Milan and then for Venice, married the young Isabella d’Este, to whom he...
(The entire section is 1899 words.)